A new study conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute has found that bikeshare riders get in far fewer crashes and collisions than other cyclists.
Somewhat amazingly, there is actually yet to be a single death in the US that occurred during the utilization of a bikeshare service here. Considering that cyclist deaths are not exactly uncommon the US — some parts of the US are downright dangerous to ride a bicycle in or through, owing to insufficient infrastructure and careless drivers — that really is quite remarkable.
So why is this the case? Why do bikeshare riders get in far fewer accidents?
Vox provides more: “A new report from the Mineta Transportation Institute sifts through data from bike-share systems in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. They found that bike-share bikes had lower collision and injury rates than personal bikes in all three cities. In DC, the collision rate for bike share was 35% lower. Intrigued by this, the report’s authors interviewed both riders and a variety of experts from transportation departments across the country.”
A number of “broad conclusions” resulted from these inquiries. These included:
1) The design of the bike matters a lot. Bikes in public bike-sharing systems tend to be heavier and feature wider tires, making them sturdier and better able to deal with bumpy roads and potholes (a leading cause of cyclist-only crashes). The bikes also have fewer gears and are incredibly clunky, making it hard for riders to go very fast. And they feature drum brakes, which work better when it’s wet out. On top of that, the bikes tend to be painted with bright colors and feature flashing lights, making it easier for cars to see the riders. And the seat forces the rider to stay upright — again, improving visibility.
2) Bike-share trips usually take place in denser, slower-moving urban areas. Bike-share stations are disproportionately concentrated in downtowns with lower average road speeds and lots of pedestrians — that is, places where drivers tend to be more alert. This matters: The authors argue that car-bike collisions become much more likely when cars are going faster than 30 mph. And driver inattention is a common factor in crashes.
3) Bike-share riders are less experienced — but that’s not always a bad thing. “A few experts said that bikesharing tended to attract people who may be new riders to cycling or infrequent riders,” the report says. “These experts said that users who were less experienced were more apt to be cautious, defensive riders and be risk-averse.” (Not everyone agreed with this, though. Other experts thought that the inexperience of riders could sometimes be a hazard.)
4) Bike sharing is safer despite lower rates of helmet use. One thing we know is that bike-share riders use helmets at a far lower rate than regular cyclists. But that doesn’t seem to make the bike-share bikes more crash-prone. Who knows? It might even help — people have argued about this for a long time. One hypothesis is that drivers behave more carefully around cyclists who aren’t wearing helmets.
(That said, the authors do warn that there have been instances of serious, non-fatal crashes involving bike-share riders — including head and spinal injuries. And they point out that helmets help in these cases: “Helmets, like seatbelts in cars, mitigate the severity of injuries when a collision does occur, but they do not prevent the collision from occurring.”)
5) It’s not clear that bike sharing creates “safety in numbers.” This was one surprising finding. Some transportation experts have long suggested there’s a safety-in-numbers effect in biking — the more cyclists there are on the road, the more cautious drivers are. But the authors of the MTI report couldn’t find much evidence for this in the data. In both the Bay Area and Washington, DC, overall collisions are pretty tightly correlated with the number of cyclists on the road. Maybe we haven’t hit the tipping point just yet.
The full report contains quite a bit more information, including an interesting section on the perceived pros and cons of protected bike lanes. Worth a read for those interested in the subject, in my opinion.