Follow the tabloid media, and you’d think that New York City has been swept by “bike bedlam,” a tide of scofflaw cyclists striking fear into the hearts of pedestrians everywhere. Sift through actual pedestrian safety data, and the actual risk posed by cyclists pales in comparison to that posed by motor vehicles: while over the last five years, 766 city pedestrians have been killed by drivers, only three were killed by cyclists. Even so, it’s generally been difficult to measure exactly how many — or how few — pedestrians are injured by cyclists every year.
New research from two Hunter College professors provides a precise count of pedestrian injuries caused by bikes in New York state. Using a comprehensive statewide database, sociologist Peter Tuckel and urban planner William Milczarski found that each year, an average of roughly 1,000 pedestrians received medical treatment after crashes with cyclists. A little over half of those injuries, 55 percent, took place in New York City.
Tuckel and Milczarski’s statistics show a larger number of pedestrians injured by cyclists than previous estimates; earlier research found that about 1,200 pedestrians nationwide are treated in emergency rooms each year as a result of bike crashes. But the new data also suggest that the injuries tend not to be severe. Statewide, an average about 85 pedestrians are admitted to hospitals as in-patients as a result of these crashes each year; the rest had injuries that could be treated on an out-patient basis.
For comparison’s sake, statewide, 15,321 pedestrians are injured by motor vehicles every year, according to the state DMV, with more than 10,000 of them in New York City. More than 300 pedestrians are killed by drivers every year statewide, while the number of pedestrian fatalities caused by cyclists averages less than one per year.
Given the quality of past reporting on bike-on-ped crashes, many reporters will undoubtedly try to imply some sort of connection between the number of pedestrian injuries and the city’s bike policy. But the stats show no such link. Pedestrian injuries caused by cyclists are declining even as the popularity of cycling continues to rise. In 2007 and 2008, Tuckel and Milczarski counted 1,097 and 1,112 pedestrian injuries caused by crashes with bikes. The following two years, those numbers dropped to 985 and then 927. With only four years of data, it’s too early to tell whether a trend is at work, but there’s no evidence that the city’s effort to build better bike infrastructure has led to an increase in bike-caused injuries. (There is solid evidence that bike lanes reduce the incidence of motor vehicle crashes that kill pedestrians: The New York City Department of Transportation has found that controlling for other factors, bike lanes made streets 40 percent less deadly for people on foot.)
“No death or serious injury is acceptable on our streets,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesperson Michael Murphy in response to the new data. “There is strong evidence that bike behavior is improving as bicycling is becoming more mainstream. According to the study, bike on pedestrian injuries declined 15% from 2007 to 2010. During this same four year period, cycling in New York City increased over 50 percent.”
Added Murphy, “Let’s also remember to put this in context. Motor vehicles are responsible for over 70,000 injuries every year in New York City, and hundreds of annual deaths. We can ignore that number and bash bikes, or we can get serious about safety and work to stop all traffic casualties.”
Nancy Gruskin, who initiated the study as part of her efforts to promote attentive cycling in the wake of her husband’s death in a collision with a cyclist, said the pedestrian injury stats should inform the city’s bike-share plans. “Considering the alarming statistics in the Hunter study, I am concerned that safety precautions are not front and center as the Bike Sharing program is unveiled,” she said in a press release accompanying the report. “Putting 10,000 more bikes on city streets without an enforceable plan for safety could be cause for concern. But if a good safety plan is put in place, bike sharing could be a great addition to New York City.” (Meanwhile, study co-author Milczarski told Transportation Nation’s Andrea Bernstein that he supports the city’s planned bike-share program.)
Research shows that pedestrians are safer in places with greater numbers of cyclists on the street, however. A study released early this year by civil engineering professors Wesley Marshall and Norman Garrick, for instance, highlighted these indirect pedestrian safety effects. They found that of 24 California cities, those with high cycling rates had lower risk of fatal or severe traffic crashes for all road users. In other words, cities with more people on bikes are safer for pedestrians. Marshall and Garrick don’t presume to have a definitive answer about what causes this effect, but they offer these potential explanations in their conclusion:
The fact that this pattern is consistent for all classes of road users strongly suggests crashes in these high-biking cities are at lower speeds. Such differences seem to be partly due to street network design but also due to other design elements that may well attract larger numbers of bicyclists. While the bicycle infrastructure itself might help in traffic calming, it may be that the actual presence of a large numbers of bicyclists can change the dynamics of the street enough to lower vehicle speeds.