Protected Lanes: You say protected – I say hidden (English)

Since a couple of months the concept called Protected Bike Lanes has been drifted ashore to Germany from northern America. While the concept has earned waving enthusiasm among notoric cycle path fanboys and some local politicians, the more emancipated every day cyclists and parts from German traffic research stood more sceptical. What has been shipped along the gulfstream looks quite familiar to many German cyclists. Haven’t we seen this kind of infrastructure before?

One question has to be asked first:

Why do German cyclists look to solutions from northern America and the UK? For sure, in those regions huge progress was made in a means of cycling traffic. In several cities the modal share of cyclists doubled or even trippled. But often it is overlooked that the modal share of cyclists beyond the atlantic ist still under ten percent in allmost every place. Germany is further advanced in this case – at least on a regional basis.

If Protection get’s wrong: „Protected“ Lane in Münster, Germany

In northern Germany in many counties and cities modal share of cyclists is on a niveau Americans, Canadians and Brits are dreaming of. If Germanies northern states Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania and Bremen would unite as an separate country, this country would without any doubt be mentioned together with Denmark or the Netherlands. In several outstanding college towns like Münster, Oldenburg or Greifswald modal share of cyclists is comparable high as in Danish or Dutch cities.

On the other hand there are still cities left in northern Germany, whose modal share of cyclists remains arround ten percent or below. Hamburg – located in the middle of the mentioned ‚cycling states‘ – is one of those abberations. In 2008 the modal share of cyclists climbed to 12.2 percent.

Other good examples are the cities in the Ruhr valley: From a climatic or geographical point of view most of those cities are not much differing from the northern tour leaders. But still cycling as a mode of transport plays a minor role there.

Exspecially these differences lead to a specific German charactaristic, which grew a huge and wordlwide unique wealth of experience. Decisions on cycling traffic in Germany have been made by local authorities and not by the federation. May be this could be called Kleinstaaterei or a neglection of cycling traffic. But in this case delegating the subject to local authorities is very usefull: Recipes that work in the flat marshes of the northern shores might not be the kindest solution for an alpine road in southern Bavaria.

The Netherlands: Narrow Cities, wide Marshes

For comparation, the Dutch had it much easier: Their old towns with ancient city walls and canals share much more similiarities to each other than their German counterparts. In a landscape nearly complete dominated by flat marshes and polders engineers from the Rijkswaterstaat had enough space to fullfill their planned dreams. While the Durch could establish a more or less homogeneous cycling infrastructure that way,  solutions in Germany vary much more from region to region. But by that way Germans may compare the different solutions much better.

In other words:

The Dutch may know much better how to build an excellent cycle path, but Germans should know from a painfull process which flaws to avoid.

And exactly at this point it’s time to come back to protected bike lanes, as the concept replicates many avoidable mistakes made by German engineers building seperated cycle paths, which are:

  • Limited scalability: Many safety problems on Germanies cycling infrastructure result from the intensifying cycle use in the past three decades. While a width of 1.2 m to 1.4 m (~3-4 ft) is satisfying for a single cyclist, 1.6 m (~4.5 ft) are quite narrow if there’s need for cyclists to overtake. The German cycle path standard ERA 2010 therefore recommends a systemwide width of 2 m (~6 ft). In cities with high modal share of cyclists, heavy use of broad cycles like trailers and cargo bikes cycle paths shoud be as broad as 2.5 m to 3 m (~8-10 ft). Given the presumption building a protected bike lane will really increase use of bicycles, sooner or later there will emerge new bottlenecks in the system – generating need for expensive rebuilds and further investitions into the infrastructure.
  • Trespassing pedestrians: One of the more general flaws of separated cycle paths is also valid for protected bike lanes. Pedestrians willing to cross a road equipped with a seperated bike path have to look for traffic three to for times: Two times on the bike lanes (given one lane for both directions) and one or two times on the road itself. But thats not everything: If the cycle path is separated from the road by parked cars, their occupants need to cross the cycle path. Keeping the parked cars right from the cycle path significantly reduces the risk of cyclist running into opened doors or pedestrians.
  • Sight obstructions: Regardless wether the protection of the bike lane is build by parking cars or a rose hedge, visibility will be reduced. This is the classical drawback of seperated cycling infrastructure, which leads into the counterintuitive fact, most bike paths are less safe than simply cycling on the road. The reason for this surprising fact is that collisions with turning

    Looks safe? A few meters further a female cylist died under a truck in late 2016. The path is perfectly hidden behind the bus stop…

    cars and lorries are a much more likely to happen, than a collision between an overtaking motorist and a cyclist. Any obstruction between the road and the cycle path will increase this risk – exspecially for children, which easily may be hidden completely behind such obstrucions. Those thought to be secured most by protected bike lane-enthusiasts take the highest risk.

  • Restraining direct left-turns: While cyclists on the road or on seperated lanes are able to reach left-sided destinations by a simple left-turn, on protected bike lanes and structural cycle paths usually these destinations could only be reached at junctions and driveways. This causes diversions. In most cases these ain’t too far, but exspecially inexperienced cyclist tend to ghost drive on the pavement or opposite cycle path as a short cut. It’s a fatal decision: Cyclist in the wrong direction seem to have an about ten times higher risk to have an accident.
  • Dangereous street furniture: Rare research has been done about the objects, that will build the protecion in a protected bike lane. Curbs, poles and grids themselves might generate an unkown risk to plunge. Benches and flower tubs with a hard surface and sharp edges can tighten injuries from an accident. Several local authorities in Germany since sevaral years avoid building poles too close to cycle paths for this reason. The risk from a violating motorist on a cycle lane – parking or driving – under certain circumstances could be smaller than the risk from a fateful placed pole.

Neither German traffic researchers nor this blog do negotiate the possibility of a save built cycle path in general. Yes, it is possible to build something that combines subjective and objective safety. But there are some technical requirements o reach thi goal:

  • Good sight: A cyclist on a cycle path needs to be visible at any time from the corresponding road.
  • Sufficient gauge: A separated cycle path needs to be broad enough for overtakings – exspecially if traffic on that cycle path rises. Absolute minmum gauge is 2 m (~7 ft).
  • Crossings with traffic lights only: Most dangerous situations on cycle paths are certainly caused by turning motorists. All crossings that lead across a cycle path need to be equipped with traffic lights an turning motorists need an own lane and phase.

If a bike lane shall be really protected, something has to be added:

  • Concrete step barriers: A really safe diversion between cyclists and motorists only can be reached, if the risk of cars bursting trough onto the cycle path is minimized. Many – if not most – accidents between cyclists and overtaking motorists do happen when the motorist loses control of his vehicle. This means: The risk getting hit from behind by a vehicle isn’t that much lower, as fans of separated cycle paths presume. Simple poles for example don’t work. Even a small, lightweight car may crush them. Parked cars as another idea for protection have their own risks like doorings and trespassing pedestrians. The risk of an uncontrolled vehicle for this reasons can only be eliminated by something really, really strong, and this is concrete barriers.

    Rock solid: Concrete barriers at a construction site in Emden, Germany to protect pedestrians – ans motorists from falling into a lock bassin.

A cycle path matching these specifications is far away from beeing a solution for a downtown area. The widths necessary aren’t availiable in most European cities anymore. The complexity to design crossings excludes street with many driveways.Thus we have to accept, that such a cycle path only is usefull on long roads without too many crossings: Arterial and feeder roads, connections between suburbs and downtown areas, interurban routes – more a parallel cycle highway than an ordinary cycle path.

No taboos to removals

Fans of protected bike lanes with their often unreflected claim of somehow better, more modern cycle paths tend to ignore an important general difference between Germany and Northern Amrerica. While in Canada, the US and the UK for decades more or less no cycling infrastructure has been built, Germany is confronted with old stock causing heavy security problems.

Exspecially in northern Germany cycling never vanished completely as a mode of transport. Cycle paths have been built in the paradigmatic automotive city mostly in roads, where the remaining cycling traffic was blamed to slow down motorists. This pattern is obvious in Münster – Germanies self-appointed cycling capital: The cycling network in this city is mostly upside down. Cycle paths in the city never were build, where they’d been usefull, but really often to suppress cyclists from the road.

Narrow and hidden at a calm road: Obsolete cyle path at Andreas-Hofer-Street, Münster, Germany – but local authorities made use compulsory by the blue sign.

While for example in the calm Andreas-Hofer-Str. a much to narrow cycle path exists in both directions, the often congested two-lane downtown race track Fürstenbergstr.-Eisenbahnstr.-Von-Vincke-Str. lacks even a simple cycling lane forcing inexperienced cyclists to use the Promenade (a surrounding park above the razed ancient city walls).

By contrast in Hamburg along those wide, multilaned downtown highways criss-crossing the city, do exist kilometers of pavement-based cycle paths, not broader than a simple towel. The city – like many others in Germany – had undergone a major rebuild in the years post world war two. Cycling was seen as a thing to decline and cyclists where forced on this sub-standard compromise.

The examples from Münster and Hamburg shall illustrate two different kinds of cycle path which lost their right to exist: First type are cyle paths and lanes on routes, which are that calm  subjetive safety is even perfect for the often pleaded kids and seniors. On those routes it’s simply counterproductive to take the risks provoked by ill built cyle paths.

The second type are those examples from Hamburg: Cyle paths that are in such an appalling condition they’re massivly endangering cyclists. At best case cyle paths of this type sharpen the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians, tempt self-professed deputies beyond motorists to vigilantism against cyclists on the road and decrease the routes travelled by cyclists. At worst case cycle paths of this type give a false feeling of protection and mislead inexperienced cylists to chose a dangerous route or to prefer cycling this route to less dangerous modes of transport like busses or subways.

Hamburg is a deterrent example for such disastrous cycle paths. From a view of cyling security the removal of cycle paths will affect roads which could demand an back up a heavy sulution as described before. But infrastructure like this can’t be built over night – it’s a task for years, if not for decades.


The concept of protected bike lanes seems very familiar to German cyling advocates and engineers – in a slightly eerie way. It only differs in details from what has been built in Germany in the second half of the twentieth century. These details like using tarmac as surface or slightly broader designs do not affect those proven more general shortcommings of separated cycling infrastructure.

It seems it’s just selling old wine in new bottles. Under a catchy English name the German mistakes from the post war era are recurring in northern America. If experiences with Protected bike lanes seem to be not that bad as in Germany, then this may be caused by the typical checkboard grid of many US cities. Usually their blocks have only one or two driveways, resulting in less conflicts compared to European cities.

Some personal notes:

At this point I thnk it’s neccessary to point out my own position to cycle paths a little bit:

I really don’t have anythinh against really safe, really protected, separated cycling infrastructure. Even I do feel unsafe cycling on heavy frequented roads with speeds larger than 50 kmph (~30 mph) (there’s a chapter with me and a ramshackle beach cruiser on a typical Brandenburg alley and cars driving 100 kmph (~60 mph) around me I really don’t like to be remembered to in my life).


Nice deatail: Middle-lane cycle path at a one way street in Kranstr., Emden, Germany

My personal threshold about road safety an cycle paths is quite high from my experiences from Münster and other towns and regions. Instead of using a cycle path with questionable safety standars I choose the ungood feeling cycling on the road. If a specific route seems to unsafe for me cycling on the road, I look for an alternative way. Unsafe cycle paths in my opinion are treacherous blinders which suggest a subjective safety not existing objectively.

Also I don’t believe the high standards I defined in this article are neither achievable, nor desirebale in most urban communities. If mplemented consequently they’d lead into the same concrete deserts we allready know from the automotive city. Surprisingly the Netherlands are a good example to this: On many roads into cities like Groningen or Amsterdam not a single tree is left, cause the engineers needed the space for seperated room for pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.

A high modal share is not a  self purpose

Besides that, I hold the opinion, that vision zero is more important from an ethical point of view than plain promotion of cycling traffic. Even if the presumption that more seperated cycling infrastructure will generate more cycling traffic would be correct (I’m sceptical about that), it would be reprehensible to buy this traffic by causing deaths and injuries.

If specific cyclists don’t feel well on objectively safe roads, then there’s a need for establishing alternatives, which could be alternative routes or public traffic. Münster, the city I live in since more than fifteen years, is a bad example again: A major boost for cycling traffic happened, when the tramway was closed down during the 1960s. Exspecially college students in the downtown area were forced to get on bikes, as the bus network still fails to get them around quick enough between two classes.

Fast – and safe: A lane shared by cyclists and public busses in Münster, Germany

Another point I don’t really understand is this massive bashing of on-road cycling lanes. I grew up in a city cylled Emden in the very north-western corner of Germany, close to the dutch border. This city with a respectable modal share of cyclists from about 25 percent uses such in-traffic lanes since the early 1990s – resulting in very relaxed mixed traffic between cyclists and motorists, as thoses lanes clearly state that cyclists are allowed to use the road.

Finnaly I’d like to add, that from my point of view dogmatism is wrong placed in discussions about road safety. The questions, which kind of cyling infrastructure is best for a specific road, should be answered by skilled engineers and not by politicians or uninformed campaigners. Building scattershot cylce paths was thought to be finished in Germany. It would be fatal, if we’d fall back to old habits by the concept of protected bike lanes:

It would mean, we were’nt able to learn from our own seventy years old mistakes. We’d have to live with them for deacdes again.

Editors note: It’s quite ong ago that I had my last English lesson in school. So if you find a mistake, feel free to leave a note.


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