Safety of biking hasn’t changed, only our realization on what it takes to improve safety


This photo exhibits many risks we take because of our current and unchanging designs, a potential dooring scene similar to that which led to the death of Neill Townsend on Friday. Photo by Mike Travis. 

I hate car-centric design. I equate it with theft. It takes away space for efficient and free modes of travel and reduces the quality of air and aural serenity, not to mention the danger to those within and without a car. Improving bike infrastructure is secondary in making a bike culture: the most important task is to highlight the irresponsibility, risk, damage, inefficiency, and death that Chicago’s car culture brings to the city.

Mary Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist, asks in the headline of her column today, “Is biking less safe, or does it just seem so?” Data is missing so we cannot answer this question empirically; there’s data for reported crashes, but no information on how many people are cycling and for how many miles.

Mary describes her experience biking this year (less than years before but she can’t pinpoint why) and then points out why biking is considered unsafe:

A bicyclist is a lone human being, exposed to the elements, undefended except maybe by a helmet, no match for the metal machines that dominate the road.

The freakishness of that mismatch — the big, hard machine vs. the small, soft body — is part of what draws our attention and turns cycling accidents into bigger news than car accidents.

She didn’t reveal it well but most writers explain the “mismatch” of bicycles and automobiles in a subtle way. I will say it more clearly: the car is the bull in the china shop.

Bicyclists, the “small, soft bod[ies]” should not be sharing the road with automobiles, the “big, hard machine[s]”. The decades-old principles of traffic safety in the countries with the safest roads separate modes by speed and size. (Those countries include Denmark and the Netherlands.) If two modes will be practicing different speeds in the same corridor and direction, then they must be separated. If a road is going to have two modes of different sizes (buses and trucks driving on the same road as bikes), then they must be separated. If there’s a street where no buses or trucks are allowed, and the speed limit is 18 MPH (and enforced) then such separation between cars and bicycles isn’t necessary.

Sustainable safety, as it’s been known in the Netherlands since 1992, says “Road traffic is inherently unsafe. Our traffic system is designed in such a way that it does not (sufficiently) prevent crashes and severe injuries. The most dangerous in traffic are the large differences in speed and mass that the human being has to deal with.” Bicycle Dutch has posted a clear explanation of the concept, along with explanatory videos.

The City of Chicago needs incentives for its adults and school children to walk and bicycle (a campaign that’s in progress) as much as it needs “disincentives” to reduce automobile prevalence.

5 thoughts on “Safety of biking hasn’t changed, only our realization on what it takes to improve safety”

  1. American bicycle advocates didn’t do themselves any favors when many insisted on the model of bicycles as part of traffic. Though to be fair many of those were against all bike lanes and my own impression is that the kind of bike lanes involved in the accident last week are worse than no bike lanes and allowing the bikers to just be in the road. Though neither is preferable to most people and why I was more than happy to bike everywhere in the totally separate bike lanes in Sweden, along with people of all types and ages, but you couldn’t pay me enough to bike in Chicago.

  2. While we have a long way to go, and infrastructure is a integral tool in the toolbox, the strident drumbeat of “protected infrastructure is the answer” and “sharing the road is unsafe” etc. is really beginning to drown out the roles that education and enforcement play in changing the environment. To dismiss these aspects whole cloth is a mistake, because it robs individuals of responsibility and more importantly agency.

    The fact is that there will always be places where cars and bikes share the same pavement, and to cry “protected bike lane” as the solution to every conflict is reactionary bordering on knee jerk. One only has to look at bike boulevards to see an example of cars and bikes sharing the road in an experience that for me at least, is far preferable to a segregated lane.

    Mr. Townsends death was a tragedy, and was most assuredly preventable, but simply implying that the absence of protected bike lanes on Wells was the cause of his death is reductive and borders on being exploitative in service to a single item agenda.
    Had the driver looked before opening their door, had the truck driver given the cyclist a wider berth, had the cyclist felt empowered to take the lane and avoid the door zone, or chosen an alternate route due to the construction, any of these may have averted the disaster.

    I know that Mikael Colville-Andersen cuts a dreamy gib with his euro fashion sense, popped collars, gelled hair and ever dismissive tone towards the States, but his recent line that is continually echoed of “the streets are unsafe for bicyclists”, while in service of safety improvements, is not encouraging people to bike, it’s not acknowledging the roles that people’s free will to make educated choices can have, and ultimately it’s just not accurate. IT would be nice to see a little more nuance.

    1. This commentary is also then a criticism on the role of the City of Chicago, in its mission to implement many (likely most) strategies of the Bike 2015 Plan, of failing to experiment with or construct many of the strategies outlined in said plan, and on transportation advocacy groups for rarely publicly challenging CDOT, Mayor Daley, and Daley’s 4 (or was it 5) transportation commissioners (between 2005 and 2011) to:

      build bike boulevards. A citizens group came about in 2008, calling themselves Bike Boulevards Now! and met with city officials to advocate for the installation of them.
      build raised bike lanes.
      train truck drivers to share the road with bicyclists.
      -and the myriad other strategies that will lead to a 50% reduction in injuries from crashes, and 5% of all trips under 5 miles be by bike.

      The point I’m trying to make, and maybe I didn’t make it yet, is that everything we need and want to know about how to make streets safe for everyone, including those who we call the most vulnerable (those who are elderly, young, or unshielded by the frame and shell of an automobile) are known. None of the techniques or strategies to provide safe passage for bicyclists and pedestrians were invented in the last 10 years: they were available a long time before. I am asking that our society avoid the pain of a 30 year transition (that Denmark and Netherlands experienced) from “dangerous by design” to “vision zero”.

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