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Fact: Places With High Numbers of Cyclists Are Safer for Pedestrians

3:11 PM EDT on September 21, 2011

I've got a question for the purported defenders of pedestrian safety who sit on the editorial boards at the Daily News and the Post. I know they haven't shown much interest in preventing the 10,000+ injuries and 150+ fatalities that motorists inflict on pedestrians in New York City each year, but the new Hunter College study on pedestrian injuries caused by cyclists has apparently piqued their interest in street safety. It seems we can all agree that the streets should be safer for walking.

So, here's my question: Aren't they at all curious why, statewide, the number of pedestrian injuries involving cyclists went from 1,097 in 2007 to 927 in 2010?

That's a 15 percent drop in three years! Shouldn't we try to find out why this is happening and apply those lessons to keep driving this number down?

The Post and the Daily News seem to think they already have the answers. Both editorialized that the introduction of a public bike system next year and the accompanying rise in cyclists is going to increase the risk of injury to pedestrians. This is bizarre, because the data in the Hunter College report suggest that as more New Yorkers ride bikes, the number of pedestrian injuries caused by cyclists has declined. And, more broadly speaking, evidence from all over the world has consistently shown that places with high rates of cycling are also the safest for pedestrians.

As Noah wrote on Monday, a recent analysis of 24 California cities and towns by civil engineering professors Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall found that places with higher cycling rates tend to have lower rates of fatal and severe traffic injuries.

I can already hear the NYC chauvinists: "You can't compare these laid-back West Coast towns to a world capital like New York."

Well, how about Tokyo? A frenetic global metropolis with more than 13 million residents. With all those people rushing to get where they need to go, Tokyo still boasts a pedestrian fatality rate nearly half that of New York. And check this out: In Tokyo, 16 percent of all trips include cycling. That's an order of magnitude higher than the current cycling rate in NYC.

Okay, so that's just one city. The skeptical truth-seekers who write opinions for our tabloid press demand more data. Here it is...

The developed countries at the top of the list for bicycle mode share are the Netherlands (27 percent of trips), Denmark (17 percent), Japan (14 percent), Sweden (12.6 percent), and Germany (10 percent). The annual traffic fatality rate in these countries ranges from less than three per 100,000 people in Sweden, to 7.4 per 100,000 people in Denmark. In the U.S., with our approximate 1 percent bicycle mode-share, the carnage on the roads is much greater: 12.3 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, which works out to between 35,000 and 40,000 lives lost annually. Tens of thousands of lives would be saved each year if we could catch up to the world leaders in street safety.

The top cycling countries have also attracted international attention for achieving dramatic reductions in pedestrian fatalities. Sweden, with its Vision Zero initiative, cut pedestrian deaths in half in five years. Germany and the Netherlands are also leaving the United States behind when it comes to street safety. Between 1975 and 2001, American pedestrian deaths declined 27 percent while Dutch pedestrian deaths fell 73 percent and German pedestrian deaths fell 82 percent, according to a 2003 paper in the American Journal of Public Health by Rutgers professor John Pucher [PDF].

How did Germany and the Netherlands save so many lives? Pucher and co-author Lewis Dijkstra attribute much of the success to street design:

One emphasis of Dutch and German policy has been to improve the transportation infrastructure used by pedestrians and bicyclists.  For pedestrians, that has included extensive auto-free zones that cover much of the city center; wide, well-lit sidewalks on both sides of every street; pedestrian refuge islands for crossing wide streets; clearly-marked zebra crosswalks, often raised and with special lighting for visibility; and pedestrian-activated crossing signals, both at intersections and mid-block crosswalks.

Dutch and German cities have also invested heavily to expand and improve bicycling facilities.  From 1978 to 1996, the Dutch more than doubled the extent of their already massive network of bike paths and lanes (from 9,282 km to 18,948 km).  From 1976 to 1995, the Germans almost tripled the extent of their bikeway network (from 12,911 km to 31,236 km).

More car-free zones, pedestrian refuges, clearly marked crosswalks, and extensive, high-quality bike networks. Hmmm... Seen any changes like that around NYC recently? Imagine how much more progress we could make if our daily papers actually cared about street safety.

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