23 June 2015

How Can Fatal Cycling Accidents Be Prevented?

From 1996 through 2005, 225 cyclists were killed in New York City.  There was neither an upward nor a downward trend and, save for one spike (40 deaths in 1999) and one significant drop (13 in 2001), the number of deaths per year was remarkably consistent. That consistency came at a time when the city's population, its number of cyclists and amount of bike lanes grew significantly.  

So, for that ten-year period, 22.5 cyclists were killed in accidents in New York City each year.  For the period from 2002 to 2014, that average dropped significantly.  In those 13 years, 245 cyclists died on Gotham's streets, for an average of 18.8.  Once again, the numbers were relatively consistent, ranging from a low of 12 (achieved in 2009 and matched in 2013) to a high of 24 in 2007.  However, every other year during that time fell within a range of 16 to 24 deaths.

Interestingly, some advocates raised alarms last year when the number of deaths rose to 20, which represented a 67 percent rise from the previous year.  While we'd prefer that no-one dies in accidents, that number is squarely within the range of the preceding two decades. 

London has roughly the same population as New York City.  In 2013, it experienced 14 cycling fatalities, two (or, if you prefer, 16 percent) more than New York.  Last year, 13 cyclists died in the British capital.   Yet those numbers have caused more shock and calls for action than the loss of life in New York, where the media (especially the Post) are always ready to blame cyclists themselves.

One striking similarity between the two cities is that most bike lanes are painted on the side of normal streets and roads.  In fact, that is the case in both the UK and the US.  One problem is that cars often pull in and out of them, which can lead to a car striking a cyclist (as happened to Tom Palermo  in Maryland).  

A Malmo cycle lane

While I think that separate lanes are not the be-all and end-all of urban cycle safety, they can be helpful if they are well-designed and well-constructed.  One city that has shown as much is Malmo, Sweden, which has a network of two-way cycle lanes throughout the city.  Another is Copenhagen, which has the Cyckelslagen ("cyclesnake"), a bicycles-only bridge over the harbor. Unlike too many bike lanes in New York and London, Malmo's and Copenhagen's bike paths are useful connections between places where many cyclists live, work, go to school or ride for recreation.


Other cities, like Paris and Dublin, have tried to make cycling safer by regulating traffic, particularly trucks (or what the Brits call "lorries"). I have found that, even in cities, most truck drivers are courteous and careful and try to accomodate cyclists.  (At least, they're nice to me.)  But the presence of even a single truck on a city street snarls traffic, especially in older cities with narrow streets.  And when one stops to load or unload its cargo, it has the same effect of a door opening:  The cyclist has nowhere else to go and can either crash or take his or her chances swerving into the traffic lane.

At least some policy makers in London are looking to those examples in other European cities.  I wonder what they would make of the situation here in New York, and what policy makers here could learn from their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.  

Cycling is growing in all of the cities I have mentioned.  In order for it to be considered as a true alternative to other forms of transportation, it must not only seem safer; it also has to be safer.  

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