Keeping roads safe for cyclists

Posted: September 13, 2011

By Jake Blumgart

On Sunday, thousands of cyclists found out what it's like to enjoy car-free city streets. They were taking part in Bike Philly, an annual ride hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia that includes 10- and 20-mile loops closed off to traffic.

There's no mystery why the coalition includes the "car-free" hook. A recent study shows that even in bike-friendly Portland, Ore., a strong majority are intrigued by urban bicycling but fear for their safety. Not without reason: According to 2009 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 70 percent of that year's 630 cycling fatalities (15 in Pennsylvania) occurred in urban areas. The vast majority of cyclist deaths are caused by cars.

These tragedies aren't an inevitable side effect of an inherently risky mode of transportation. Drivers and cyclists can safely coexist. Here are three simple tips to help you get started:

Ride with traffic. Most people would never drive their cars against traffic but some bicyclists think this law doesn't apply to them. Dubbed "bike salmon" by the blogger Bike Snob NYC, these outlaws frequently bike the wrong way on our bike lanes and one-way streets. According to Jeff Mapes' Pedaling Revolution, a 1996 study "found that as many as a third of all bike accidents involved simply riding against the flow of traffic." A Florida bike advocacy group claims that such reckless behavior is responsible for "45 percent of bike-v-car crashes in Orlando." There is never a good reason to be a bike salmon.

Stay off sidewalks. Riding on the sidewalk may have been pretty neat when you were a 5-year-old on a tricycle. It's a lot less cute now. First, riding on the sidewalk is illegal and you'll be subject to a fine if the police catch you. Second, it is obnoxious for pedestrians, who deserve to stroll the sidewalks in peace. Third, riding on the sidewalk is dangerous for cyclists.

Cars do not expect fast-moving objects to burst off the sidewalk and, generally speaking, it's best not to surprise people who are encased in huge, fast-moving metal contraptions. Study after study shows that it is far more dangerous to bike on the sidewalk than on a major street, even without bike infrastructure. Admittedly, many people choose to bike on the sidewalk because they are terrified of automobiles (and sometimes a brief curbhop is OK on a sparsely populated sidewalk near a major road obstruction). However, William Moritz's 1998 research shows that bikers are vastly more likely to crash on a sidewalk than on a standard roadway (these crashes are often minor and Moritz's study includes accidents that don't involve cars). 

Ride in middle of the lane. Where possible, claim the lane. Many new bicyclists feel safest when they hug the right-hand side of the road, getting as far from moving cars as possible. This is a terrible idea. Biking on the extreme right is the best way to get doored (getting hit by a parked car's opening door) or to entangle yourself in the detritus that inevitably piles up on the city roadside.

Worse, especially on narrow streets, squeezing yourself away from traffic gives drivers the impression that they can whip by. Having cars pass within an inch of you is a uniquely hair-raising experience and a great way to discourage yourself from future urban cycling.

Ride in the middle of the lane, like any other vehicle. This works best on the narrow, bustling streets of Center City or South Philly, where cars are unable to pick up speed due to congestion and an abundance of stop signs. This tactic in trickier on busy boulevards (like Market), although still advisable if there isn't any bike infrastructure (just be sure to use the lane furthest to the right). Where there are bike lanes, don't cling to the ride side. Philadelphia's bike lanes are generally wide enough to avoid getting doored if you ride to the left.

And more. There are many other worthwhile urban biking tactics. Be sure to signal before you turn, and equip your bike with lights for night riding. Be extremely wary of cars turning right at an intersection - a common collision, especially in bike lanes.

All this isn't to suggest that the responsibility for road safety rests primarily on cyclists. Drivers should bear the greater burden - they have two tons of metal with the ability to suddenly accelerate on their side. In a bike-on-car collision a cyclist is easily wounded (or worse), while the car probably just suffers a mussed paint job.

But we live in a car-centric culture. Wishing drivers had better etiquette isn't the best way to receive attention and respect. Influential research by Peter Jacobsen suggests that the more bicyclists there are, the safer they will be. The experiences of Portland and New York City bear this out. In both cities, as the number of bicyclists increased, the number of accidents declined.

By that standard Philadelphia is already pretty safe for urban biking. This May, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia released a report showing that, per capita, we have two times the bicycle commuters of any other American major city.

So strap on a helmet and bike downtown. As long as you bike smart, riding around cars isn't nearly as intimidating as you'd imagine.


Jake Blumgart (jake.blumgart5@gmail.com) is a freelance reporter-researcher based in Philadelphia.

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