Why don’t children use the bike lanes?

I leave near Keats Way Elementary School, so this is a situation I see often. Children cycling down the sidewalk. Keats Way has some of the best bike lanes in Waterloo, so why aren’t they using those? Riding on the sidewalk places cyclists at a significantly higher risk of colliding with a car, because they are less visible at intersections and drivers do not expect fast-moving vehicles on crosswalks.  Getting off and walking across each intersection does eliminate this issue, but also severely diminishes the practicality of cycling.


Parents have evidently decided that the cycling infrastructure is not safe enough for their children, despite the statistical reality that it is safer than the sidewalk. They are likely afraid of the prospect of riding immediately next to multi-tonne vehicles travelling at over 50 kilometres per hour.  But merely riding parallel to auto traffic is hardly ever the cause of collisions. It’s at intersections that they mostly occur.

The disconnect between what scares people and what is actually dangerous results from two concepts of “Actual Safety” and “Subjective Safety”. Actual safety is calculated statistically, whereas subjective safety is how safe people feel . English-Dutch cycling blogger David Hembrow explains it well and gives the example of skydiving. It is actually very safe, yet most people are afraid to do it.

Which of these children feels safer?  Which is actually safer?
Which of these children feels safer? Which is actually safer?

Keats Way does not have an “actual safety” problem, it has a “subjective safety” problem. And thanks to the abundant road width, it would be quite easy to fix it on a minimal budget.

The arrangement of Keats Way is common in Waterloo: a wide street with wide car lanes, a wide unused median, and normal-sized bike lanes (admittedly much wider than typical in this city).  This arrangement tends to appear in “road diets”: where a 4 lane road is reorganized into 2 car lanes, 2 bike lanes and a median. Other examples in town include Bearinger Road, Father David Bauer Drive, and Davenport Road.


When implementing “road diets”, we could place the leftover space between cars and bicycles, rather than wasting it as a median. This would cost exactly the same, but be more attractive to cycle on. We could also use some of the extra space to widen the bike lane, making it possible for two cyclists to ride side-by-side.  I witnessed one parent taking her children home in a bicycle trailer, and it was only slightly narrower than the bike lane.


Parents would surely enjoy riding side-by-side with their children, since that would open the possibility of conversation. In the absence of parallel cyclists, the width would allow faster cyclists to safely overtake slower riders. In my diagram, you’ll notice that the bike lanes are nearly as wide as the car lanes.

Ideally, we would completely rebuild the street with a comprehensive design for cyclists, as is common in The Netherlands.  But until the street comes up for reconstruction, this design would provide significant improvement at a low cost.

I hope that Kitchener-Waterloo’s future bike lanes will be designed with subjective safety in mind, since it is the largest single barrier keeping people off their bikes.  Separated bike lanes are much more attractive to the general population, so we should take the opportunity to build them whenever practical.

About my road layout:

The roadway of Keats Way is 14 metres wide. It is currently has roughly 1.8m wide bike lanes and 3.5m car lanes.  My proposal has the same layout at intersections, but the mid-block dimensions are 2.5m bike lanes and 3.4m car lanes, with a 1.1m buffer between them.  In comparison, standard Waterloo bike lanes are 1.25 m wide, with no buffer.

The raised concrete islands are very important, because they ensure that cars actually follow the lane. They will otherwise cut across the hatched markings in order to be able to speed. The entire hatched portion could be replaced with a concrete island, if the city were to willing to spend more money.

The model is scaled to the stretch between Amos Avenue and Karen Walk. The streets are separated by 148 metres.

5 thoughts on “Why don’t children use the bike lanes?

  1. Hey Narayan, great article. I think you need more Nederlands in your design, your bike lanes are too close to motorists. As a parent of a 3 and 5 year old, both of whom are cyclists, I want segregated cycling lanes that have stretch of grass between the bike path and the road way. Without it, I’ll have my kids on the side walk cause it’s way safer than the road, and in my view paint doesn’t make a safe bike lane.

    In the Netherlands the typical age of kids riding on their own is 8.5 years, that could never happen in Waterloo Region.

    Check out this video of a school run in Assen, this is what Keats Way should look like. Could you draw up a dutch version of Keats Way?

    1. Hey Graham, it absolutely could use more Netherlands! As could just about all bicycle infrastructure, haha. I forgot to mention the key part of my design, which is that it is an alternative to the standard “road diet”, so it is super low-budget.

      Converting a standard 4 lane street to a Dutch layout would indeed be much better than this design, but it would also cost much more due to geometric changes required.

      When we are building new streets or doing full reconstruction, we absolutely should be putting in a Dutch design.

      Based on statistics, a painted buffer is more than adequate for separation on Keats Way, and even the existing bike lane is safer than the sidewalk. There may not be driveways, but there are still a fairly significant number of cross streets. The segment in question has a speed limit of 40 km/h, and volumes are very low. The chance of a vehicle swerving out of its lane and not recovering in the 2 metres of separation is basically zero. If we were talking about a street such as Fischer Hallman or Columbia, then physical separation would be absolutely be necessary.

      And yes, I could absolutely draw a Dutch version of Keats Way, and that would make a great comparison.

  2. Hey another thing, Keats Way doesn’t have any driveways on it between University and Fischer-Hallman, so doesn’t that make it way safer on the sidewalk? (Lived on Midwood for a good 15 years.)

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