Belgian ‘middle lanes’ to protect cyclists not applauded by everyone

Mobility Minister Georges Gilkinet (Ecolo) has given the go-ahead to establish so-called ‘middle lanes’. This new type of public road should ensure greater safety for vulnerable road users, especially cyclists. The adaptation of the traffic regulations will take effect from 1 October.

The pressure group Cyclists Association (Fietsersbond) does not react highly enthusiastically. Initial studies would show that middle lanes do not turn out so positively for cyclists.

More road safety

More and more Belgians travel by bicycle. But, at the same time, active road users should also be better protected, Gilkinet says. And so, in addition to better equipment, behavioral adjustments, and strengthening of controls, he says, the traffic regulations must also evolve to give cyclists a real place on the road and provide more road safety. Hence the introduction of middle lanes.

When a roadway is not wide enough for a cycle lane in each direction, and when it is possible, according to the road layout, one lane will be reserved for motor vehicles on those middle lanes. There will be a safe space for cyclists on both sides marked by dotted lines. Motorists should drive at appropriate speeds in the middle section. They can overtake or pass on the side lane without endangering other road users.

Not so positively for cyclists

“We are not entirely happy with this,” responds Wies Callens, spokesperson for the Cyclists’ Union. He refers to a study by Fietsberaad Vlaanderen, the knowledge center for cycling policy in Flanders. “This shows that it does not turn out so positively for cyclists,” says Callens, “with cyclists driving closer to the edge of the road, and motorists driving faster and passing closer to cyclists.”

Fietsberaad Vlaanderen conducted research based on trial runs in Bornem and in Hasselt. It found that cyclists, especially in groups, cycled closer to the road’s edge. “Together with the increased speed of motorists, the effect can, therefore, not be called positive,” the study states. Middle lanes or middle lane markings “do not positively affect road safety when cycling in mixed traffic.”

‘Quick win’

The demand to enable middle lanes is said to come mainly from Wallonia. “I understand the demand because such a middle lanes marking is a ‘quick win’ on roads where there is little cycling infrastructure and where there is little space to extend the road with cycle lanes,” says the Cycling Association spokesperson.

He says he does not think it is bad that new systems are being considered but advocates more research. According to the Cycling Association, such a middle lane is not a solution on roads with a lot of traffic, “and the speed regime is also very decisive”.

Fietsberaad Vlaanderen also makes calls for further research in the study. “Further research should show what other (enforceable and/or behavioral) measures can be taken to improve the road safety of bicycle traffic on rural roads.” The association, therefore, recommends municipalities not start introducing them.

The study also found that the ochre yellow or red trench layer has no positive effect on road safety when cycling in mixed traffic.

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