City: More bikers means fewer accidents

“Biking here isn’t safe. Four friends of mine have been killed biking in Vancouver.”  A friend responded emphatically to a piece in which I stated that bike lanes are an important step toward sustainability.

I love biking in the city. It’s fun and the bike lanes feel safe to me. My friend’s vehemence made me feel like I was advocating something dangerous, something that kills friends of friends. The innermost feeling of my soul is that biking is good for health overall. But I didn’t have any information on that.

Happily, the day after our conversation, Carbon Talks presented a brown bag dialogue with Jerry Dobrovolny, the City of Vancouver director of transportation, on biking.

Dobrovolny, a former CFL player who has worked for Vancouver for 23 years, pointed out that transportation is a “values issue.” “It’s something that people respond to with the innermost feelings of their souls,” he said. “It makes it difficult to have logical discussion.” But he did have some numbers on the issue.

He called attention to a study from Portland, Oregon that categorized locals into four groups based on their relationship to bicycle transportation. It showed that less than one per cent of that city’s population is made of  the "strong and fearless" riders who will ride no matter what. Another seven per cent are "enthused and confident" riders who will ride under most conditions. 33 percent will never ride -- they don’t want to, and never will. Dobrovolny is most concerned with the remaining 60 per cent, the “interested but concerned.” This segment includes many women, children and seniors. They will ride if the conditions are right. These are the people that city needs to satisfy if it is to reach its goal of doubling bicycle trips from four per cent to eight per cent by 2020.  

Consistent with my friend’s comment, the biggest concern among “interested but concerned” would-be cyclists is safety. Dobrovolny stated that more bicyclists on the road would actually result in less injuries. As biking increases, cars expect them more and drive more cautiously. When the number of cyclists doubles, injuries drop by a third. Separated bike lanes increase safety. 

Copenhagen, Montreal, New York and Portland

Vancouver eliminated the biggest cause of accidents in bike lanes by consulting with Copenhagen and other cities and learning from their mistakes. On streets with separated bike lanes, cars can turn right only if there is a designated right turn lane. This eliminates cars accidentally clipping bikers as they turn right. It also gives bicyclists a visual signal to expect right-turning cars. Separated bike lanes haven’t been around long enough in Vancouver to establish that they decrease accidents. In the three and a half years before the construction of the bike lane on Burrard Bridge, there were three accidents. In the three-and-a-half years after, there was one accident, between two bikers.

Dobrovolny stated that potential riders who are “interested but concerned” are most persuaded by the personal benefits of biking. He pointed out that cycling for half an hour daily increases mean life expectancy one to two years. People who ride regularly experience a 36 per cent reduction in long term mortality rates.

Dobrovolny said separated bike lanes are considered the best practice around the world, and the only way to create a biking-for-transportation culture. Such lanes are relatively new to Vancouver, but have existed for years in Copenhagen, Montreal, New York and Portland.

People feel safer in separated lanes than in painted lanes on regular streets or on local street bike ways. The “interested but concerned” are more likely to cycle as a result. Cycling is up by 28 per cent on the Burrard Bridge since the creation of the separated lane, and by 400 per cent since the creation of the separated lane on the Dunsmuir Viaduct. These two routes connect the neighbourhoods of Vancouver with the highest number of cyclists to the downtown core. The core itself is “Vancouver on steroids,” with 44 per cent of the people biking or walking to work.  

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