Despite Media Posturing, Liu’s Bike-Share Report Mostly Calls for Safer Streets

When bike-share launches next month, eventually adding 10,000 public bicycles to the streets of New York City, it won’t bring new chaos and peril to city streets, contrary to recent statements from Comptroller John Liu. Even so, with the number of cyclists set to increase dramatically, the launch of bike-share is a good opportunity for the city to go even further in its successful efforts to improve street safety.

Comptroller John Liu is raising unwarranted fears about bike-share safety to the press, but his report has some pretty good ideas. Photo: City Council ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nyccouncil/3765513187/##via Flickr##

In a report that is much more positive about bike-share than its author’s press statements would indicate [PDF], Liu endorses a slew of important safety-enhancing reforms that the city would do well to take note of — as well as one to steer clear of.

In a press release this morning, Liu took an antagonistic tone toward the city’s bike-share program, and presented a pessimistic view of cycling in general. “In the rush to place ten thousand bicycles on our streets, City Hall may have pedaled past safety measures, a move that risks significantly exacerbating the number of injuries and fatalities of both bikers and pedestrians, especially those most vulnerable like young children and seniors,” Liu said. “Aside from the human toll, there is a real possibility that the Bike Share program will increase the number of legal claims against the City.”

Liu also aligned himself with still more extreme positions. “New York City is probably the most dangerous place in the world to ride a bicycle,” said AAA New York’s Robert Sinclair, Jr. in Liu’s release.

Those fears are misplaced, a fact that Liu’s own report makes clear. There, the comptroller’s office writes that “bicycling is becoming relatively safer” and argues that, thanks to the safety in numbers effect, more cyclists on the road will mean better bike safety after the launch of bike-share.

Moreover, bike-share riders actually have significantly better safety records than cyclists using their own two wheels. As Streetsblog previously reported, no one was seriously injured or killed on a London Barclays Cycle Hire bike in the first 4.5 million trips. In D.C., Capital Bikeshare users crashed only seven times in the first seven months of operation, with no serious injuries reported. More recently, the Boston Globe reported that city’s Hubway system had put up similarly laudable safety stats: no serious injuries in its first six months of operation. All of these cities use the same bikes as New York’s Citi Bike program.

Operating company Alta Bicycle Share has not been held liable for crashes in either Boston or D.C., where it also runs popular bike-share systems, according to the Times.

Still, it’s clear that more can and must be done to improve safety on New York City streets, and Liu has good ideas for each of the “three Es” of safety: engineering, enforcement and education.

To improve road design, Liu urges additional focus on the most dangerous intersections in the city. Nine of the 10 corners with the most bicycle crashes, he notes, are within the bike-share service area, including places like Bowery at Houston and Tillary at Adams. He also endorses an expansion of the Safe Streets for Seniors campaign, noting that seniors are both disproportionately vulnerable in traffic crashes and disproportionately concerned by the increased numbers of cyclists on the road.

On enforcement, Liu took his cues from a February City Council hearing that drew attention to the utter inadequacy of NYPD traffic enforcement resources. Liu calls for the police Accident Investigation Squad to respond to crashes that result in serious injury, not just those in which someone is killed, and for local precinct police to be fully trained in crash response protocols. He wants to see more cops on bikes, more cops clearing bike lanes of motor vehicles, and targeted enforcement focused on the most dangerous traffic violations.

And Liu wants to see bike safety education expanded everywhere: offered to more cyclists, included as part of drivers’ ed, and even worked into the public school curriculum. “There is ample precedent for this,” the report notes. “Almost all German, Dutch, and Danish schoolchildren receive comprehensive bicycle education and training in their schools by the 3rd or 4th grades.” (Last week, the city’s premier provider of cyclist education, Bike New York, said its program was in danger due to a proposed NYPD policy change that would gut the group’s budget.)

There’s really only one major false note within Liu’s report, and it’s the one he drew attention to today: a call for a mandatory helmet law in New York City. Streetsblog recently reported on the ill effects of helmet mandates, but it’s worth reiterating that whatever one thinks of helmet use, helmet laws are particularly incompatible with bike-share systems. The grab-and-go convenience of bike-share simply doesn’t work very well if users are required to plan ahead by bringing a helmet.

There is international consensus on this point. The world’s least-successful bike-share system, in Melbourne, Australia, is widely considered to have been kneecapped by that city’s helmet mandate. Cities like Mexico City and Tel Aviv have scrapped their helmet laws in preparation for the launch of bike-share. The sustainability advocates at the Pacific Northwest’s Sightline Institute have written that “our helmet fiats are the greatest legal obstacle to a bike share roll out” and are pushing to exempt bike-share riders from helmet laws in Washington and British Columbia.

Overall, it’s encouraging to see Liu, a citywide elected official and mayoral candidate, lend his support to a wide range of important safety efforts, and to bike-share itself. As he writes in his report, “Bike shares increase the capacity of existing transportation networks, provide users more mobility options, generate clear health benefits, and are environmentally-friendly.”

  • Anonymous

    One threat that may indeed grow with the arrival of bike share is the threat of “dooring.”  Please consider signing (and sharing) my petition to the T&LC Commissioner demanding that taxis be equipped with automated voice messages warning passengers to look behind them before exiting.  For all details, please click on the “petition” tab, next to the “overview” tab.
    Because of this, it’s more important than ever to address the issue of “dooring.” Please sign (and share) my petition to the T&LC Commissioner demanding that taxis be equipped with automated voice messages warning passengers to look behind them before exiting. For full details, please click on the “petition” tab next to the “overview” tab: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/106/660/535/demand-that-nyc-taxis-audibly-warn-passengers-about-dooring/  All that said, I can’t wait for the arrival of bike share, and what I expect will be an attendant reduction in overall car-on-pedestrian injuries.

  • Actual City Cyclist

    So, if John Liu’s substantive recommendations are so good, then why are his public statements and press releases on bike-share so negative? Why is he encouraging law suits against the system? Is he really trying to help make biking safer in NYC or is he just trying to score some lame political bikelash points.

    Also: Has Rutgers Professor John Pucher lost his freakin’ mind? On what research is Pucher basing his prediction of a tripling of injuries and fatalities upon the launch of bike-share? Pucher is supposed to be an academic. He’s supposed to have some facts and data to back up his opinions. I don’t see where he’s done the work to back up these claims he keeps making to the press predicting bike-share Armageddon. I suppose Pucher thinks all these press hits are good for the sale of his new book but I’ve lots a lot of respect for this guy in the last couple of months. Seems like he’ll pretty much say anything to get in the newspaper…

    “On the basis of these traffic dangers, I would expect at least a doubling and possibly even a tripling in injuries and fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians during the first year of the Bike Share program in New York,” said Professor John Pucher of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and author of City Cycling.

  • Goodthing

    typical two-faced politician, takes both sides on every issue.

  • Subscriber

    I am shocked — shocked! — to learn that the New York Times decided to reduce John Liu’s report to its most sensational elements.  “Bike Share Likely to Succeed,” makes for a very boring headline, after all.

  • @f31a6a51cf07b8671ff362194c8ebd67:disqus :
    It’s obvious that Liu is trolling the bike-share program and the mayor himself. That’s what this is really all about. It’s fun that Noah didn’t even have to write an annoyed rebuttal to these disingenuous claims. Liu’s own opponents cheerfully agree with some of the points that Liu made, it’s just too bad for Liu that these points undermine his ultimate message!

  • Hmmmmm, the report just says “Make Helmets Mandatory”. I presume this means that John Liu did his research and found that helmets for car users, including taxi riders, and for pedestrians would make the biggest impact and will therefore be mandatory, right??

  • It’s hard to praise the “good” bits of policy in here, since mostly they seem to have been included as window dressing.  The “hard” action items are: slow down bike share, require helmets, and “target” dangerous cyclist behavior. The “soft” action items are “maintain” (i.e., don’t necessarily increase) infrastructure, “educate” road users  and “adjust” crash-response procedures.  Why not “target” dangerous motorist behavior?

  • Make helmets mandatory? Maybe we ought to make helmets mandatory for everyone who enters New York.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Liu is a  man who panders to privilege to get ahead.

    The Times has realized this and has it in for him. 

  • Miles Bader

    @twitter-19831590:disqus  or just make it mandatory for Liu to wear a helmet, at all times.  An extra large pink helmet with pony stickers on it.

  • Anonymous

    @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus Preferably one of these copyright infringers:

    http://www.tail-wags.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=116

  • CityGlider

    “The world’s least-successful bike-share system, in Melbourne, Australia, is widely considered to have been kneecapped by that city’s helmet mandate.”

    Actually this is not strictly correct – Melbourne is the second least successful bike-share scheme in the world.  The mantle of world’s worst goes to Brisbane, which also has a compulsory helmet law.  Recent figures show the 2000 bikes in Brisbane’s CityCycle are used for only 600 trips per day on average.  This is woeful – 2 out of 3 bikes are sitting idle every day.  For the scheme to be successful, usage should be up around 6000 trips per day, not 600.  The helmet law is the one and only reason why it’s failing.

  • Bme85

    This guy is so out of touch with his office I wouldn’t be surprised he just glanced at the report to make sure his name was on it.

  • Kiwi Commentator.

    Further to Brisbane – Auckland, New Zealand (where I live, which also has compulsary helmet law) is even worse. Our bike share has actually been removed, however there was a number of reasons.

    1. Compulsary helmet law was the biggest by far.
    2. It was privately run, and poorly at that. Seemed to just take up all the public bike racks in the city with barely maintained bikes.
    3. The council barely supported it from the get-go.
    4. Price – It was $10 an hour plus from memory.

    Ours and Australia’s experience is a classic reason why to fight complusary helmet law tooth and nail. We’ve lost something like 50% of our ridership, especially among kids since the early 90’s when it was introduced.

  • Erik Griswold

    “but there are new innovations that ought to be explored. One idea comes
    from students at MIT who created HelmetHub, a vending machine that
    dispenses $8 bike helmets …”

    Show me a working vending machine that has been in daily public use for over six months, ok Mr. Liu?  Not some pie-in-the-sky class project from a land-grant school.