There are clear economic, environmental, safety and health benefits to make people cycle more, but research shows that prospective cyclists are reluctant to start without good cycle paths.
The problem for planners and policymakers is that many Australians are opposed to cycle lanes and believe they will only force drivers to slow down and extend travel times.
But our new study, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, suggests that not everyone around the world sees cycling in this way.
We have found that people in the UK and Australia often misunderstand the impact that cycle lanes have on speed limits – to mistakenly believe that adding a cycle lane means cars will inevitably have to slow down.
To be clear, no one suggests pushing the accelerator and riding aggressively fast near cyclists. But if there is a safe bike path that offers a good distance between cars and bicycles, there is no reason that the addition of a bike path should necessarily slow down the traffic.
Misunderstandings surrounding this issue could fuel avoidable opposition to cycling infrastructure.
Read more: 3 out of 4 people want to ride a bike, but are deterred by a lack of safe lanes
Speed limits: a matter of perception
Our study involved 1,591 participants in the Netherlands, the UK and Australia. These three countries have similar speed limits in urban areas (50 km / h), but the Netherlands has lower speed limits of 30 km / h in residential areas.
First, we showed the study participants 15 photos of streets without bike lanes and asked them to estimate what the speed limit in these streets would be.
Interestingly, participants from the Netherlands always estimated much lower speeds for these photos than their British or Australian counterparts.
This is important because previous research has shown that the higher speed limits are observed, the faster drivers plan to drive. And higher speeds are the main contributor to road accidents (even more than drugs and fatigue).
Previous research has also shown that 30 km / h speed limits on local streets can reduce Australian frog numbers by 13%.
Thus, for our study, it was significant that the Dutch participants always estimated that the speed limit would be lower than what the UK and Australian respondents did. This indicates that Dutch drivers already see roads in a way that is safer for other road users (including cyclists).
What about when bike lanes are added to the picture?
We then showed the participants photos of the same streets, but after bike lanes were built on it (but showed it in a way that meant our participants would not realize it was the same streets).
In other words, we first showed them the streets without the bike paths and then the same street with bike lanes (some of the bike lanes were separate lanes, with a physical barrier separating cyclists from cars; others were painted bike lanes without physical barrier).
As we showed these new photos, we again asked the participants to estimate the speed limit in these streets.
Study participants from Australia and the UK tended to believe that cycle lanes would necessitate lower speed limits for drivers. In other words; they saw bike lanes being a symbol of a slow commute, which would presumably therefore drive away the support of drivers.
On the other hand, respondents in the Netherlands (where cycling is more common) observed cycling lanes would not necessitate lower speed limits for drivers.
In fact, these participants tended to think cycling lanes might even suggest that traffic could go faster because the cyclists were in a separate lane (and not mixed with car traffic).
In short, our research has found bike lanes are usually misinterpreted as meaning “drivers, slower!” in places where they are not common.
Where to from here?
Lower speed limits and bike lanes are contentious issues. Opposition usually comes from drivers who believe that lower speed limits will significantly increase their travel times.
But this is not always the case. One study of 2017 found “the generic impact of the introduction of 30 km / h in urban residential streets is almost negligible in terms of travel time, ie. 48 seconds for a ride of 27 minutes, or less than 3% ”.
In short, lower speed limits and bike lanes will not necessarily make your ride longer. Our study shows that people’s support of cycling lanes is influenced by familiarity with cycle lanes and perceptions of how driver speed constraints will be affected by cycling infrastructure.
Australia can learn from other cities. Support for the implementation of lower speed limits and cycle paths will make travel safer, faster and more sustainable.
Read more: Bicycle lanes get blamed for urban congestion – here’s the reality