cycling utah April 1999


Why bike paths are not the answer for safe cycling

BY Rob MacLeod

Just back from a wonderful spring ride and the usual collection of "almost-got-killed's" while cycling through the busy roads of Salt Lake. Each time I check, the law still says that cyclists are permitted on roads and have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists. But perhaps this is news to some drivers.

The ride also got me thinking about a question that comes up often in discussions of cycling in the city: "Why are you bike advocates not pushing for more bike paths?" I get this query with fairly predictable frequency, reaching high rates every spring and again in the autumn when school begins. The discussion always starts with the statement that "The reason I don't use my bike more often is that the roads are just too dangerous!" By this point, I know already where all this is headed.

"When I was in Germany/Holland/Norway/Alaska", (pick your favorite), "there were bikes paths everywhere and it was great! Why can't we have that here?"

This column is dedicated to answering that question. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with politics or tightfisted government agencies and everything to do with safety.

First some definitions. By "bike path", we are talking about a separate facility for cycling, often paved, sometimes shared with pedestrians, usually adjacent to a roadway. The transportation engineering jargon for these is "Class I" bike facility (which is not the same as "First Class" bicycle facility, as you will learn).

Let's start with the accident statistics. Like all statistics and especially those from the very few good studies of cycling, the numbers are not entirely trustworthy. But the basic finding is that when cyclists use a bike path system, they are much more likely to suffer injury and death than if they instead used the adjacent road.

Here are some other numbers that should interest every cyclist, extracted from John Forester's book Effective Cycling (6th Edition, MIT Press), in which he cites a number of individual studies.

The overall bicycle accident rate on bicycle paths is 2.6 times that on the average road. In general, experienced club cyclists achieve accident rates that are about one-fifth those of relatively inexperienced adults. As cycling time and distance increase, accident rates decrease (up to 80% in some studies) but even among experienced cyclists, bike paths remain about three times more dangerous that roadways.

There are several messages that come from these results. One is that experience, especially experience within a bike club, can have a dramatic effect on your cycling safety. This also means that cycling accidents can be avoided if proper techniques are learned and practiced. And the other lesson is that bike paths are not the answer for safe cycling, even for experienced riders.

So why are bike paths so dangerous?

The answer to this is multifaceted. First, most bike accidents (50%) happen because we fall down. This usually has nothing to do with cars or even other cyclists, but we just lose our balance, slide out in a corner, or get stuck in an obstacle. The poor design and chronically lousy maintenance of many bike paths can increase the chances of falling.

In addition, we collide with other cyclists about as often as we do with cars; 17% of accidents occur from each type of collision. And these are numbers for the experienced cyclists, the ones who already have a low overall accident rate. The risk of collision increases on bike paths because of the mixture of traffic speeds and modes along with the inattentive riding style that paths encourage.

When we do collide with cars, the consequences can be fatal and about 75% of all cycling deaths are caused by brain injuries. This is why wearing a helmet all the time is a no-brainer. If you leave your helmet at home, you might as well just leave your brain there too.

But more specifically, there are a number of ways we can collide with cars. The one we all fear the most--the one that makes most people feel like they are safer on bike paths--is being hit from behind. This is such an obvious threat, it probably accounts for most of car-bike collisions, right? WRONG! The cases of car-bike collisions from an overtaking car or from a cyclist swerving in front of a car make up only a total of 10% of all car-bike collisions. The rate of fatalities from overtaking cars during the day is only 0.3% of all cycling casualties!

So the things that appear to make riding the roads dangerous really do not cause many accidents. All the big sources of accidents, on the other hand, are more prevalent on bike paths.

So what is the answer to the original question? Why are we bike advocates not crying for more bike paths in our cities, to create a little Amsterdam in Salt Lake City? One big reason is that using bike paths makes cycling more dangerous, not less. Another reason is that bike paths usually require much lower speeds and more care to ride than adjacent streets. We cannot ride as quickly as we would like, and have to be more careful in the bargain.

Furthermore, bike paths inevitably limit out ability to get around. As you read last month, cyclists have every right to use the roads--we pay more for them than most motorists do and the law permits us to use them. The roads already take us almost everywhere we want to go. Doesn't it make the most sense to figure out how to use those roads safely rather than create a wildly expensive, less safe alternative?

But what are the techniques required to use the roads safely and confidently? How do we go from vulnerable beginner to road-wise experienced cyclist? One answer is called "effective cycling" and that is what we'll start talking about next month. Stay tuned and in the meantime, ride with a good club and always wear a helmet.

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