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What Makes A City Safe For Bikes?

Why does Paris have so few fatalities (none reported for 2011), while other countries report yearly fatalities approaching three figures?

Why can Amsterdam cyclists streak through red lights at night, without their lights on, and hardly ever crash?

What makes a city safe for bikes is complicated, but based on the information we have, we are certain of several things.

Find Safety In Numbers

cyclists in a race
Image by flowizm
It’s important to have large numbers of cyclists. The more cyclists you have, the more motorists can get used to their presence and respect them on the road.

The main way to generate high numbers of cyclists is to encourage cycling with a rented or borrowed bike system, as seen in Paris. However, there are a couple of features which are necessary before you can generate these numbers.

A bike-friendly city should be flat, and dense. European cities tend to be more dense, but can be quite hilly, while American cities are extremely sparse but, with a few exceptions, are often quite flat. The shorter distances in dense European cities, and higher uptake of cycling, seem to indicate that density is more important than how flat the cities are (hilly Bristol, for instance, is seeing a rise in cyclist numbers), but both are important – Amsterdam has huge numbers of cyclists. [1] [2] [3]

It seems that without proper enforcement, though, very high numbers of cyclists can result in reduced safety. In recent years, serious accidents, including serious accidents involving cyclists, have risen sharply in Amsterdam due to “mistakes related to right of way”. With lax rules governing cyclists, and a critical mass of cyclists unwilling to tolerate increased restrictions and policing, it’s not politically smart to try to improve cyclist safety with legal action. [4]

Enforce Wearing A Helmet

cyclist wearing helmet
Image by FaceMe
A controversial topic, as forcing people to wear helmets causes a decline in cyclists and is seen as putting pressure on the victims of bad drivers to protect themselves, when it should be bad drivers who change their behaviours.

Never-the-less, forcing cyclists to wear a helmet has been shown to help with safety. Even better, given the ‘safety in numbers’ effect, the fact that this increase in safety accompanies a drop in cyclist numbers means that if you could prevent the drop, you could improve safety even further! [5]

Easier said than done, perhaps, but surely encouraging safe cycling is possible.

Slow Traffic

20 mph sign
Image by Elliott Brown
Cycling death rates in Rome are relatively low, a fact only partly explained by lower uptake of cycling. Slow-driving traffic is one possible reason for the disparity, as the winding streets (often shared with pedestrians and slow motorised vehicles) force drivers to govern their speed responsibly. [1]

This is part of the important segregated vs mixed roads debate. The idea behind segregated cycle lanes is to create safe places, where cyclists cannot be hit by lorries and cars because the motorised vehicles are nowhere to be found. The idea behind mixed roads is to slow traffic and remove safety features, placing responsibility on the crowd to drive and ride safely out of a sense of self-preservation if nothing else.

There are definitely problems with segregated paths, and one of the biggest is determining the cut-off point. In Britain, many cyclists share paths with taxis and buses out of practicality – a “worst of both worlds” approach or a clever optimal solution, depending on your point of view. In Amsterdam, mopeds and scooters speed along the same lanes. And what about mobility scooters? Where should they go? Unpowered vehicles like skateboards? Runners? It gets complex quickly. Mixed-use streets are thus an attractive option for slowing traffic, avoiding the complexities of segregated streets, and creating a valuable space for people to use in creative ways. [6] [7] [8]

In some ways, mixed-use is a way of fighting back against ‘car dominance’ – in much the same way as safety in numbers does. [9]

Speed limits can also form a much more direct, if generally less popular, way of reducing the speed of dangerous motorised vehicles. [10]

Respect Cyclists

Cheering cyclist on
Image by Brian Townsley
If you read the Guardian’s fascinating piece linked earlier, you’ll notice something stands out straight away. In areas where cycling is linked to environmental considerations and high status, cycling is more safe; in areas where cycling is linked to low status and menial tasks, cycling is less safe. [1]

Respecting cyclists is clearly important, and goes beyond the points listed so far to cultural considerations.

We need to foster a culture where cyclists are not seen as annoyances, but equals on the road. This is something which can be achieved to an extent through mixed-use roads and increased cycling uptake, but there’s more work to be done.

Blind spots on lorries, for instance, which often cannot see cyclists at all, have been known for decades. Nothing was done until somebody tragically died. In a culture which really respected cyclists, this would not have happened.

This is also why some cyclists respond badly to being told to wear helmets – it’s continuing to put the emphasis on cars, by suggesting that cyclists are responsible for their safety. When we look at the reckless cyclists of Amsterdam, who stereotypically ignore any and all elements of safety but still have a good safety record, we can see that that’s just not true – it’s the car and lorry drivers who need to be educated, one way or another.

What Can You Do?

To make your city safer for cyclists, consider:

  • Cycling yourself, wherever possible.
  • Wearing a helmet, to encourage others to do the same.
  • Supporting initiatives to slow traffic down.
  • Recognising that cyclists have an exactly equal right to the roads.

Road traffic accidents don’t have to be a constant threat for cyclists, and the more people start cycling and talking about cycling, the faster this will change.












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