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Monday moaning: Why don't cyclists use cycle lanes?

Here's what the law says and why you might sometimes prefer to give them a miss

You hear it all the time, especially on internet forums: cyclists should ride in the cycle lane. You might have had motorists yelling the same thing at you out on the road, or honking their horn (breaking Rule 112 of The Highway Code) and pointing at the cycle lane. What's the truth?

Let's see what The Highway Code has to say (remember that not all of the rules in The Highway Code are legal requirements).

Here's Rule 63: "Cycle Lanes: these are marked by a white line (which may be broken) along the carriageway. When using a cycle lane, keep within the lane when practicable. When leaving a cycle lane check before pulling out that it is safe to do so and signal your intention clearly to other road users. Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer."

That's simple enough, then. Despite what people might claim – and how hard they type USING BLOCK CAPS – The Highway Code makes it clear that cyclists aren't obliged to use cycle lanes. 

Surely, though, it's better all round for cyclists to make use of cycle lanes when they are provided? It helps us cyclists by giving us our own space and it allows motor vehicles to flow more freely, right?

Well, it's not always the best option.

What if the cycle lane is full of debris that could to cause a puncture? Cycle lanes are usually positioned on the far left of the road and the camber means that everything that lands on the main carriageway eventually ends up there... grit, stones, bits that have fallen out of skips, the lot.

We're not saying it's common but we've even seen glass from a road traffic incident being swept from the middle of the carriageway on to the cycle lane and left there, as if that means it has been cleared.

Some cycle lanes are dotted with slippery drain covers because of their positioning and they can be full of obstructions like bins left out to be emptied, temporary road signs and parked cars.

Rule 140 of The Highway Code says, "You MUST NOT drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a solid white line during its times of operation. Do not drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a broken white line unless it is unavoidable. You MUST NOT park in any cycle lane whilst waiting restrictions apply."

There's a distinction in The Highway Code between 'Must/Must not' instructions which are legal requirements, and 'should/should not' and 'do/do not' rules which are advisory. That means that motorists are only advised not to park in a cycle lane marked by a broken white line (which is most of them).

Even if there's just the occasional parked car, you'll need to leave the cycle lane and perhaps move back into traffic that's travelling at a faster speed. You might feel safer staying out of the cycle lane completely.

Another reason for not using a cycle lane on the left of the road is that it isn't always convenient if you're soon going to turn right or need to be in the right lane. Staying in the cycle lane might leave you needing to cross multiple lanes of traffic.

You might also sometimes find traffic turning left across your path without noticing you. The risk of getting sideswiped is one of the most common objections to using some cycle lanes.

A recent study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that, far from protecting cyclists, painted cycle lanes are likely to result in closer passes from motorists. If you've had similar experiences, you're perfectly entitled to skip the cycle lane.

There's also the fact that some cycle lanes are simply – what's the word? – crap. They're filled with obstacles – street signs, bollards, trees and the like – they're so narrow that it's impossible to overtake, and they end abruptly.

Some cycle routes impede progress by requiring cyclists to give way to side roads frequently and even to dismount at certain junctions. It's far easier and quicker to steer clear of many.

If you use a cycle lane you'll have to rejoin the rest of the traffic at some point. This is usually straightforward enough but sometimes the junction at the far end has been poorly designed so you might want to avoid it by not taking the cycle lane in the first place.

You'll often hear complaints that cyclist don't use "perfectly good cycle paths". The issue is that a cycle path existing and a cycle path being perfectly good are two different things. They're sometimes footways that have been converted by having little blue shared-use signs added, they're full of pedestrians, they're narrow and poorly surfaced, they yield at every junction and they sometimes disappear entirely.

We've only pointed out the negative aspects of cycle lanes here, naturally, because we're explaining why cyclists don't always use them (and, of course, it's always easy to criticise). The truth is that many fulfil a purpose.

If you feel safer in a cycle lane, you think it's better for your purposes, or you reckon that, as a matter of courtesy, using one will help the flow of motor vehicles on the road, then go for it. Riding in a cycle lane is often the most sensible option but, despite what others might insist, it's completely up to you.

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.

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