Study Confirms: Safer Bike Routes Get More People Riding

Bike infrastructure can help overcome safety concerns, says Portland-area researcher Jennifer Dill.

How effective are bike lanes at enticing people to ride? Portland State University professor Jennifer Dill has been looking into that question for more than a year, and her research is starting to get some attention. Using GPS trackers to map more than 1,700 bike trips, Dill found that about half of all bike travel occurs on dedicated infrastructure like bike lanes or bike boulevards, even though such routes comprise only eight percent of Portland’s street network.

Dill also conducted surveys about who rides most often and why people choose to bike or drive. She concludes that bike riding won’t expand far beyond a core demographic of young men unless perceptions of safety change, reports the Portland Tribune:

According to Dill, most regular bicyclists are young men. This means
that if the city wants to substantially increase the number of people
riding bikes on a regular basis, it needs to reach out to young women
and older people. And, Dill said, that is what public spending on bike
infrastructure can accomplish.

All this may come across as confirmation of common sense (Portland DOT has based its bike network strategy on similar surveys), but the notion that dedicated bike routes make cyclists safer is not universally accepted. Proponents of "vehicular cycling" reject bike infrastructure forcefully, claiming that biking amid traffic reduces collisions. They wield considerable influence over design standards at the federal level, and in Portland they have consistently opposed steps intended by the city to improve safety and boost bicycle mode share.

Dill’s preliminary research [PDF] adds to the evidence that dedicated bike infrastructure matters. Without a bike network that makes everyone feel safer — men and women, children and seniors, veteran and inexperienced riders — it’s hard to imagine that American cyclists will ever enjoy the safety in numbers that cities like Copenhagen have managed to produce.

Graphic: Jennifer Dill

  • Whilst I’m not an expert, but I am a cyclist – I’d take the option of a bike lane every time; and the further it is away from buses and trucks the better.

  • Carice

    It seems to me that the catch 22 of vehicular cycling is dual:
    As cyclists become more experienced, they feel comfortable bicycling as traffic, but many are unwilling to get experience unless they have protected, or “semi-protected” infrastructure.
    Secondly, much of the safety of vehicular cycling depends on making oneself a more visible presence on the road. The best way to make bikes visible is to increase the number of bikers, but without bicycle infrastructure- even “magic paint” many cyclists are unwilling to engage traffic.
    It seems that bicycle lanes on selected streets can function as “training wheels” for cyclists to develop more confidence, whereupon they may be more willing to ride in other situations, increasing the number of cyclists on the road and making everyone safer.

  • Paul

    This is exactly right. Dedicated bike infrastructure is the only reason why people (in great numbers) started biking in cities like Copenhagen.

  • These findings confirm my impression of a “bicycling infrastructure gender gap.” The bicycle traffic on the Central Park loop and the West Side Greenway have a nearly equal split between men and women during the morning commuter hours, but 5th Ave. and the Q’bo Bridge are skewed heavily toward men.

  • Geck

    Being conscientious and visible in traffic is important, but “vehicular cycling” will never bring the safety in numbers that dedicated well designed first class bicycle infrastructure brings, particularly in a City like New York. It is most certainly a ‘build it and they will come’ situation.

  • Ben

    Myself I like a nice narrow multiple lanes. Interstates even have a narrow lane called a shoulder.

    less right hooks, people pulling out, close passing, and easier to turn left with 45 mph traffic.

    The problem with bicycle lanes is they don’t work everywhere and most places, unless you find better motorists or cycling motorists.

    What pisses me off is 20 percent of death occurs from the crash from behind. Yet the public is so scared we create bike lanes. Which do nothing to help you where 80 percent of deaths occur.

    And how much could a mirror and bright vest help that 20 percent ????

  • rex

    Characterizing on street bike lanes, bike boulevards, boxes, etc. as bicycle infrastructure is a misnomer. It really is modified car infrastructure. The difference is not just semantic, it shapes public perception. If you don’t ride a bike, paying for a bike lane less palatable than paying for traffic calming even if the projects are identical.

    Streets are public space modified to allow motor vehicles to dominate this resource. As a byproduct, a prohibition on self-propelled travel was created, and an effort to install an unprecedented level of social control was undertaken. Changes to this modified space to reintegrate self-propelled transport is really a car issue, not a bike issue.

    If motorized transport was incapable of exceeding self-propelled speeds, the the vehicular cyclists would be dead right. Of course people will look at you like you are an idiot if you suggest a 20 mph maximum speed for motorized vehicles. But if you look at travel times in Manhattan, any DOT commissioner that could achieve a 15 mph average speeds across the island for all routes would be elevated to a god.

  • Tom

    The study does not show that bike lanes are safer. The study (as you present it) shows that bike lanes make you “feel” safer. There is a difference.

    The fact that people will do more of something when they feel it is safer is not really a ground breaking conclusion.

    To the defense of the VC crowd, feeling safer in a bike lane but not actually being any safer (being more vulerable to a right hook etc.) may have the effect of causing more accidents. Sometimes the bike lane is the last place you want to be.

    Btw, I ride in bike lanes all the time. I do leave the bike lane at intersections from time to time because the “car lane” is a better bet.

  • “The fact that people will do more of something when they feel it is safer is not really a ground breaking conclusion.”

    Whether it’s breaking new ground or not, the positive cycle that results from this perception of safety is ignored by the general argument for vehicular cycling, which assumes roadways will remain largely the same and concerns itself with immediate survival in that environment. Cities and entire western European countries have shown that bicycle-specific infrastructure leads to much lower fatality rates per mile ridden, and also much higher participation rates (which are certainly related). Even if the immediate the difference in safety of first generation infrastructure is merely and entirely imaginary (has this been established?) it doesn’t change the very real benefits of the subsequent phases. That is what I think this post expresses, and fairly so.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    Glad to see recent comments focused on perceptions, because they drive behaviors.

    Perhaps the formula is something like this…

    Perceived environment (physical and social)
    individual behavior (which on a mass scale)
    real environment (which in turn)
    perceived environment…etc

    In short, an increase in PERCEIVED safety spurs more bicycling which creates REAL safety-in-numbers. Perceived danger discourages bicycling which creates real danger-in-scarcity.

    * Perceived, as opposed to real, which is another question (at least in the short term, until safety-in-numbers kicks in).

  • Another factor in the gender gap is the sizing of bicycles. They just don’t make them in a wide enough selection in smaller sizes. I have a very hard time finding a bike that fits like most short women. The bikes made for short women tend to be high end racers, not commuting bikes.

    Also some bike store staff can be very very very sexist. Sorry to be so harsh about it but it’s just not welcoming some of the time.

  • One of the main reasons I decided to attempt riding a bicycle this year–after not having done so since childhood–was the existence of Hudson River Greenway. The knowledge that an off-street bicycle path could get me all the way downtown without having to deal with the dangers of New York traffic gave me the courage to try it. I’ve been hooked ever since.

    YES to dedicated bicycle infrastructure. It makes a real difference.

  • Max Rockatansky

    Build it and they will come…. I ride the Hudson River bike path to work, it’s great. Agree with Urbanis, don’t know if I would keep commuting if I had to deal with traffic the whole way. The new Broadway path is a great location but stopping for all of the lights and the pedestrian interference is a real buzz kill. I’d rather cruise with the river view and minimal cross traffic.

  • nycbikecommuter

    I started riding to work about a year and a half ago only because I could do most of it on the Hudson River Greenway. I live on the Upper East Side and work in Brooklyn, a nine mile trip. I only have about 20 blocks of the entire trip on street traffic. I don’t even ride on the East side at all and never in midtown. It’s just way too dangerous and annoying.

    What we need are bike lanes that are in between the curb and a parking lane. The magic paint that forms the outside border of a bike lane just doesn’t always keep those pesky vehicles on the other side. Sometimes I think the cars and trucks swerve closer due to target fixation and other times because they’re jealous of us generally moving at the same rate or even faster than they are.

  • Drivers will go well out of their way to travel on limited access highways instead of surface streets with stops and intersections, even if there is no time savings. The difference is stressfulness. The difference is orders of magnitude larger on a bicycle.

    After half an hour riding on a bike path or greenway I feel cheerful and relaxed. Although I am completely unafraid to ride in traffic, I go out of my way to avoid it and if I could not avoid it much of the time, I would ride less than I do. The vehement Vehicular Cycling advocates are like the economists who base their theories on the theoretical rational actor who does not resemble most people.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Two late comments,

    Vehicular cycling (VC) is a good skill to have since the bicycle lanes don’t go everywhere. VC skills can save your life. However I whole heartedly agree that VC alone does very little to make cycling safer since most people aren’t brave (crazy) enough to mix it up in traffic, particularly in a major city.

    Also, there is evidence that (Class 2) on-street bicycle lanes do make cycling safer since they tell people where to place their respective vehicles. See the 2006 study “Bike lanes prevent over-correction by drivers, bicyclists reducing danger for both even when sharing narrow roads” at . Also I firmly believe that on-street bicycle facilities reaffirm the fact that “bicycles belong on the road.” There is pathetically little on-street dedicated bicycle infrastructure in New Jersey which I think leads to many drivers honestly believing that bicycles belong on the sidewalk. Some will even tell you with the bumpers of their cars!!

    Finally (okay this makes three points) I feel that well engineered on-street bicycle facilities should essentially replicate what a cyclists should do if they were already following Vehicular Cycling practices. I have real issue with many facilities that run contrary to the rules of VC (this is what the brew ha-ha is all about in Portland with their “right of right turning car lane, bike lanes). Good on-street facilities should again simply reinforce or replicate good VC practices.

  • Anon.

    Bike lanes don’t seem even remotely comparable to dedicated bike paths. The vehicular cyclists seem to be pretty happy with totally dedicated bike paths, but not with ones which intersect with traffic.

    I suppose it all depends on context. On narrow country roads, if there *isn’t* a bike lane, cars will give bicycles a wide berth, passing them they way they pass cars. If there is a bike lane or a bike is driving on the shoulder, they won’t, they’ll hug the “bike lane” boundaries. This is an excellent example of where bike lanes make things worse. Good design can prevent stuff like that though.

  • Bike lanes are simply a way to keep bikes out of the way of cars. It re-enforces a cars-first mentality that they own 90% of the road and you better stay in your little sliver of the road and be grateful for it. I always ride in the middle of the lane because my life is more important than a motorist saving a few seconds on their commute. I only wish more cyclists felt the same. Forget bike lanes, give me complete streets that slow down cars so that bike lanes aren’t necessary. We have one in Downtown Columbus, but they haven’t applied this to other parts of Downtown or other neighborhoods. Just one reason I’m baffled they’re poised to go the tired bike lane route. Bike lanes are not safer because they objectively open you up to new dangers such as:

    *Opening car doors

    *Right-hook turns

    *Vehicles passing too closely

    *Weaving around vehicles parked in the bike lane

    *Weaving around shattered glass and other debris in the bike lane

    *Weaving in and out of traffic where snow is piled up in the bike lane

    They also objectively increase current dangers of riding on the road including:

    *Parked cars pulling out suddenly

    *Cars pulling out of intersections that have low visibility, usually due to cars parked along the street

    The big problem is that we don’t have a city that has gone the bike-boulevard only or complete streets route (minus bike lanes) to compare which works better. I’m certain we can do better than bike lanes in our cities. As of today no city dares to since it will, god forbid, slow down some cars.

  • Ian Turner


    Setting aside the question of whether or not bike lanes are safer per se, the entirely legitimate point of this article is that the presence of bike lanes makes people feel safer, which makes them more likely to bike, which results in more bikes on the street.

    The safety advantages of more bikes on the street are substantial, and you would do well not to ignore them.

  • Columbusite also repeatedly uses the word objectively, without citing. Burden of proof’s on you, sir. I doubt you’ll find much!

    Your litany is totally valid as reasons to take the lane, by the way. It’s fortunate that the bike lane law in NYC says, the bicyclist must take the lane, if he judges that it’s safe.

    (I myself rarely use the bike lane — only to pass a bunch of stopped cars, or, on the rare occasion that a car in NYC can get up to cruising speed, to let them pass me.)

    I’m very curious how many streetsbloggers are also sometime drivers. I think using both modes gives good perspective. We should throw poll.

  • …his litany’s valid as reasons (for comfortable cyclists) NOT to take the bike lane, rather.



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Jennifer Dill at Portland State University is taking a close look at why girls' attitudes about biking change over time. In a study of 300 Portland-area families, she observed that a gender gap in attitudes toward cycling isn't apparent in younger kids, but when girls reach adolescence, they don't view cycling as positively as boys do.

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