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Bike Sharing and Safety

August 14, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

In the transit capital of America, New York City, the mayor's office considers its fledgling Citi Bike bicycle sharing service "part of our public transportation system." In fact, new research from the University of California-Berkeley partly focused on the Twin Cities' Nice Ride Minnesota shows that bike share significantly complements and broadens the reach of transit buses and trains.

It turns out that bike sharing also rivals traditional transit in another important area: safety. Despite a few deadly, high-profile transit disasters from crashes or terrorist attacks the world over in recent years, the U.S. automobile fatality rate is 10 times higher  than that of public transit. And while U.S. bicycle deaths have been rising a bit amid a 21st century cycling boom, most are caused by collisions with motor vehicles and they still account for just a tiny fraction of the overall traffic toll.

But here's amazing news: It was reported this week that not one person in United States has died pedaling a bike share bike. That's in 36 cities and an estimated 23 million rides. So while biking instead of driving can make you more physically fit, it also increases your chances of staying healthy and whole, especially on a shared bike.

Patrons of Nice Ride, which this year topped a million rides since its inception in 2010, have reported a total of six accidents causing cuts and bruises, said marketing director Anthony Ongaro. "No broken bones, nothing worse," he added. Two of the minor injuries have occurred this year, when ridership is running 600 more a day than in 2013 and is on pace to approach half a million. Last year's record total was 310,000.

How to explain this uncanny record of safe bicycling? Like other cities' shared bikes, Nice Ride's lime-green cruisers aren't for racing. They're heavy, with wide tires, lights for night cycling and drum brakes that work well on wet pavement. "A slow, visible, stable bike means a safer cyclist," wrote Vox blogger Joseph Stromberg.

Other reasons include the happy fact that more bicyclists in a city decreases not only their chances of being hit by a car, but also the actual number of such crashes, and the likelihood that a bike-share city will invest in safer bicycling infrastructure.

What apparently doesn't figure in, at least intuitively, is the relatively low use of bicycle helmets by sharers. Observational studies in Boston and Washington, D.C., found that fewer than one in five bike share patrons were helmeted, compared with more than half of those pedaling their own wheels. The researchers concluded, inelegantly, that "efforts to increase helmet use among users should increase."

That seemingly sensible notion got a boost in June when the Washington Post reported a university study showing "greater risk of head injuries to cyclists associated with cities that have bike share programs." 

Not so fast, bike wonks quickly retorted. The study, which looked at Minneapolis and four other bike-share cities along with five non-bike-share control cities, actually found that while the proportion of head injuries to all bicycle injuries went up in bike-share cities, the actual rates of both kinds of harm declined markedly in those places. In the control cities, injuries slightly increased, particularly the more severe ones.

Nonetheless, the researchers concluded that "steps should be taken to make helmets available with [bike-share programs]. Helmet availability should be incorporated into planning and funding, not considered an afterthought following implementation."

Few bike-share programs offer helmets, and Nice Ride executive director Bill Dossett told the Washington Post that there are no plans to do so. For one thing, no Nice Rider has ever suffered a head injury.

Obstacles of hygiene, cost and potential liability would confront bike-share services that provided helmets, although a few in locales that mandate helmets are installing vending machines to dispense them—cleaned and inspected after each use.

No doubt, helmets significantly reduce the risk of injury in a bicycle crash. But when the risk of a crash itself is minuscule, insisting that riders wear helmets has perverse consequences for what Streetsblog USA's Peter Jacobsen and Charles Komanoff called "Americans' ingrained misperception ... that helmetless cycling is criminally dangerous; that cycling is inherently risky; and that cyclists, far more than drivers, make it so."

On the contrary, as Dossett said, bike-share riding "is a fundamentally safe thing to do." The statistics bear it out. When the broad public grasps this perhaps counterintuitive truth, the U.S. bicycling boom of the past decade will be just a hint of a brighter, safer, more sustainable future for urban mobility.

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