Thursday, May 1, 2014

Commuting by bike? It's getting safer, but US (and SLC) still not interested in making strides

Playing around with Google Maps recently I noticed that my commute to work was only about 5-10 minutes longer by bike than by bus. For some reason, I was blown away by that and have started riding home each day (using the bus in the morning). The exercise, convenience, and freedom have really been amazing and I would encourage those with any interest in biking, to check out what their bike commute would entail. (If you haven’t seen it, GMaps has a handy toggle between car, public transit, bike, and walk when looking at a route.)

Naturally, I was curious about the overall numbers on how many people bike to work, how dangerous it is, and how it varies across countries. First, I found this great study, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which provided this interesting table showing biking deaths over time in the US.

Note that, while there’s been a downward trend the last few years, 618 US cycling deaths occurred in 2010, which was 2% of all traffic fatalities. This gives the US a bicycling death rate of 2 per million people per year (regardless of miles traveled; see Table 4). In terms of deaths per mi (or km) traveled, from 2002-2005 the US experienced 5.8 cycling deaths per 100 million km cycled. That sounds low, right? Here’s a comparison across several rich countries using a useful (and very readable) study from researchers at Rutgers:

Note that by riding a bike one mile in the US you’re 3-5 times more likely to die than if you were riding one mile Europe. As a (new) cyclist, that’s a bit disconcerting. While cycling has become safer in the US in recent years, we don’t seem to be closing the safety gap with other developed countries. I’ll quote the Rutgers study:
Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands have greatly improved cycling safety since 1970. Although levels of cycling have increased in all three countries over the past 35 years, the total number of cycling fatalities has declined by over 70% (5, 12, 17, 18). By comparison, cycling fatalities have fallen by less than 30% in the USA over the same period (2). These trends in cycling safety correspond to overall traffic safety trends. Thus, total traffic fatalities for all modes have also declined much more in Europe than in the USA (19).
Note that the numbers in parentheses are references. Similar to vehicle deaths in general (which we discussed on Tuesday), the US is lagging far behind other developed countries in making our roads safer. Interestingly, the Rutgers study notes that cycling in Europe isn't necessarily safer because helmets are more widely used. In The Netherlands, which has the safest cycling of any country, "less than one percent of adult cyclists wear helmets." So, what are other rich countries doing to make cycling safer? Here's a list:
  • Extensive traffic calming, which includes lower vehicle speed limits, narrower streets, and car-free zones in the city center
  • "Special bike lanes leading up to the intersection, with advance stop lines for cyclists, far ahead of waiting cars
  • Advance green traffic signals for cyclists, and extra green signal phases for cyclists at intersections with heavy cycling volumes
  • Turn restrictions for cars, while all turns allowed for cyclists
  • Highly visible, distinctively colored bike lane crossings at intersections
  • Special cyclist-activated traffic lights
  • Timing traffic lights to provide a “green wave” for cyclists instead of for cars, generally assuming 14-22km/hr bike speed
  • Moving bike pathways a bit further away from their parallel streets when they approach intersections to help avoid collisions with right-turning cars"

And finally, here is a breakdown by trips on bicycle for various age groups and across Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, and the US:

Even back in 2000-2002 ~25% of all trips in The Netherlands were made on bicycle. It appears that much improvement in Europe has been made since then, as by 2012, 37% of residents of Copenhagen, Denmark were making their daily commute on bikes. This article has that statistic and much more on Copenhagen's focus on cycling. Apparently they're shooting for 50% of commutes on bike by 2015.

Overall, however, a sad picture of cycling safety in the US and the trends aren't great either. Considering the air quality problems in SLC in recent years, one would think lawmakers would be striving to make the roads safer for cyclists, and encouraging more people to take it up. But even Mayor Becker, who's a cyclist himself, hasn't been pushing for the improvements listed above. Recently GREENbike has gotten attention locally, and it is nice, but even it doesn't do much to make bike commutes any safer. What's going on, SLC?

Note: for those who say people can't bike in SLC winters, here's an article on cycling in Minneapolis, which some claim is the #1 bike city in the US and has a large cyclist population year round. Here's a US cycling study, which in terms of commuter cycling rates, shows Portland at 6%, Minneapolis at 4.5%, Seattle at 4.1%, and San Francisco at 3.8%, and Salt Lake City at 3.5%. This study (Figure 11) says cycling comprised only 1% of all commutes in Utah in 2012.

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