How to build a culture of bike safety

Friday, June 8, 2012
An interesting look at what is needed to increase cycling numbers, including gender balance.

Written by Erin Chantry for New Geography

As I've settled into life in Florida, I've found myself for the first time using a bicycle as a form of transportation instead of as a form of leisure activity. And, as an urban designer involved in a team that designs bicycle and pedestrian master plans, I've become increasingly aware of the factors that make urban bike use a feasible — or not so feasible — choice.

The Risk & Fear Factors: While I might actually be safe riding my bike down a neighborhood collector road on a dedicated bike lane, when I'm alongside two 10-foot lanes of traffic I do not feel safe. Therefore, I don't ride there. It's a question of perceived risk vs actual risk. As it turns out, I am not unique. Linda Baker in Scientific American has suggested that, when cycling, women are more adverse to risk than men.

The Gender Gap: Baker has also suggested that cycling to work impedes a woman's ability to conform to social norms, including makeup, dress, and hairstyles. That issue would be a big bite to chew, so I'll put aside addressing it here. But consider: While cycling has become a big grass roots movement through organizations like Pro Walk/ Pro Bike and The National Center for Bicycling and Walking, there is an enormous gender gap among users. Planner Jan Garrard states, “If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’—just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female.” I personally can't remember the last time or if I've ever seen a woman on a bicycle on the Tampa streets.

Nearly all the new riders on US roads in the last 20 years have been men between the ages of 25 and 64. Taking into account the national demographics, this means that we are currently designing bike-friendly streets for a relatively small constituency.

How can we provide cycling options in a way that reaches out to more users?

The Infrastructure Factor: Substantially lowering the risk of cycling can be best accomplished through a change in infrastructure. Cycle tracks, like the one in New York City, are becoming more popular. Because of the complete physical separation from the threat of cars, all users perceive — and experience — a lower threat to their safety. The problem, besides the constant challenge of funding, is finding the right-of-way to accommodate bikes, especially in a car-centric culture like Florida. There has to be evidence of a high enough level of ridership to justify cutting out a lane from a congested street. It's a chicken and the egg conundrum: there is not the required ridership now because a majority of 50% of the population doesn't feel safe.

A good compromise might be to allow room for a physical separation between a one-way bike lane and car traffic. Creative use of medians and plantings, as in Denver, is one example of this. Simply placing parallel parking between car traffic and the bike lane is another.

The Get-More-Riders Factor: Building a bike culture is more than just infrastructure, but building appropriate spaces is an integral piece. As Billy Hattaway, a Florida DOT official pointed out to me, if we don't create bike lanes that cater to a larger part of the population we might lose the justification to have bike lanes at all.

At the Congress for the New Urbanism annual conference, Wesley Marshall showed evidence proving that the more cyclists there are, the more safe it is to bike. There is a belief by some transportation planning engineers that more cyclists and users in the road make it unsafe, but "safety in numbers" is true. It's partly because drivers are more aware of cyclists when they see them more often; they're on the lookout for them.

The Land Use Factor: People will only choose cycling as a mode of transportation if it is convenient and efficient. Ridership in parts of the city without mixed-uses and with low density will be low compared with more urban areas with many commercial/residential/institutional uses nearby and close together. Riding to a local grocery store to get a gallon of milk is realistic. Riding to a Wal-Mart for your weekly shopping is not. But Marshall's research showed that the biggest aspect of achieving bike safety is intersection density. The more intersections there were in a development, the safer it was for riders. At first thought this seems to go against common sense, because intersections are the sites of many crashes, but more connectivity = slower speeds = more awareness. Connectivity also allows for more mixed-uses and higher densities. Many cities put their resources into developing recreational cycling trails. While this is admirable, as a “wanna-be” cyclist, I'm a proponent of putting those funds into street design, instead. Putting the infrastructure on routes where people go in their everyday lives will lead to the biggest increase in ridership.

A lot of factors need to come together to increase ridership and bridge the gender gap in cycling. I'm someone who would love to ditch my car in favor of my bike on my daily commute, but risk aversion holds me back. Providing a lane along the side of the road is not enough: we must examine the evidence and psychology behind riding in order to make it a real choice for the majority of the population. Otherwise, we will find ourselves losing the justification to provide cycling options at all.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of the blog At the Helm of the Public Realm.

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