Riding on a busy road is not for most people but some would not be without it. On-road cycle lanes are relatively cheap to build as they are a continuation of the road surface. The intent has been to add cycle lanes when the road is resurfaced. On-road cycle lanes are not separated from the road and motor vehicles often find their way onto them. This is not legal but few think twice about it.
Problems with cycle lanes
Cycle lanes are rarely continuous
Planning a route along exclusive on-road cycle lanes is not as easy as it would first seem, as cycle lanes tend to stop and start. There are 577km of on-road cycle lanes in the ACT but that amounts to only 8% of Canberra’s roads (measured in road lane kms). It would be best to have exclusive on-road cycle lanes on all roads with speed limits above 50km/h but that is currently not the case and also not planned.
On-road cycle lanes often stop suddenly before major intersections, narrow bridges, and slip lanes. When road space is of a premium, the exclusive on-road cycle lanes are the first to be discarded.
Quality and maintenance
Because cycle lanes are adjacent to roads they tend to gather the flotsam and jetsam from motor vehicles. The ACT Government is obliged to sweep and clear cycle lanes. The reality, however, is that they are cleaned up last. It was noticeable after the hail storm in January 2020 that the street sweeper drove through our suburb and completely missed the cycle lanes. This is not untypical. Cyclists are unfortunately a quiet group and therefore a low priority.
Many roads are without road edges so that the asphalt stops and drops off onto gravel or dirt. Asphalt is well known to be weak at the edges and cracks and breaks away due to expansion and moisture. If the edges of the road are poorly maintained, and they usually are, the cycle lane becomes cracked and of varying width. This irregular edge makes the path dangerous, particularly at night. The ACT Government data portal dataset speaks of “average width” of the bike lane, as it will vary continuously in practice.
Construction sites are often adjacent to roads with cycle lanes. It is common not only to close the paths on the verge – but also the cycle lanes – to make space for the construction site. Austroads and ACT Active Travel standards stipulate that a detour should be provided for pedestrians and cyclists. Often this is not done or only reluctantly after a protest.
William Hovell Drive
William Hovell Drive in Belconnen is listed by the ACT Government as having a on-road bike lane. It is a good example as it demonstrates that even when the ACT Government makes the claim it may not be meant literally.
In the first photo, the broken edge of the road leaves little space on the edge of the marked shoulder of a 90 km/h road. A marked shoulder is the edge of the road marked with a white line and is not a bike lane. Bike lanes must be marked with a cycling symbol according to Australian Road Rule 153. If not, the cyclist has no legal protection. Not only is there no bike symbol to be seen but the marked shoulder is of insufficient width to guarantee the 1.5m passing clearance required for motor vehicles under ACT law.
Another common feature of cycle lanes is that barriers are placed hard up against. Putting aside the lack of the road marking here (see comment above), the proximity of the barrier inhibits the cyclist veering away from a car that has crossed into the cycle lane.
This next picture shows the steep downhill section of the William Hovell Drive adjacent to The Pinnacle Offset Area, Belconnen. The cycle lane is visible but again not marked. William Hovell Drive shows another quirk of cycle lane construction in the ACT: the cycle lane is only built on one side of the road. William Hovell Drive does not have a bike lane on the south side, in a dangerous section riding up the steep hill to the roundabout. The marked shoulder is so narrow at this point that there is no room for cyclists . Officially, the ACT Government claims there is a cycle lane here (see official data below) but there is not. Why would a commuting cyclist use the road in the morning but not wish to use it in the afternoon? Should the ACT Government wish to omit a cycle lane why then when the cyclist is riding slowly uphill on the 90km/h road?
The William Hovell Drive “cycle lanes” are not sensible or well considered.
On-road cycle lanes in the ACT
The ACT Government Open Data Portal dataACT provides line data representing the spatial location of on-road cycling within the ACT, as of July 2017. The dataset is for the whole of the ACT. Click on the map to go to the interactive map on the website. There are 577km of on-road cycle lanes in this dataset.
It is noticeable that William Hovell Drive is shown as having cycle lanes along the entire length.
Comparing path and road lane lengths
The ACT Infrastructure Plan 2019 suggests there are 3,047km community path and 6,986km road lanes. The measure here is “road lane” length, as wider roads such as Parkes Way have multiple lanes. Wider roads are more expensive to build.
The chart below compares the road lane km with community path km, broken down town-by-town. Almost 40% of the total length is community paths in Gungahlin compared with approximately 26% in Woden, Weston Creek and Molonglo. Central Canberra is the worst due to the dominance of major roads. There is a lot of asphalt in Central Canberra.
Safety of on-road cycle lanes
The safety of on-road cycle lanes is disputed. In the case of a collision between a motor vehicle and a cyclist, the driver is almost always at fault in the ACT. Often drivers do not see cyclists or they were distracted. The injuries to the cyclist depend on the relative speed of the cyclist to the motor vehicle. Above 50km/h the outcome is mostly fatal. As many cycle lanes run along 80km/h arterial roads, the difference is 50km/h presuming the motor vehicle is not speeding. Intersections are particularly nasty due to higher speeds. Most intersection on arterial roads would be signalised.
When cycling lanes are important
On many roads in Canberra there are no community paths on the verge and the most direct route is the road. If we could not cycle on the road, we could not ride there. It turns out that a cycle lane is a cheap and inexpensive way to greatly improve the real and perceived safety of the cyclist.
Due to the way Canberra has been built, the route along the road is often shortest, has the least gradient, the least climb, and is the far better maintained than bike paths. Particularly for commuting, the inherent danger of riding on the road is seen as an acceptable compromise for a fast and direct route. Cyclists who ride to work daily over long periods go fast and the road provides the smooth and flat path without sudden turns that a high-speed cyclist requires.
Road cycling sport
An important reason why the ACT Government pays attention to cycle lanes is the popularity of road cycling as a sport in the ACT. The desired outcome is to have the cycle lanes as an integrated part of the road infrastructure. Cyclists are entitled to use the road, and it should be possible in relative safety. The zero target for roads deaths is blighted regularly with the death of another road cyclist. The recreational road cycling route alignments are in the Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool.
ACT Infrastructure Plan 2019
ACT Infrastructure Plan 2019 does not have a great deal to say about cycling which is disappointing considering it is such a recent document. The purpose of the document is described below. It does, however, have current information about path and road infrastructure.
“Integrated infrastructure delivery supporting ACT Government strategic plansThe ACT Government is progressing or has finalised a range of both city-wide and sector-specific strategies which set out our goals and priorities for service delivery across Canberra. The ACT Infrastructure Plan is a delivery roadmap which supports these wider strategies.”ACT Infrastructure Plan 2019, ACT Government, page 92