Are London’s cycle lanes literally on the wrong side of the road?

A satisfied user of a London cycle lane shows his appreciation to then-mayor Boris Johnson. Image: Getty.

A couple of months ago, I was cycling to work when the bus in front of me slowed. I peered to one side of it, then the other, and looked over my shoulder before pulling out to overtake – a glance motorbike instructors refer to as “the lifesaver” – only to find another cyclist charging into the space I was about the occupy. “Choose a line!”, screamed my fellow road user, who had obviously mistaken the Walworth Road for Herne Hill Velodrome, as they pedalled frantically past.

After I’d finished fuming – and, obviously, overtaken the Lycra lout in a tiring and unbelievably petty commuter chasse-patate – I began to wonder why I’d been thinking about which side of the bus I was going to overtake.

With the increased popularity of cycling in London, the flow of cycle traffic seems to have changed, becoming more opportunistic. Like many cyclists I now filter either side of the motor traffic, and I think I do it more than I used to. While the cycle superhighways are great – especially where they’re physically separate from the road – they often put cyclists in the position of being faster than the motor traffic and on the wrong side of it. On the CS7 from Collier’s Wood to Kennington, for example, cyclists share the road with motor traffic but are forced by the position of the lane to break the most dangerous taboo of urban cycling – passing up the left-hand side of a lorry.

I have never been able to use a lane like this without feeling like I’m in the wrong place, relative to the traffic. So, why aren’t cycle lanes on the other side of the road?

For one thing, given that Britain drives on the left, it makes sense to arrange traffic so that the fastest vehicles are on the right, so that overtaking happens on the right-hand side of the slower vehicle as happens on dual carriageways and motorways. In central London, the average car speed is 7.4mph, while the tracking app Strava – which, admittedly, is likely to be used by faster cyclists – says the average speed of cyclists in London is just under 14mph. This difference grows in rush hour, when cyclists pour around slow-moving motor vehicles.

Secondly, and most importantly, a cyclist on the right-hand side of the cab of a heavy goods vehicle is more visible to the vehicle’s driver. Lorries comprise five per cent of traffic in London but 45 per cent of cyclist fatalities. Many, if not most, of these occur when a lorry turns left and does not notice that a cyclist is in the large blind spot on the far side of the vehicle from the driver. If cycle lanes were on the right, their occupants would be more visible to vehicles; and cyclists could be physically discouraged from occupying the most dangerous areas around an HGV, such as to the side of the cab at a junction. 


London also has a particular hazard for cyclists who are unlucky enough to be hit by a vehicle, in that many streets have guard rails to protect pedestrians from traffic. Fatal accidents have occurred in which cyclists have been crushed against these rails by vehicles, rather than being thrown onto the pavement. But while some have said this is a reason to remove or not install the rails, there is also strong evidence that they protect pedestrians. Again, a better measure might be to move cycle traffic to the other side of the lane, away from the danger zone.

In other accidents, cyclists on the right-hand side have fallen or been shoved by a vehicle into the path of oncoming traffic. If the first lane of oncoming traffic on the other side of the road was a cycle lane, this might make this scenario less dangerous.

It would remove the problem, too, of the many miles of cycle superhighway that are used as generous new parking spaces by drivers, causing cyclists to weave in and out of traffic. 

A lot of drivers would almost certainly be annoyed by the idea of cyclists sauntering past them in what they might consider to be their fast lane. But let’s face it: those people are going to be annoyed by any cyclist, or indeed anything, they see on their journey because they’re in a car, in London, perhaps listening to LBC, which is enough to ruin anyone’s day.

And this, too, might be a reason to put cyclists on the right. The psychologist Tom Stafford has suggested that drivers see cyclists as “free riders” in the traffic system, because they don’t follow the same rules as cars – even if they’re generally aware that they’re following the rules of the road. Dr Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, has said that cycling is seen by drivers as “playing in the street, and getting in the way of the traffic”. One way to overcome these psychological barriers to accepting cyclists on London’s streets might be to give them a less subjugated position on the road.

 
 
 
 

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.