Sunday, July 5, 2015

Are Urban Cyclists Really Risk Takers At Heart?

"Don't forget your helmet, dear"
Photo of Norio Okamoto a 
23-year-old Kamikaze pilot.
Peter Fenton wrote an essay, "Are Urban Cyclists Really Risk Takers At Heart?" that was published in the Washington Post and reprinted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, where I saw it today. The gist of it is that cyclists have to be nuts to ride in cities and that they routinely run red lights and engage in risk taking. Quoting the title of a British author's book, he suggests “The Only Way to Survive as a Cyclist is to Behave Like You’re Suicidal,”

Not sure I buy into any of that. As someone who recently helped evaluate Santa Fe as a Bicycle Friendly Community with the LAB's BFC guru Steve Clark, and having been riding as transportation in urban and suburban settings since 1979, it seems to me that cycling is not growing in popularity because more and more Americans want to tie that Rising Sun bandana around their head and dive heedlessly into a car, but because more and more cities are responding to cycling's popularity by implementing designs meant to improve the safety of cyclists (whether all of these designs actually improve safety is worth a post of its own), thus encouraging the public to see bicycling as accepted, within the design envelope of surface transportation, and thus safe and attractive. Couple with that bicyclist education programs (LAB's Smart Cycling and the alternative Cycling Saavy program are the two highest profile ones), the idea is to make cycling popular and safe via good facilities and competent cyclists. Both Santa Fe and Los Alamos are using a combination of on and off road facilities to encourage safe bicycling, while cyclists in both cities have the opportunity to take cycling education courses from trained instructors.

As far as studies of red light running, etc., one can fish around and find data suggesting anywhere from 94% of cyclists obey the light to almost the opposite, and others suggest it is in between. One can fish for similar studies suggesting motorists are equally guilty of flaunting traffic law, such as this one on speeding. Whether motorist or bicyclist, scofflaws all have their excuses and justifications, most of which are made of baloney. The one legitimate reason bicyclists may have to run a red light (with due caution) is that some on-demand lights are not set up to see a bicyclist, either because it is an old design or is improperly adjusted. Good engineering/maintenance or the Idaho Stop are two cures. Other than that, enough already with the excuses.

Urban cycling is not a death wish or a form of recklessness. A cyclist, especially one with a reasonable level of traffic skills and situational awareness who is riding on reasonably built roads or separated facilities is at least as safe, in deaths per exposure hours, as a motorist. Mr. Fenton's analogy to the fighter pilot is also misdirected. A fighter pilot, unless planning to crash into a carrier deck, maintains high levels of situational awareness to be safer, not to be a senseless risk taker. Indeed, Mr. Fenton should look more carefully at the crash numbers. While bike trips have increased, bike fatalities are flat to decreasing, suggesting that on a per trip level, bicycling is becoming safer. That is the real message. Let's put aside weird, myopic mythologies. They certainly don't do cycling any good.

Illustrations below from People for Bikes, with permission.

A shortened version of this has been published in the Santa Fe New Mexican for publication.


Steve A said...

I don't trust any bike chart that uses "Safety in Numbers" as a title.

Khal said...

The famous or infamous paper notwithstanding, that graph does show something about safety, and has some numbers!