There’s a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Cycling’s New Rules of the Road, by Tom Perrotta that offers some interesting possible parallels and counterpoints to motorcycling in the USA:
According to the article, after years of “tepid growth” bicycling in New York has doubled to more than 200,000 riders a day. In a similar way, motorcycling suddenly surged in the late 1990s.
The article implies that bike lanes are at least partly responsible for the increase in bicycling. Since 2007 NYC has built a further 200 miles of bike lanes for a total of 482 miles with another 1,300 miles to be built by 2030. Bike lanes are promoted by a wide variety of means as the answer to bike safety like this one, NY 9th Ave Separated Bike Lane Experiment:
New York is not alone—the number of bicyclists has been rising for years in other large urban areas like Portland, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago. This, too, is like motorcycling where urban areas have seen the greatest increases in motorcyclists. And like NYC, these cities have been putting in miles and miles of bike lanes.
There’s another unexpected parallel to the recently passed boom in motorcycling. Just like in the motorcycling boom, far more women and “elderly” people are climbing on bicycles to travel around one of the most congested cities in America.
The increase in women and elderly riders is “a sign,” said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University, “that cycling is seen as safe.” And they feel safe because of the bike lanes.
A report, Four Types of Cyclists, by Roger Geller, Bicycle Coordinator, Portland , OR Office of Transportation directly associates the increase in bicyclists with a decrease of fear because of the increase in bike lanes, “This enthused and confident demographic of cyclists are the primary reason why bicycle commuting doubled between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census) and why measured bicycle trips on Portland’s four main bicycle-friendly bridges across the Willamette River saw more than a 300% increase in daily bicycle trips between the early 1990’s and 2006.”
Four types of bicyclists—and motorcyclists? Geller identifies four types of Cyclists, “Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle. They are generally not afraid of other cyclists, or pedestrians, or of injuring themselves in a bicycle-only crash. When they say they are “afraid” it is a fear of people driving automobiles. This has been documented and reported in transportation literature from studies, surveys and conversations across the US, Canada, and Europe.”
And it is fear, according to Geller, that has the most to do with whether people ride, how often they ride and where they ride. He breaks them down into four types—and I suggest that this is a possible model for motorcyclists:
The first, and smallest, group are the “Strong and Fearless” that he describes as, “These are the people who will ride in Portland regardless of roadway conditions. They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions…”
The “Enthused and Confident” are those who are comfortable riding around cars because of bike lanes and “bike boulevards”. Both Geller and the general perception in the bicycling community suggest that riders are newer to the activity and less experienced, do not ride as often or as long—and are believed, by the Strong and Fearless group, to ride slower and get into more dangerous situations due to their inexperience or recreational nature of their ride.
The largest group is the “Interested but Concerned” who “would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.”
The last group is the “No Way No How” who are “currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest.”
Based on Motorcycle Industry Council research, it’s probably that while the proportions may differ it is extremely likely that there are the same four groups in regards to motorcycling but with slightly different descriptions but sharing the same concern about safety.
Safety matters when it comes to bicycling Study after study has found that bicycling is particularly sensitive to perceptions of risk—perceived improvements in bicycle safety is followed by a corresponding rise in participation.
Bicycling, though not as objectively dangerous as motorcycling, is still far more dangerous than any other form of road transportation. Head injuries are a leading cause of fatalities and any crash is more likely to result in injury than a similar one in a passenger vehicle or truck. Fatal head or chest trauma or internal injury can occur, as with motorcycling, at 13 mph and above—just as in motorcycling. And, as in motorcycling, the cyclist gets injured in fixed object crashes (like hitting a light pole—or even curb), in multi-vehicle crashes or even a collision with a pedestrian.
In terms of control, bicycles and motorcycles are not too different. Both share the same vulnerabilities to weather, pavement and handling. Both do not lend themselves to seat belts, air bags or crush zones.
Traveling peed, then, is the main difference between bicyclists and motorcyclists in terms of safety. But bicyclists can—on the flat—reach consistent traveling speeds of up to 30 mph and, in shorter bursts, higher speeds—and, of course, on a slope. And it’s a fallacy that most motorcyclist fatalities happen at high speeds.
Given that, there’s a marked difference in what’s considered “safe” for bicyclists and “safe” for motorcyclists:
There are no mandatory training courses for adults, and, of course, no bicycling license, insurance or registration required. The bicycling community unofficially teaches road strategies including controlling your space—“take the lane”; taking full responsibility for their own behavior and safety; assuming they aren’t seen; predicting and decide on avoidance actions, etc.
Not one state requires adults to use a helmet and helmet use varies widely state to state.
There is protective gear—pads for elbows, knees, wrists; shorts; chest and neck protectors; and jackets—but use is mostly associated with racing or mountain biking and most are rarely seen on city streets where bicyclists dress in ordinary clothes.
Iow, the only thing that has really changed is the amount of bike lanes in NYC and other large urban areas. There’s a very low threshold for “safety” then for bicycling. Bike lanes, because they are promoted and perceived as safer, are enough to move people from “Interested but Concerned” to the “Enthused and Confident” group.
This, then, is a difference between the motorcycle and bicycle boom—no one thinks motorcycling is safe.[i]
Still, one wonders if helmets, riding gear and training courses fulfill the same role as bike lanes for bicyclists and, as with bicycling, gave a great many “Interested but Concerned” a reason to move over to the “Enthused and Confident” group.
New York bicyclists might be right that bicycling is safer—and the risk is lower: despite this enormous increase in riding on incredibly congested streets, “the yearly number of cycling fatalities and injuries has remained flat or declined, and the percentage of riders who are injured while riding has fallen dramatically.” This is very unlike motorcycling as we well know.
Despite the video above, the reality is that the safety of bike lanes has been oversold—or rather, something that should’ve been protected space has been co-opted by other road users. Check out My Commuted Commute:
for another take on bike lanes. Other videos show the same thing—vehicles blocking the lanes, using the lanes, turning in front of bicyclists, pedestrians jaywalking in front of bikes—iow, the same behavior they do on the regular lanes. And, perhaps most troubling, cyclists being “doored”—vehicle doors being opened in front of cyclists resulting in injury or death.
Bicyclists, then share many of the same problems that motorcyclists do and I have long encouraged motorcycle rights activists to combine forces with both bicyclists and pedestrian rights groups for more effective action. That advice has been ignored, though.
Other research has found that motorists drive closer to cyclists if they are in a bike lane than if they aren’t. Iow, if bike lanes were truly respected as intended, bicycling would be safer but because they aren’t, they may be more dangerous even if cyclists are streetwise and wary.
Additionally, cyclists speak of the danger of the inexperienced or casual rider who is not street smart or rides too slowly causing other riders difficulty. In this way, also, bicyclists are similar to motorcyclists—it’s not them it’s the new guy that’s causing the problems. Yet, like motorcycling, there’s no proof of that.
Interestingly, some of the bicyclists in the video identify the problem as risk perception—it’s thinking that the bike lane is supposed to be safe, is safe, that makes it so dangerous.
The video ends with several bicyclists—including the narrator and filmmaker—saying that bike lanes dangers has them now co-opting the bus lane because they perceive the risks are lower there.
Bad behavior increases risks But, according to the WSJ article, when it comes to bicyclists the bad behavior is not one-sided. Scott Stringer, the President of the Manhattan Borough, sent out some staffers to observe and what they “recorded over three days, astounded him: 1,700 total infractions by drivers, bikers and pedestrians, many of them egregious.”
While bicyclists emphasize (as do motorcyclists) offenses against them, there’s a great deal of bad bicycle behavior that includes running red lights and stop signs, accepting too narrow gaps between moving or stationary vehicles, following too close, too fast for conditions, etc.
Bike lanes don’t discourage much of that behavior—and may exacerbate some of it. To what degree bicyclists take on additional risk because they feel justified by the bad behavior of pedestrians or motorists or because they feel they have the street smarts/experience to handle it.
Danger increases as risk perception drops As discussed above, bicycling in NYC has been as safe or safer despite the surge in participation until this year. “There were 19 cyclist fatalities in the city through October 31, seven more than in all of 2009. In the same period, 3,505 bikers were injured in crashes with motor vehicles, more than last year’s total and up 20% compared to the first 10 months of last year. If the current rate of injuries continues, the percentage of daily riders who sustain injuries in 2010 will rise slightly.”
Iow, the fears of the “Interested but Concerned” are founded in reality—despite the bike lanes, bicycling isn’t all that safe. And this, too, is like motorcyclists—motorists and pedestrians invade bicyclists’ space, do not yield the right-of-way, look but do not see, and so forth.[ii]
Lower death rate for bicyclists: The great difference between the booms The rise in fatalities, though, may be a blip, an anomaly in NYC this year. Comparing pedalcyclist fatalities for other bicycle-friendly states shows that although bicycling has boomed in those states the fatality rates have dropped over the years—though with occasional minor fluctuations year after year even as the numbers of riders doubled.
This is the exact opposite experience of motorcyclists where the death toll far outpaced the increase in riders.
And, amazingly, it was accomplished without formal training—let alone mandatory training, without an overarching, over-controlling corporation made up of the major manufacturers, without helmet laws or use of protective equipment. Iow, without anything that we’ve been told ad nauseum that we have to do as motorcyclists to be safe.
But what we do to be safe hasn’t been effective while what bicyclists don’t do has been. And what’s up with that?
[i] According to a study Perceived Risk And Modal Choice: Risk Compensation In Transportation Systems, high income people perceive the risks of a given form of transportation as lower. The author, Robert B. Noland, speculates this may be because they purchase (and use) more safety devices. However, as noted, observed helmet use is rather low and protective gear, in cities, is almost non-existent. Males also perceive the risks of a given mode of transportation as lower than females do. Surprisingly, risk perception drops as age rises.
Iow, older, well-off men perceive less risks in a form of transportation than the younger and poorer and females do. Needless to say, older, well-off men are the majority of those who took up motorcycling in the last boom. Iow, the very group that perceives the least risk are the ones who were drawn to the most risky form of road transportation.
[ii] Like motorcyclists, the average age for bicyclist fatalities has risen and, in 2008, was 41 while in 1998 it was 32. In 2008 the average age for injuries was 31 while in 1998 it was 24. Yet, unlike motorcycling, NHTSA does not blame the rise on the born-again bicyclist. But those who were 41 in 2008 were 31 in 1998—iow, bicycling seems to be affected by that large Boomer cohort. Unlike motorcyclists, NHTSA makes it clear when it comes to alcohol-involvement and fatalities, it’s either the rider or the pedalcyclist—even though it’s the same situation for motorcyclists. However, there’s less alcohol-involved fatalities in bicycling than motorcycling.