What will self-driving cars mean for cyclists?

A cyclist passes a Google self-driving car at Mountain View, California, back in 2012. Image: Getty.

Last week, I joined thousands of other Brits in hopping on my bike to make the most of the uncharacteristically warm weather. But just as I was remembering all of the things I love about cycling, I was rudely reminded of one of its major problems.

It’s a scene that doesn’t need much setting because it happens far too often. I was pedaling down a typical London street, one lane of traffic moving in each direction. An engine revs behind me – an impatient driver looking to fill the two car-lengths between my bike and the vehicle in front. Overtaking will do no good here, and besides, there are cars coming in the opposite direction. It would be an unsafe maneuver.

The revving gets louder, and suddenly I feel the car whisk past my shoulder with millimetres to spare, squeezing between me and the oncoming traffic. It’s so close I’m destabilised and narrowly avoid a crash. All too aware of London cyclists’ bad reputation for shouting profanities at drivers, I keep my anger to myself. But an unexpected thought springs to mind: I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

My reaction was perhaps well-founded. In 2016, 102 cyclists were killed and a further 3,397 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Whilst riding a bike remains safe by statistical standards – with only one death per 30m miles cycled on Britain’s roads, and the general health benefits far outweighing the relative risk – every cyclist has a story of a hairy experience.

Proponents of self-driving cars promise they will reduce that epidemic to close to nil. Through the combined functions of automatic braking, hazard detection, avoidance of driver fatigue and the elimination of blind spots, the technology does seem promising.

However a recent spate of deaths in the U.S. casts doubt on my rosy assumption that autonomous vehicles will solve cyclists’ problems once and for all. On the night of 18 March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman wheeling a bicycle across a road in Arizona. Five days later, a Tesla car on autopilot mode crashed in California, killing its driver.

It is clear that autonomy, in its current form, is far from perfect. Vehicles’ detection systems are developing fast but are still primitive, and in cases where cars offer partial autonomy in the form of steering assists and cruise control, the risk is that drivers can lose concentration. What’s more, when autonomous vehicles have to operate on the same roads as unpredictable road users – like cyclists and pedestrians – they face a far trickier job.


Though autonomous cars may be on Britain’s roads as early as 2019, it will be many years before every vehicle is automated. “The transition is going to be really messy,” Roger Geffen, the policy director of the advocacy group Cycling UK, tells me. “Before autonomous cars can really share the streets with pedestrians and cyclists, they’ve got to not just detect their presence but predict their movements. Cyclists negotiate space with drivers by a combination of eye contact and hand signals. How are driverless cars going to understand that?”

Until technologists can find an answer to that question, Geffen’s fear is that pedestrians and cyclists will be demonised for their unpredictability, possibly even facing the prospect of being banned from certain roads. And even if technologists could design an algorithm that can detect cyclists and pedestrians in every instance, autonomous vehicles still raise unanswered questions about cyclists’ place on the roads.

Looking to the future, there are two possible extremes. One is utopian: the lack of need for a driver will mean a small fleet of driverless cars working around the clock could replace the thousands of cars lying idle on our streets, freeing up space for cycle infrastructure and pavements.

But that scenario is not inevitable. “The nightmare future,” Geffen explains, “is one where the manufacturers are determined to recoup their investment by trying to make sure everybody’s got a self-driving car. We’ll end up with complete gridlock and the technology never getting to the point where it’s able to detect the presence of pedestrians and cyclists.”

Driverless cars offer great promises, and it seems fair to assume they will eventually lead to a reduction in road fatalities. But it would be foolish to expect that to come soon, and we may see an increase before numbers start to fall. It is likely cyclists and pedestrians will have to fight for their right to remain unpredictable, and possibly learn new behaviours to interact with self-driving vehicles.

One thing, however, is certain. The roads are going to change.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.