Safe cycling

Traffic in Brussels is stressful. Many streets and intersections are poorly designed and/or poorly maintained. Enforcement of traffic laws is erratic and not focussed on road safety. The main concern seems to be to keep cars moving instead of creating a safe and attractive environment for people to live, work and play as well getting from a to b on foot, by bicycle or public transport safely. (Cycling priority 2)

The bicycle routes decided in 1995 are far from being completed. Many bicycle lanes and paths are designed and/or maintained in such a way that cycling there is unpleasant and unsafe. Completing and maintaining these routes should be the top priority. Other road infrastructure that facilitates cycling, including 30km/h zones, home zones and bicycle streets should be promoted. (Cycling priority 4)

Out and about

City cycling is always more enjoyable, and safer, when there is less motor traffic and especially where there is not fast traffic. Cycle commuters almost always find ways to get to work that avoid the fastest or the most congested roads, even though such routes may take longer.

Rules of the road

Here is a helpful  one page summary of Bruxelles Mobilité about the rules and tips for cycling in Belgium (code, habits). And they have some useful videos here.

“Les cyclistes et le code” (40 pages) is free to download to download here at the official site of code-de-la-route.

This is another helpful booklet of the VIAS Institute about all the relevant traffic rules about cycling in Belgium.

Cycle paths

White broken lines

You are obliged to use these.

Unless something either prevents you from using it or would make it dangerous to use, usually it is a good solution, for example on straight roads with enough space for both cars and bicycles.

An exception can be in round abouts. For example, the Rond Point Schuman or Montgomery has a cycle path of this kind that is almost always impossible to use, as you can be hit by cars turning right to exit the round about. In these cases you can check weather to still use the cycling lane, or cycle in the middle of the outer lane of the cars.

Circular blue panel with a white bicycle logo (sign)

These signs indicates that you must use the cycle path if the sign is visible in your direction. Some cycle paths are two-way.

Be careful on these cycle paths. You will be sharing them with people walking, dogs, and, in some cases, people driving across them for access. Accident statistics show that cycle paths shared in this way with other road users are actually slightly less safe for the person cycling than a normal road, but almost all the cycle path accidents happen at junctions.

The most dangerous part of a cycle path is where it crosses a road, because people driving don’t always realise that a bike may suddenly appear in front of them. Although people cycling have officially priority according to the code de la route in Belgium, even if you have priority, we recommend to only traverse if you made sure the person behind the steering wheel has seen you and is giving you the priority. For other countries, check your regulation about priority in these situations.

Article 12.4bis du code la route: “le conducteur qui traverse un trottoir ou une piste cyclable, doit céder le passage aux usagers de la route qui, conformément au présent arrêté, circulent sur le trottoir ou la piste cyclable”.

Cycle path on the road shown by a white cycle logo on a red strip of tarmac along the side of the road.

This has no legal meaning at all, either for the person cycling or driving. It is merely a warning to people driving to to watch out for people cycling – something that they should do anyway.

Since December 2012, a new law (code-de-la-route.be)on rues cyclables has been in force.  Although people driving may use these, people cycling have priority.

More information at velo.irisnet.be.

Who has priority?

Provelo has a good summary here on priority rules for bicycle users in Belgium. In summary, a person cycling always has priority when they use a cycle path, except when a marking on the ground or traffic lights indicate otherwise. Contrary to this, they do not have priority when on an advisory cycle lane. This same rule applies for soft surface lanes set into cobbled streets to make the ride more comfortable for people cycling.

Inattentional blindness

Biking in Brussels is not greatly different from riding a bike in any other city. If a person cycling is injured in an accident, it is almost always because a person driving a car or other motorised vehicle was involved. People driving look ahead and to the side for other vehicles. They don’t expect to see a fast-moving bicycle doing something odd. You are safest when you use your bicycle as you would any other vehicle, and ride where people driving expect to see traffic.

Even if you are physically in the field of vision of the person driving, if they actually don’t expect you to be there, “mentally” they don’t see you. According to many experiment, this is the case even if you are wearing a high visibility vest.

This effect is called “Inattentional blindness” in psychology (see on wikipedia.org), and authors Chabris and Simons dedicate a full chapter to investigate this phenomenon in depth in the book The Invisible Gorilla.  They demonstrate the situation also with examples from traffic, as this is also a common cause of collision between motorbike and car drivers. This article on phys.org has also a good summary of the topic.

The only workaround this issues is to get visual confirmation the person driving sees you. Look into the eye, and wait for confirmation from his/her side that you can pass.

Staying Safe On The Roads

Staying safe is largely a matter of

  • knowing the traffic code, especially the meaning of signs and markings specifically for cyclists, and obeying the rules (unless in some unusual circumstance they force you into danger!).
  • observing road conditions, including wet leaves, tram lines, and modifying your behaviour to take them into account ;
  • paying close attention to the behaviour of other road users, including people inside parked cars and people walking their dogs ;
  • making sure that you can see – and be seen by others. This particularly applies at night, when you must have your front and tail lights on, and should wear bright (even better: reflecting) clothes;
  • pay particular attention when you approach intersections;
  • staying vigilant at all times.

Most collisions in which the person cycling is seriously hurt or killed involve the person cycling taking a big risk (often breaking the law at the same time). Just a few people taking “high-risk” make it look like cycling is more dangerous than it is and create a negative image. The single most dangerous thing you can do, from the point of view of the collision statistics, is to ride through an intersection against a red light or stop sign. Somehow that makes sense.

Another potentially dangerous – but easily avoidable – situation is finding yourself between a big vehicle (truck) and the kerb: You are very likely to be in the other person’s dead angle, and you wouldn’t wish to find your trajectory been crossed by his trajectory at the same moment. Simply remember the old African saying: “Never get between the hippo and the water”.  So: stay behind!

More information at bicyclesafe.com.

One-way streets 

SUL (Sens Unique Limité) or BEV (Beperkt Eenrichtings Verkeer) are one-way streets open for people cycling in both directions. They are signposted with a board displaying a bicycle with two arrows going up and down under the blue square “one way” plate on one side, and an “excepté/uitgezonderd [cyclists]” board under the red “no entrance” sign on the other.

They make life considerably easier for cyclists who can avoid unproductive detours.

For more info click here [FR] or here [NL] for resources on irisnet.be.

6 comments

  1. I cycle to work everyday (since 5 years now). It is a “sense unique” street but cyclists are allowed both ways. Every morning I go down the street, in the opposite sense to the cars, as otherwise my journey would be longer (and with other dangers). In that direction the cyclist rides just close to the pavement and cannot therefore protect himself by changing the trajectory. Regularly (as often as once a week), I feel unsecure as cars go too quickly and they do not leave enough place for the cyclist in the opposite direction to ride safely – notwithstanding the 30km/h limitation. In addition there is a turn in the middle of the street and the cars that ride too quickly do not realise the presence of the cyclist behind the turn early enough to accommodate their trajectory accordingly. I believe there is a road safety problem: there are many Commission cyclists as there are two Commission buildings in this street and many of them ride in that direction. I am afraid that if nothing changes, one day one of us will leave his/her leg under one of those cars wheels.

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  2. Thank you keeping me on your distribution list. Although Brussels might not be the ideal location for safe cycling, I could only wish Florida had half of what I was used too in the past. There are a couple of cycling lanes but they are hardly respected and drivers, at least most of them, are very aggressive and fatal accidents with bicycles are sadly quite frequent. Those who generally ride for fun and go out for 50 our 60 km start very early in the morning as a way of avoiding as many cars as possible. I thought of doing it but I am not really the best morning person and the peak of humidity generally lasts until 9-10 am (varies from 85 to 95%). Every month the local TV stations post a note on the critical mass organized here in Fort Lauderdale on facebook and often, if not always, the comments are bad, negative, stupid, ie, ‘shame on you that you block a lane, what if an ambulance needs to go through’, ‘go cycle in a park’ or ‘get out of the road, this is for cars’. Even sidewalks for pedestrians are sometimes just a mirage… Last week I arrived a bit too early to the gym. I decided to walk from there to starbucks (both located on the same commercial plaza). As starbucks is at the entrance of the plaza and as there are no sidewalks between the latter and the rest of the stores/gym one has no choice than walking on the road… or drive 200m. A lady stops, opens the car window and starts shouting how dangerous it is, that I shouldn’t be walking on the road (as you can imagine I was not walking right in the middle of the road). I did end up by telling her off something along the lines of ‘do you actually see a sidewalk where I can WALK ON IT???’. Well not all is bad. Weather is great, I live at walking distance from the beach and so far no hurricanes to make our life complicated…

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  3. You post very interesting articles here. Your blog deserves
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  4. The whole city is a shame for cyclists; some times large sidewalks and just a red painted lane on the street for cyclists; deep holes and other obstacles like destroyed pavement; add to this allowing cyclists using one way streets opposite where you have a strong curve to the left where it is impossible for a car driver to see a cyclist in time; eg landschapschildersstraat auderghem; I suggest that the responsible persons in Brussels take their bike, drive to the railwaystation and visit this city

    http://www.muenster.de/stadt/stadtplanung/radverkehr.html

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