Cycling on the Fast Lane

Author: Michael Vogel

Feb 28, 2024 Safety on the road / Mobility

The concept of fast cycling routes, often referred to as highways for bicycles, has been gaining increasing popularity in recent years. In this summary, we outline the requirements and possible implementations of this mode of transport and look at best practice examples.

For car traffic to be reduced, especially in urban areas, measures have to be taken in order to increase people’s willingness to switch to bicycles or pedelecs, for example by creating safe and attractive routes for cyclists. For this approach to work, local authorities have to think beyond the immediate city limits. This is where the idea of bicycle highways, or cycling superhighways, comes to play: Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands are regarded as pioneers, having made some of the first efforts 40 years ago. The Danish Sekretariatet for Supercykelstier defines cycling highways, Supercykelstier in Danish, as routes where “the needs of commuters have been given the highest priority”. The goal is to “create routes that offer direct connections as well as a comfortable and safe use”.

Requirements for fast cycling routes

The European Cyclists’ Federation lists the following criteria for a fast cycling route: It needs to be at least five kilometers long, at least three meters wide for one-way routes, and at least four meters wide for two-way traffic. It has to be physically separated from motorized and pedestrian traffic and have no extreme slopes or inclines. Furthermore, the route should allow cyclists to reach average speeds of more than 20 kilometers per hour without constantly having to stop to give way to other means of transport.
However, the actual implementation of a bicycle highway is often not as simple: For spatial reasons alone, there cannot always be a roundabout on a bridge reserved exclusively for cyclists – as is the case between the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Veldhoven. It is especially difficult where fast cycling routes cross roads that are frequented by cars. Even if the bicycle highway has the right of way, there is a high risk that it will be disregarded.

Cyclists at risk: Bicycle highways increase road safety

Overall, however, experts believe that bicycle highways significantly increase road safety. “They are expressways for bicycles and pedelecs,” says Luigi Ancona, accident researcher at DEKRA. The increased safety these routes offer results from their separation from other forms of traffic, their proper design with sufficient lane width and an adapted road layout, and the minimization of right-of-way traffic and traffic lights."
The DEKRA expert regards the casualty figures published by the German Federal Statistical Office as confirmation that investing in cycling infrastructure, including the expansion of cycling highways, makes sense: In 2022, cyclists and pedelec riders accounted for 27 percent of all traffic accidents. “There is simply not enough traffic space in cities that cyclists don’t have to share with other road users,” says Ancona. “However, many of the particularly serious accidents also occur outside of town.”

“Whether you’re driving, cycling, or walking, the road is for everyone.”

Luigi Ancona, DEKRA expert and accident researcher

Hundreds of kilometers of fast cycling routes around Copenhagen, London, and Flanders

Denmark now has more than 60 bicycle highways covering an overall distance of 850 kilometers. They connect 29 municipalities, mainly around the capital Copenhagen. In the Netherlands, there are 70 projects for cycle highways in various stages from discussion to completion – around 1,000 kilometers in total. In Greater London, the cycle highways are expected to cover a distance of 450 kilometers in the preliminary final stages, and some routes already exist. And in Belgium, Flanders is the bicycle highway pioneer. The region already boasts a 2,700-kilometer network, with almost 100 upcoming projects under construction or in the planning stages. The routes often run alongside railroad lines, waterways, or freeways – and are explicitly intended as inter-urban travel routes. Tallies have shown that some of the expressways are used by 8,000 cyclists per hour.
In terms of actual implementation, Germany has not yet reached this stage: Although more than 2,000 kilometers of bicycle highways are in discussion, planned, or under construction, only around three percent have been completed. “In addition to rapid implementation, it is crucial that the bicycle highways are integrated into a holistic regional cycling network,” Ancona states.
In Austria there are also only a few kilometers of cycling superhighways in use, but this is set to change fundamentally by the end of the decade. Vorarlberg and the Lower Austria region alone want to construct bicycle highways spanning a total distance of 200 kilometers each. Relevant studies are already available for the metropolitan areas, and the first projects are being implemented in Vienna.

Bicycle highways are cheaper than highways and roads

According to Danish surveys, the network of fast cycling routes has led to a 23 percent increase in the number of cyclists when compared to the previous period – and 14 percent of these additional cyclists have switched from cars to bicycles. Naturally, these figures are pitted against investment costs, which, according to the Austrian transport association VCÖ, are comparatively low: 11.1 kilometers of bicycle highway cost the same as 2.5 kilometers of main road or 0.5 kilometers of freeway. A decade ago, Belgian researchers determined that the cost of a bicycle highway is between 300,000 and 800,000 euros per kilometer – depending on the complexity of the route.
However, according to DEKRA accident researcher Ancona, public authorities cannot ignore the fact that bicycle highways need to be maintained and serviced just like roads for cars: “Fallen leaves must be removed in the fall, snow and ice in the winter, and possibly potholes in the spring – otherwise the basic idea of a safe, convenient, and sustainable alternative to the car is quickly reduced to absurdity.”
Bike Safety
Whether on a cycling highway or on a short ride in dense city traffic – cyclists can do a lot to contribute to their own safety to compensate for the carelessness of other road users, DEKRA accident researcher Luis Ancona states. “First and foremost, technical safety is crucial – brakes, tires, reflectors, and lights must be in order. If you can’t take care of these yourself, just take the bike to a workshop.” Helmets and noticeable clothing, preferably reflective clothing in the dark, also contribute massively to road safety. The accident researcher cannot comprehend how the number of people still not wearing helmets is still low in many countries. Four years ago, DEKRA recorded the helmet rates in nine major European cities. London achieved 60 percent among cyclists and e-scooter riders, while the quota of helmet wearers was only between 27 and one percent in the other eight cities.
Another issue: Using headphones to listen to music or to make hands-free phone calls. “Legally, both are permitted, but should be avoided at all costs,” advises Ancona. “Especially in city traffic, our senses are fully occupied with the task of driving.” In other words: Not everything that is permitted contributes to your safety. This also applies to behavior at intersections when a truck or bus wants to make a turn. “Despite all the technology in these vehicles, they have a tough time detecting cyclists that are right next to them,” says the accident researcher. He advises: “Do not overtake large vehicles, but wait behind them.”
In Ancona’s view however, the most important advice is to show consideration for one another. “Because whether you’re driving, cycling, or walking, the road is for everyone.”