Bike-Share Has a Great Safety Record in Cities More Dangerous Than NYC

With bike-share stations hitting the streets but the launch still a few weeks away, there’s a lot of misinformed speculation floating around about Citi Bike. A favorite tactic of the bike-share opposition is to conjure visions of chaos and “hell on wheels” after the system launches, as the Daily News did in a recent opinion piece. But there’s a reason the anti-bike-share crowd has to invoke imaginary scenarios: In the real world, crash statistics from bike-share cities show that bike-share users are less likely to be involved in crashes than other cyclists.

If New York's experience is like other cities, Citi Bikes will be the safest bikes on the street. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/planetgordon/8685263248/##Planetgordon/Flickr##

Earlier this week, US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood was at a bicycle safety summit in Minneapolis, where the seasonal bike-share service Nice Ride has logged 575,000 trips since its launch in June 2010. At the same time, LaHood wrote, “the number of bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes in Minneapolis has actually declined.” This meshes with the “safety in numbers” effect, first noted by researcher Peter Jacobsen in the journal Injury Prevention ten years ago, which holds that the injury rate for walking and biking is lower in places where more people walk and bike.

Of the Nice Ride system’s nearly 600,000 trips, only four have resulted in crashes, executive director Bill Dossett told Streetsblog. There were no serious injuries, and only two resulted bruises and cuts, he said.

“Nice Ride has had a very good safety record,” said Simon Blenski, bicycle and pedestrian planner for the City of Minneapolis, adding that the system has not caused a significant change in the city’s total number of bike crashes since it opened.

The experience in Minneapolis is typical of other American cities that have launched bike-share systems. Streetsblog’s Noah Kazis wrote about this phenomenon in 2011, and we recently got some updated stats that show the pattern has held since then.

In Boston, Hubway, also a seasonal service, has logged more than 700,000 trips since its launch in July 2011. There have been only three reported crashes, Hubway general manager Scott Mullen told Streetsblog. One crash resulted in serious injuries after a van driver ran a red light, while one resulted in a minor sprain, and the third resulted in no injuries.

“We’re seeing overall a much lower incident rate among bike-share users as compared to regular bike users,” said Jessica Robertson of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for the Boston area.

Although limitations in data collection make it hard to rigorously compare bike-share riders with other cyclists, the available numbers suggest the superior safety record of bike-share holds true in Washington, DC, where Capital Bikeshare launched in September, 2010. Since then, users have made more than 4 million trips. In that time, there have been 64 reported crashes, says DDOT bike-share project manager Chris Holben. At the same time, Holben says there are an estimated 40,000 daily bike trips in DC, which works out to about 14.6 million trips per year, while the District saw 538 bicycle crashes in 2011, according to DDOT. Run the numbers, and it’s clear that, even accounting for some variation in the number of total bike trips, Capital Bikeshare riders are far less likely than other riders to be involved in a crash.

New York, it should be noted, has lower traffic fatality rates than Boston and DC, according to NYC DOT’s Pedestrian Safety Study [PDF]. In other words, NYC streets are safer than streets in cities that have already launched bike-share systems and observed low crash rates.

There are a number of possible explanations for why bike-share users are less likely to crash in the first place, but there are two main avenues for conjecture. First is the type of bicycle being ridden, and second is the type of person riding it.

Bike-share bikes are heavy and sturdy, with only three gears. They are not built for speed. In addition, each bike comes with bright front and rear lights that continue to operate even while the bike is stopped at an intersection. The general population does not come close to a 100 percent bike light usage rate. (At the low end, researchers observed a 15 percent rate in Boston in 1998, while at the high end, 80 percent of evening rush-hour cyclists in Portland were observed using adequate front lights in 2011.)

Bike-share also tends to attract a different population than cycling in general. In DC, for instance, women comprise 45 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s membership, but only 23 percent of the general cycling population. In addition, 70 percent of Capital Bikeshare members did not already own a bicycle before joining. It could be that the people attracted to bike-share are more likely to behave cautiously and ride on safer bike routes. (With GPS embedded in each Citi Bike, researchers will be able to learn more about the routes that bike-share users select.)

Of course, any discussion of bike-share safety must eventually turn to that much-debated object of American bicycle safety advice, the helmet. Bike-share riders, who are less likely to be involved in a crash to begin with, are also less likely than other cyclists to wear protective headgear. In Boston, only one in three Hubway riders wear a helmet, compared to 72 percent of all cyclists. In DC in 2012, a quarter of all cyclists went helmetless, while 43 percent of Capital Bikeshare users reported never wearing a helmet. Most said they went without because they were making an unplanned trip or they weren’t carrying a helmet with them.

Here in New York, the city is encouraging helmet use for bike-share by offering discount coupons for new bike helmets and helmet fittings, but has strongly pushed back against proposals for mandatory helmet laws, citing the negative impact on bicycle ridership. In Melbourne, Australia, a mandatory helmet law has discouraged people from using bike-share, and helmet laws have been a hurdle in getting systems off the ground in Seattle and Vancouver, BC.

For now, it seems like no amount of data is going to sway the tabloids or the other bike-share critics that Citi Bike is going to work well. But in Boston — a city famous for its aggressive drivers and noxious traffic — bike-share’s safety record “has helped quiet skeptics,” the Boston Globe reported in December. It’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens here in New York.

  • KillMoto

    Are you sure the lights continue to blink when the bike is stopped? That’s not how they work in Boston

  • Anonymous

    In older models, the lights stopped blinking when the wheels stopped moving. Newer models, which are now on the road in DC and will comprise the Citi Bike fleet, continue to have lights on when the bike is stopped.

  • Ben Kintisch

    It’s quite simple. The bikes are sturdy and a bit slow. It’s kind of tricky to be reckless on bikes built like those you borrow for bikeshare. Also, when you know it’s a borrowed bike, you feel a bit like “I need to be careful so I return this in one piece.”

  • J

    I agree that the bikes are slow (which is probably the most important factor), but I definitely disagree that people are more careful with rental bikes. If anything, I tend to be much more cautious with my own bike than with a bikeshare, since I have to pay for maintenance on my bike, while someone else takes care of maintenance on the bikeshare. Once it’s back in the dock, it’s no longer my problem.

    I’m not worried, though. In Montreal and DC the slowness of the bikes pretty much trumps everything else and the system works just fine.

  • david

    Tourist rent bikes already, I pass them on the bike paths and other places, they seem ok riding. Europeans been biking for years.

  • Mike

    Oh, man. Blinkies are the worst — totally distracting to other cyclists. I suppose it’s too late to have steady non-blinking lights.

  • Joe R.

    Only the taillight should blink, not the headlight.

  • fyi, none of your lights should blink.

    they should just be seen by the driver. blinking lights is distracting the car driver and might even attract them too it. For this reason blinking lights in the netherlands are illegal.

    google translated page:
    http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=nl&u=http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/fiets/vraag-en-antwoord&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dwww.rijksoverheid.nl%2B%25E2%2580%25BA%2BAlle%2Bonderwerpen%2B%25E2%2580%25BA%2BFiets%2B%25E2%2580%25BA%2BVraag%2Ben%2Bantwoord%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26hs%3DyeP%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official

  • Joe R.

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any standardization here in the US with regards to bike lights. It’s usually accepted that a flashing red taillight means “bike”, but the flash rate should be somewhat faster than automotive turn signals so as not to confuse drivers. I’ve seen more than my fair share of flashing headlights. Those should be illegal. They serve no purpose except to confuse. Also, they’re useless for lighting the road ahead if they flash on and off. My opinion on this is a bike should have a steady on white front headlight of at least 100 lumens, focused into a beam of at least a few hundred candela. That’s sufficient for lighting the road ahead at typical cycling speeds, albeit barely. For the rear I think flashing amber (denoting slow moving vehicle) is more appropriate than either steady red or flashing red, both of which can be confused with motor vehicle brake lights. The flash rate should be high enough so it’s not mistaken for anything else. Maybe 3 or 4 flashes per second are sufficient. The light should also be sufficiently bright to be seen at least 1/4 mile away (that’s actually not all that difficult-my tail flasher is visible for at least twice that distance). Side marker lights aren’t a bad idea but should be optional. I’m not a fan of wheel reflectors. They don’t help much with visibility compared to having decent headlights with side spill. They also can cause severe wheel balance/vibration problems unless you put two on each wheel.

  • Anonymous

    Distracting? Only if you have the powers of focus of a moth. I find blinking lights to be more visible, and that is their main purpose after all. The only message that needs to be transmitted by the light is “I’m here” (and secondarily, perhaps, in which direction I’m moving), so it doesn’t matter what people think it is, only that it’s there.

  • Mike

    Ok, I’m a moth. That said, it’s really not fun at all to be on a bike path at night when another cyclist has a white strobe light coming towards you. Yes, the other person is totally visible, but it’s hard to watch anything else. It’s not saying “I’m here” — it’s saying “I’M HERE!!!! I’M HERE!!!! I’M HERE!!!!! I’M HERE!!!!” With all that visual yelling, a pothole can be harder to spot. Also, it’s just unpleasant having a strobe in your face.

  • Ian Turner

    The main rationale for flashing headlights, I think, is to prolong battery life: If the light is only on half the time, then the battery will last twice as long. This model only helps others see you, since flashing lights are not so good for helping you see the road.

  • Anonymous

    I apologize for the moth analogy, it was posted in haste.

    From my point of view the problem is not the blinking, but the intensity and direction of the light. The one time I’ve felt _really_ annoyed at another cyclist’s lights was when I encountered a cyclist who had a huge headlight on his bike, which felt brighter than a car headlight, and was pointed straight at people’s faces! And it wasn’t blinking. (I’m talking at least four inches in diameter; it was a monster and looked disproportionate on the handlebar.)

  • jaylee

    new yorkers are just upset they didn’t come up with the bike-share idea first and only now are jumping on the wagon. admittedly it’s touch having to come in after cities like DC and Minneapolis… they’ll embrace it as their own soon enough, though.

  • Ian Turner
  • Anonymous

    Yeah. Blinking allows for more powerful light and lower battery usage. It is also more visible in a sea of steady lights. The problem in USA is that the bike lights are not regulated the way motor vehicle lights are and there is no proper beam cut-off. Another problem in USA is that cars have red turn signals as opposed to yellow everywhere else so a blinking red light can confuse an American driver. But then again, American drivers are the most distracted and confused in the world anyway so that doesn’t make a hell of a difference 🙂

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