Do drivers make cycling less safe?

Cyclist gets "cut off" by driver (15 seconds)

This important article makes two key points about cycling in Australian cities:

  • The main danger to cyclists comes from drivers
  • The key reason people don’t cycle more is concern about safety on the roads

The article reports on research by Marilyn Johnson, a research fellow at the Monash University Accident Research Centre. She attached a video camera to the helmets of a small number of cyclists and studied their everyday interactions with other road users (see exhibits).

A key finding is drivers are responsible for 87% of road “incidents” i.e. a near-crash where at least one party has to take evasive action. In 74% of those events, she says, the driver cut the cyclist off, turning in front of the cyclist without either providing enough space, indicating effectively or doing a head check.

The behaviour of drivers was safe for themselves and other drivers, but not for cyclists:

The role of driver behaviour in cyclist safety was found to be more significant than previously thought. Previously, the emphasis was on how cyclists needed to improve their behaviour to improve their safety……Drivers need to be more aware of cyclists on the road. It is essential for cyclist safety that drivers look for cyclists before they change their direction of travel, particularly when turning left.

Dr Johnson also cites a joint study by the Cycling Promotion Fund and National Heart Foundation which surveyed a random sample of 1,000 adults nationally about their attitudes toward cycling. According to this report on the study, “overwhelmingly, unsafe road conditions were the No.1 reason why people weren’t using their bikes as transport, followed by the speed of traffic and a lack of bike paths”.

Although the number of cyclists involved in the study to date and the range of environments is small, I think Dr Johnson’s research is highly suggestive. It underlines again the importance of focussing attention on the key issues that affect cycling and of not getting distracted by side issues.

Another one of a cyclist getting "cut off" by a driver (29 seconds)

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What is the key challenge for cycling policy?

Trend in per capita cycling fatalaties, 1981-2010, Australia (data from BITRE)

There’s been a spirited and useful debate in Victoria over the last 12 months about the rights and wrongs of mandatory helmets, but now it’s time to move on to the main game. This column in The Age (and especially the associated comments) by Bojun Björkman-Chiswell, the founder of website Melbourne Cycle Chic, is a reminder that compulsory helmets aren’t the key obstacle to the wider uptake of cycling in Melbourne.

Ms Björkman-Chiswell describes how she was recently hit by a car while cycling in the very city that only days before had been pronounced by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and Premier Ted Baillieu as a ”bike city”. Melbourne is most definitely not, she avers, a bike city. “It is a city where people who wish to use a fast, free, non-polluting, peaceful and convenient mode of transport are subjected to harassment, culpable driving, injury and death….”.

The shit hit the fan however when she let on, seemingly as an afterthought, that she wasn’t wearing a helmet:

You’ll be pleased to know, Cr Doyle and Mr Baillieu, that despite my accident, my head is fine, but my neck is wrenched, my ankle swollen, my knee strained and my left shoulder, rib cage and thigh bruised, and I don’t wear a helmet.

A string of commenters took her to task for those last five words. As one said: “Great article, but you totally lost all your cred without the helmet. No wonder motorists don’t take you seriously”. And another: “How sad that you won’t protect yourself when you KNOW how idiotic most of the car drivers are”. And this one: “You’re insane if you don’t wear a helmet riding a bike in any Australian city (this isn’t the Netherlands). Plus there is the little matter that it is illegal not to wear a helmet”.

The key issue at the moment for Melburnians interested in cycling isn’t compulsory helmets – that’s a sideshow – it’s safety. While the weight of evidence suggests the exercise disincentive effect of helmets probably outweighs their protective benefits, our starting point is not an ideal world. Melbourne’s streets are dominated by cars. An individual contemplating cycling on the city’s roads has to have very special regard for the dangers of traffic. Cycling might not be as dangerous as people imagine, but it’s the perception of danger that holds prospective cyclists back.

Even if helmets were made discretionary, my feeling is the great bulk of Melbourne’s cyclists would make the rational decision and elect to wear a helmet. Just as importantly, I suspect that the next ‘cohort’ on the verge of taking up cycling (given an appropriate nudge) would also overwhelmingly choose to wear a helmet. Some might prefer not to, but on Melbourne’s roads you need every little advantage you can get.

As Paul Keating might say, compulsory helmets is a second order issue at this time. So let’s move on and give much-needed attention to the current number one issue, improving safety. So far that’s mainly meant providing dedicated infrastructure like bike lanes. More infrastructure is indeed needed – much more – but the task of effectively segregating bicycles and motorised traffic is mammoth.

The reality is cycling can only increase its share of travel significantly in Melbourne if it shares road space with cars, buses, trucks and trams. What’s really needed to make cycling safer is more respect and consideration from drivers.

The core issue is drivers don’t see cyclists as legitimate road users. I don’t think that’s got a lot to do with cyclists not being licensed, bicycles not being registered, riders wearing lycra, or cyclists flouting the road rules. I think its fundamentally because motorists simply see roads as exclusively for their use and cyclists, like pedestrians, don’t belong on them. That’s what drivers have always been told and that’s what they’ve always believed. Read the rest of this entry »


Do as many Melburnians cycle to work as Americans?

Cycling's share of commutes: graphic by Kory Northrop, University of Oregon

This remarkable map, via Nancy Folbre, shows cycling has a non-trivial share of commuting in at least ten cities in the automobile-centric USA. In Portland OR, 6% of workers commute by bicycle and in Minneapolis 4%. Cycling’s mode share is 3% in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle, and 2% in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans and Honolulu.

How does Melbourne compare with US cities? These ten cities are central counties so there’s no point in comparing them with the entire Melbourne metropolitan area (where bicycle’s share of commutes is 1%). In order to arrive at a fair basis for comparison, it’s necessary to look at bicycle’s share of commutes in Melbourne’s inner city and inner suburbs.

So I’ve summed the Statistical Subdivisions of Inner Melbourne, Moreland, Northern Middle Melbourne and Boroondara. They give me a combined area – which I’ll call central Melbourne – of 313 km2 and a total population of 804,112. That’s a little smaller geographically than Portland, which occupies 376 km2, but it’s a much larger population than Portland’s 566,143.

Cycling’s share of commutes in central Melbourne is 2.81%, which seems pretty good compared to most US cities. However given it’s substantially higher population density, it’s surprising that central Melbourne falls well short of Portland, where 5.81% of commutes are by bicycle. Some allowance has to be made for different methodologies – for example, the Portland figures are 2009 and the Melbourne figures are from the 2006 Census – but that’s not enough to explain a gap this size.

My family and I spent a week in Portland in 2009 and I don’t recall any obvious physical differences that favour cycling relative to Melbourne. In fact at first glance Portland doesn’t look especially promising for bicycles. It’s hillier than central Melbourne, it’s colder and it’s lower density. I doubt that Portland is better endowed than central Melbourne with commuter-friendly cycling infrastructure either.

In some ways Portland actually belies its status as the darling of new urbanism. It’s spaghettied with freeways and in many places doesn’t have footpaths. Even with the new light rail system, public transport has a substantially lower share of travel than in Melbourne.

I think a better explanation for cycling’s high commute share is the special demography of Portland. Aaron Renn puts it this way:

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

He cites Joel Kotkin, who reckons “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go”. I like the way the comedy TV show Portlandia put it, describing Portland as the place “where young people go to retire”. Read the rest of this entry »


Stop making sense!

David Byrne on bicycles, Atlanta’s sprawl and burying highways.

On New York: “If I had a magic wand — ahhh, that’s easy — I’d bury the highways, as they’ve done in some other cities. The West Side Highway and the FDR would both go underground, with parks on top that link the city and its people to their waterfront. Cafes, clubs and recreational stuff too. It would be glorious”.

David Byrne at Atlanta new urbanism conference (too late, it finishes today)

David Byrne’s book, Bicycle Diaries. He’s been riding his bike in New York since the 80s.

David Byrne on Paris’s bike sharing scheme

And David Byrne on Houston – land of the free