A child riding along a cycle track in Copenhagen. Note the traffic calming design of the side street: the sidewalk continues across the junction with special paving to make drivers aware they are entering a pedestrian/bike area.

Learning about the tragic deaths in the bicycle community that have happened recently in the Pacific Northwest gives me goose bumps.  I know that when I decide to ride to work – nearly 12 miles each way on the shoulder of a highway where cars speed by at 50 miles per hour – I’m taking a risk.  Anyone takes a risk when commuting to work, no matter what mode of transportation they select.  However, my road bike doesn’t feel as safe as riding high inside my Honda CR-V with the seat warmers on and NPR keeping me company.  If one thing goes awry during my bike commute, I’m likely to wind up in the hospital or worse.  When I began riding to work, most people were genuinely concerned for my safety.  I can’t imagine letting my son ride on the roads I ride unless there are significant changes to our region’s infrastructure.  And that’s part of the reason I ride – to show support for cycling as a mode of transport despite its marginalization.  Yet, learning of the loss of life of the cyclists in this region gives me pause.

A mom and daughter riding in Copenhagen. When will roads in my town be safe enough for my child?

Safety is a big barrier to bicycle commuting in America.  Cyclists in the US face a far greater risk of death when choosing to ride than in more bike-friendly countries.  According to a recent piece in The Economist, you are three to five times more likely to die while bicycling in the United States than in bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, or Germany.  Safety is often cited as a major factor in why people do not ride in America.  So it’s not surprising that Census data shows less than 1 percent of Americans commute by bike.

Amsterdam cycle lanes are usually separated from moving vehicles.

Amsterdam streets are designed to fit all road users into the public right-of-way: pedestrians, cyclists, trains and buses, and cars.

And I was not one of that fraction of a percent who ride to work until recently, even with my degrees in urban planning and my devotion to use my car as little as possible.  It wasn’t until I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark that I realized the potential of bicycles as a mode of transportation.  In Copenhagen, you can’t really ignore cycling.  It’s a respected way to get around – about 50% of all Copenhagen residents who commute within the city’s boundaries get to work on bicycle.

Typical bike facility in Copenhagen.

What is there to learn from cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam that might help address the enormous gap in safety between riding in the US and bike-friendly countries in Europe?  One major difference is that bike-friendly cities in Europe have set out to create a network of bike lanes that is mostly separated from vehicular traffic.  In Collection of Cycle Concepts put out by Denmark’s Road Directorate, a manual for traffic engineers and planners, they state simply:  “The road administration has a choice: either car speeds must be adapted to the conditions, or conditions must be adapted to car speeds.  On cycle routes where cyclists and cars use the same traffic area, a desired speed for cars of up to 40 kph is suitable….If car speeds are higher than 40 kph, traffic calming or separation of the types of traffic is advisable” (page 50).  Forty kilometers per hour is equivalent to about 25 miles per hour.  Michael Wang, the Seattle cyclist who was killed on Dexter Avenue (a heavily used cycle route) was on a bike lane separated from vehicles traveling 30 miles per hour by a painted line.

From the Collection of Cycle Concepts, this visually describes the Danish perspective on traffic volumes, speeds, and appropriate bike facility design.

Alan Durning wrote about the connection between car speeds and pedestrian deaths in a recent post. A UK study from the mid-1990s reviewed vehicular speeds and the chance of pedestrian death.  When cars are traveling at speeds of 20 miles per hour, the likelihood of pedestrian death is 5 percent.  Add ten more mph, and pedestrians have a 45 percent chance of death.  At 40 mph, there is an 85 percent chance of death.  And I’m riding on a road posted at 50 mph with no separation between cars and me except for a fog line.  Yikes.

I think it’s obvious that in the US, cycling is a riskier endeavor than in bike-friendly cities and countries in Europe.  But there is also another component that keeps people off the roads:  the sense of safety or security.  This is obviously linked to safety statistics, but it is also more subjective.  The City of Portland did an interesting survey a few years ago that asked why people chose not to ride.  As with most surveys that asked this question, the choice to ride or not to ride hinged on concerns about safety.  Based on the survey results, four categories of riders were created, as shown in the below graphic.

Strong & Fearless (Less than 1%), Enthused & Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%), No Way No How (33%)

The study concluded that Portland’s impressive increase in bicycle commuting numbers resulted from encouraging more “Enthused and Confident” riders to get on bikes by adding bicycle facilities to more city streets.  This group will ride on the road occasionally, but prefers bike facilities like lanes and bike boulevards.  However, there is gigantic potential if the city can convince those “Interested but Concerned” riders to get on two wheels.  This group would consider riding, but not if it requires mixing with cars on busy city streets.

There is actually a bike lane here - the SUV is parked mostly within it. The problem with painted bike lanes is there isn't much to keep cars out. While a bike lane between parked and moving cars is a good step forward, it won't work for many would-be-riders (Flickr, planetgordon.com).

I think the “Interested but Concerned” mentality can be summed up best by pointing to Alan Durning’s words:

What if cities had no sidewalks and everyone walked on the road? Or, for urban recreation, they walked on a few scenic trails? What if the occasional street had a three-foot-wide “walking lane” painted on the asphalt, between the moving cars and the parked ones?

Well, for starters, no one would walk much. A hardy few might brave the streets, but most would stop at “walk?! in traffic?!”

Fortunately, this car-head vision is fiction for most pedestrians, but it’s not far from nonfiction for bicyclists. Regular bikers are those too brave or foolish to be dissuaded by the prospect of playing chicken with two-ton behemoths. Other, less-ardent cyclists stick to bike paths; they ride for exercise, not transportation. Bike lanes, in communities where they exist, are simply painted beside the horsepower lanes.

People react reasonably: “bike?! in traffic?!” And they don’t. “It’s not safe” is what the overwhelming majority say when asked why they bike so little.

Biking between moving cars and parked cars is a typical situation in the US (Flickr, Steven Vance).

Increasing the numbers of riders also appears to make cycling safer and encourage more people to give bike commuting a chance.  Research is showing that cities with high figures of bikes on the road also have, on average, lower rates of traffic fatalities – for all road users.  Researchers Norman W. Garrick and Wesley E. Marshall provide a compelling argument that the “safety in numbers” phenomenon that many cities lust after is best sought by making changes to street design “to create bicycle friendly streets that will make it comfortable enough for the average Jane and Joe to take up bicycling.”So, the question becomes how to encourage people who don’t currently ride to start bicycling – not just as a hobby, but for transportation. Cities with bicycle facilities that are dedicated to riders – not placed randomly throughout the city and then only located between moving and parked cars – have more riders.  An interesting post in the New York Times by Nancy Folbre makes a case that bicycle infrastructure is an important component in compelling people to ride – many of the “top 10” cities for bike infrastructure also top the list for numbers of bike commuters.

Recent research provides support for focusing on separation of cyclist facilities.  Harvard researcher Anne Lusk found a 28 percent lower injury rate for cyclists riding on separated cycle facilities compared to a similar street without separation.  The separated bike facilities also had about 2.5 times as many riders.  In New York City, protected bike paths are increasing bike modal share and safety.  Both women and men are using separated bicycle lanes at more equal rates, whereas roads without separation (even the same road before redesign) are used predominately by men.

It’s interesting that changes in infrastructure are being met with gains in both ridership numbers and diversity.  But infrastructure improvements are just half the battle.  Changes to the “culture of cycling” are also paramount.  Europeans don’t view bike riding as a hobby or limited to child’s play.  Instead, it’s a “serious form of urban mass transportation.”  Bike riding in the US is usually for the road-bike-using, spandex-wearing elite – not everyday commuters in work slacks going a speed that won’t merit a shower at the end of the ride.  I have long felt a little scared of hopping on my bike and sharing the bike lane (or more likely the road shoulder) with these cyclists.  I didn’t want to get in their way, with their toe clips and bike computers.  The typical US cyclist is often stereotyped as “an exotic species – macho, ultra-fit, almost entirely young, white, and male, clad in lycra or spandex, who ride like madmen all over city streets.  Some of us admire them, some of us revile them, but most of us can’t imagine joining their ranks.”

Making riding in the US safer will require work on at least two fronts.  We need to implement plans for networks of bicycle facilities.  We need to push for more research to show what works and what doesn’t.  We need to add infrastructure to city streets to give bikes a place on the road.  This needs to be informed by research on when separation of cyclists and cars is essential.  This will encourage those riders who are “Interested but Concerned” – a giant piece of the pie of potential riders – to try commuting on two wheels.  We need to push for solutions that encourage women, children, and elderly riders to take to the streets.

I am convinced about the importance of planning and infrastructure improvements when comparing a cycling culture like the Netherlands with the US.  Side-by-side, here are the numbers:

Country The Netherlands United States
Miles of separated cycle tracks 18,000 miles 20 miles
% of commuters on bike 25 percent Less than 0.5 percent
% of bike commuters that are women 55 percent Less than 25 percent

Infrastructure improvements will naturally help develop a culture of cycling in the US and a greater diversity of riders.  As more people are riders and drivers, I think that cycling will become less marginalized in the US.  My fear is that bike crashes like the ones lately will scare more potential riders away.  My hope is that the community who would like to see riding as a respected and mundane form of urban transportation will stay on their bikes – eyes wide open, lights flashing, florescent vests on – and keep pedaling to a better future.