Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cycling, safety, and common sense

After the two cyclists were killed in Cupertino, the SF Bicycle Coalition rushed to reassure its membership and the public that riding a bike is not dangerous:

SFBC Warns Against "Dangerous" Depiction of Cycling
We also urge people not to be mislead[sic] by the media's alarmist portrayal of the safety of bicycling. In fact, studies show that bicycling is far safer than many think. According to a British report, the casualty rate for bicyclists is relatively small, about one death per 33 million kilometers of cycling. A Dutch study found that, setting aside highway travel, there are nearly twice as many motorists killed as bicyclists per mile traveled. According to a British Medical Association report, the health benefits of bicycling outweigh the risk of bicycling fatalities by 20-to-1. And people who bicycle to work have a 39% lower rate of mortality than those who do not, even after adjusting for other risk factors. Is bicycling as safe as it should be? Not yet. As groups like ours work to improve bicycling conditions, the number of bicyclists in the Bay Area is growing steadily. That's good news for all of us because, in truth, not bicycling is far more dangerous than bicycling.

News stories about two people killed while cycling are "alarmist"? There's been nothing in the stories that depicts cycling as inherently dangerous. The SFBC apparently fears that readers will draw their own reality-based conclusions: getting hit by a driver who dozes off behind the wheel of a car is the sort of thing that can happen while riding a bike.

The SFBC would have more credibility if it provided the public with a more realistic sense of the dangers of cycling. A sympathetic article in the SF Chronicle three years ago took a more realistic approach to preparing potential cyclists for the dangers involved:

Sooner or later, an urban cyclist will be bumped or dumped, either by his or her own action (Hill says 45 percent of all crashes are solo falls, only 18 percent involve a vehicle), or by something done unto him or her. That's why you always, always ride wearing a quality helmet and gloves. Abrasion-resistant clothing is a plus. When you start to go over, get your arms out, but don't make them stiff. Use them to absorb initial impact, yes, but even more to steer your fall into a body roll. Want to practice falls? Take a class in judo or aikido...("Mission: Not Impossible," Paul McHugh, SF Chronicle, Feb. 17, 2005).

More testimony on the dangers of cycling is provided by neurologists, the doctors who deal with head injuries every day. From the website of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tracks product-related injuries through its National Injury Information Clearinghouse. According to the CPSC, there were an estimated 319,339 sports-related head injuries treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006. The actual incidence of head injuries is potentially much higher, as many of these injuries are treated at physician’s offices, immediate care centers, or self-treated...The following 20 sports/recreational activities represent the categories contributing to the highest number of estimated head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2006

Cycling: 65,319
Powered Recreational Vehicles (ATVs, Dune Buggies, Go-Carts, Mini bikes): 28,585
Football: 34,658
Basketball: 25,788
Baseball and Softball: 23,125
Water Sports : 16,060
Skateboards/Scooters: 15,978
Soccer: 15,208
Winter Sports (Skiing, Sledding, Snowboarding, Snowmobiling): 13,944
Horseback Riding: 9,260
Health Club (Exercise, Weightlifting): 11,895
Golf: 7,956
Trampolines: 7,435
Gymnastics/Dance/Cheerleading: 5,694
Hockey: 5,253
Ball Sports (unspecified): 3,871
Skating (In line, roller, roller hockey): 3,441
Wrestling: 3,225
Fishing: 3,046
Ice Skating: 2,924

But the evidently overwhelming desire to believe in cycling in general---cycling as an idea or ideal---clouds the judgment of some cyclists. The story in today's Chronicle has some shocking examples of adult irresponsibility:

"It could have been any of us, said Penny Hutchinson of Sunnyvale, who was riding with her 10-month-old daughter, Louisa, in a bike trailer..."It's scary," said J.J. Kammeyer, the 11-year-old occupant of the rear seat of a tandem piloted by his father, John. "You really don't want to die when you go bike riding. But anything can happen." ("Dangerous roads for bicyclists," SF Chronicle, March 16, 2008)

Young J.J. apparently has a more realistic sense of the dangers than his dad, not to mention Ms. Hutchinson, who was hauling her 10-month-old daughter in one of those canvas trailers you see clueless parents attach to their bikes (the law sensibly requires drivers to put children in safety seats, but these bike trailers are legal!). Why would responsible parents take their children cycling on a road where two people on bikes were recently killed by a car? Only a powerful belief system---something akin to religion---can do that.

The Chronicle article is accompanied by a chart of the injuries to cyclists on Bay Area roads, but the chart is based on California Highway Patrol data, which doesn't necessarily cover accidents in incorporated towns and cities in the state. The Bicycle Plan itself, for example, notes that there's no reliable system of recording/reporting cycling accidents in San Francisco, which means that we really don't know how many people are hurt in the city while cycling (Framework Document, SF Bicycle Plan, pages 6-12, 6-13). One wonders if the city's bike people---especially the SF Bicycle Coalition---really want that information, since it would show with some precision how dangerous cycling in SF really is.

But I feel comfortable in accusing the city of being irresponsible when it encourages teaching children as young as nine-years-old about the "positive lifestyle, health, and environmental benefits" of riding a bike in SF (Framework Document, Bicycle Plan, page 5-8).

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15 Comments:

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right. Cycling is dangerous. There's no question there.

I bike in the city every day. In four years of doing this, I have had no significant injuries, but crashes are an inevitable part of biking.

I'm also in the best shape and best health of my life, though, so it's not all bad.

I also walk and take the trolley. I also used to drive here. We've made room for pedestrians, made room for transit, but we have yet to truly make room for cyclists. From my perspective, this is part of the danger of cycling in SF.

Should the city encourage an inherently dangerous activity? This is probably where your ideas clash with the ideas of the bike-advocate.

There are plenty of places that have had success treating bikes as transportation; in these places the accident rates are much lower. This suggests that if people want to bike, there are ways of making it safer for them to do so.

Some of these places are unlike SF, to be sure, but some are pretty similar-- Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, etc.

If we're worried about encouraging dangerous behavior, though, cycling is not by a long shot our biggest problem. I routinely read about people being run down by inattentive or aggressive drivers in the city, yet we accomodate driving without question. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers get to deal with the fallout.

And each time I read about someone going to the hospital or the morgue because they were so bold as to walk down the streeet or ride a bike on it, I think "wow, if that driver was on a bike or on foot, the worst would probably be a few scrapes or bruises, if that."

Bikes aren't a bad way to go-- they take up less space than cars, don't spew pollution in your face, don't wear the roads out, don't require vast parking facilities, have health benefits, don't generate noise pollution, do not typically kill or maim people, are usually a joy to ride, are economical, etc.

So there are factors counterbalancing the risks.

But there's still the element of danger when you choose to ride one. Folks in public policy and planning will likely tell you that if you provide safe places for bikes, people will use them. The facts on the ground tell the same story. So it's not just some fantasy the bike people have about more people wanting to get on bikes for some of their trips.

And it's not an either/or prospect-- most people who bike also drive; many people who drive also bike. It's not "the car people vs. the bike people" as so many of us tend to think (myself included, admittedly).

I think children should be accompanied by adults when they are biking. Part of the reason it's safer for adults is that we have gone through driver's education and most of us have licenses to operate vehicles on the road. Kids don't. Until we get to a point where we are teaching bike safety in elementary schools, and we have accomodated cyclists to a far, far greater degree than we do now, kids shouldn't be out there biking by themselves.

 
At 10:37 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Yours is the most sensible comment I've ever had from a cyclist. Yes, evidently painting more bike lanes and educating drivers can and does reduce cycling accidents statistically. But as long as cyclists have to share the road with motor vehicles---that is, forever---there will always be the danger of accidents like the one in Cupertino: a driver simply fell asleep at the wheel and killed two cyclists on the road. Nothing but a terrible accident that neither bike lanes nor education---the driver was a deputy sheriff and presumably knew cyclists had the right to be on the road---could have prevented. Put vulnerable cyclists on the road with large motor vehicles and that sort of thing is going to happen.

And then there's the issue of traffic here in SF. Since it's a relatively small city with a lot of two-lane streets and a constant struggle for street parking, taking away traffic lanes and street parking has to be done very carefully, if at all.

That the city is encouraging children to ride bikes on city streets is grossly irresponsible.

 
At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Christoff LePuele said...

Rob - great to hear you're starting to learn a little. That accident in Cupertino could have just as easily involved hikers, motorcycles, a school bus, or any other vehicle and caused a similar or greater calamity. Obviously cycling is dangerous, but this particular accident had nothing to do with any risk inherent to bikes, rather it was due to the risks inherent to vehicles generally speaking...

 
At 11:15 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

This is exactly the sort of danger I've often referred to about cycling: cyclists have no protection at all when something goes wrong on the road. If that car had hit a school bus, the chances of someone being killed would have been a lot less, given the size of a bus vis a vis an automobile. And it's unlikely that hikers would have been walking along on a highway. Only the risk to someone on a motorcycle would have been at all comparable to a cyclist in that situation.

 
At 4:08 PM, Anonymous DXW said...

As I've pointed out in comments on this blog before, the numbers and the study you cite have no information on exposure - they are simply raw numbers. If discussing raw numbers, your readers should know that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of injury deaths in the United States - and outweigh cycling deaths by approximately a 50 to 1 ratio.

On a per-mile traveled basis, pedestrians are more than three times more likely to be killed in auto collisions than cyclists. So should we discourage people from walking?

 
At 4:42 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

"Information on exposure" is irrelevant to the information supplied by neurologists, who simply say that of all recreational/sports activities cycling leads to the most head injuries that they see in their profession. They weren't referring to deaths but to head injuries. No one is talking about banning anything. It's just ridiculous to maintain that cycling isn't a dangerous activity. And it's unconscionable that the city---in the Bicycle Plan---wants to encourage children to ride bikes in SF.

 
At 5:56 PM, Anonymous DXW said...

According to the data you cite, 65,319 cyclists suffered head injuries in 2006. According tot he National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, during the same year:

43,000 people were killed and 2.6 million were injured in motor vehicle crashes.

What's ridiculous is to claim that bicycling is more dangerous than driving.

 
At 8:36 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Check it out, D: I never claimed that cycling was more dangerous than driving. I'm just saying that cycling is dangerous. You're trying to make this a car versus bike thing, but that's just a way to change the subject from the safety of cycling to something else. The events in Cupertino the other day show that cycling can be dangerous for obvious reasons.

 
At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Since it's a relatively small city with a lot of two-lane streets and a constant struggle for street parking, taking away traffic lanes and street parking has to be done very carefully, if at all. "

Again I agree with you. It needs to be done carefully, if at all.

I think the notion that taking a traffic lane and converting it to a bike lane, or taking parking and converting it to one-- leads us to a common-sense conclusion that this will aggravate traffic and parking problems in SF.

I also think this conclusion is false, or not necessarily true.

What the common-sense conclusion doesn't take into account is the fact that car trips may be replaced by bike trips to the extent that the competition for roadspace actually diminishes.

Parking and traffic problems are essentially problems of competition for space, and a car requires much more space than a bike. So for every trip that is made by bike instead of car, competition over road space is decreased.

This has the potential to actually alleviate traffic and parking problems, rather than aggravate them.

Counterintuative, yes; violates common-sense, yes; but would be the kind of thing that's easy to prove or disprove by looking at case histories.

This, of course, begs the question:

Does providing space for bikes actually induce more people to replace car trips with bike trips?

Another look at case histories would probably be instructive here. My guess is that you'd find a wide range of results, with perhaps a general tendency for modest increases in bike use.

But in order to make it worthwhile in SF, we would need more than modest increases-- which is why I agree we need to do it "carefully, if at all."

When I look at the considerable numbers of people now cycling in San Francisco on a regular basis, I'd say the potential is there for significant increases, but that's not a guarantee. Who knows-- maybe everyone who would bike in the city is already doing so?

(an aside: it's fairly clear in the planning and traffic engineering world that accomodating for automobiles leads to more car trips. The phenomenon is known as "induced traffic". It's also been shown that the opposite is true: taking away accomodations decreases traffic. This is what Thornley is talking about when he says that traffic will simply "disappear". Sounds patently absurd, of course, but it seems to be fairly well-established.)

 
At 11:44 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Implementing the Bicycle Plan without adequate study/thought is one way to screw up city traffic. Let's take a look at the Octavia Blvd. fiasco as a better example of good intentions and unintended consequences on SF traffic. Those, including the bike people, who were so eager to take down the old Central Freeway overpass are silent now that Octavia Blvd. is bringing 45,000 cars a day through the heart of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. The trade-off: wicked freeway over pass gone, traffic gridlock in the neighborhood most of the day.

Consider too that the city is pushing both the UC proposal (450 new housing units) on the old extension property and the Market/Octavia Plan (6,000 new housing units and 10,000 more people), both of which will make the traffic in that area a lot worse.

These are the same people---Planning Dept., Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors---who tried to implement the Bicycle Plan without doing any environmental study at all! The arrogance and smugness of city officials is boundless. Fanatics like this are incapable of learning from experience; their goofball ideology---the Transit Corridors housing fantasy, the anti-car policies that assume that all the new folks in that part of town are going to ride bikes or an already-crowded Muni---evidently prevents them from seeing the plain realities in front of them. Pretty remarkable.

P.S. To dxw: My email system may have deleted your last comment. I was unable to open a comment you sent, though it may have been the one already posted. If not, re-send it and I'll post it.

 
At 5:00 AM, Blogger John Spragge said...

To quote from your own source: "It is estimated that up to 85 percent of head injuries can be prevented through proper usage of SNELL, ANSI or ASTM-approved helmets."

In other words, cycling with the proper gear involves less risk of head injury than the vast majority of forms of aerobic exercise. And the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle far outweigh the risks of injury or death from cycling.

I've pointed all this out before, and I'll keep on pointing it out. I'd like to address something else that offends me: the way you excuse dangerous and negligent driving habits and attitudes. Car drivers leave such a trail of death and misery because we don't hold them accountable. Nobody "just" falls asleep at the wheel; they make the irresponsible choice to drive when they haven't had enough sleep. They don't "just" drive drunk or stoned, they choose to do it, the way people choose to commit any other crime of violence. Cars don't just fail, people choose not to maintain them properly, and then drive them anyway. Crashes that result from factors nobody could have predicted, such as a silent heart attack, undiagnosed neurological problems, or the sudden failure of a part in a well maintained car account for a tiny percentage of the motorized carnage. Most crashes happen because someone chose to risk the lives of everyone around them.

 
At 3:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding of the Octavia/Hayes situation is that the traffic that would have been up on the freeway is now dumped onto the surface streets.

It seems that Hayes valley decided to go for this because overpasses can be pretty hideous sights. But now they have more cars on their surface streets. That's a trade-off between two situations that are both undesirable.

The real problem at the heart of it is having a freeway either soaring above the city (and creating an ugly monolith), or having that freeway dump its traffic into the neighborhood. So as long as we insist on having that freeway, there's no easy answer.

It seems like greatest portion of that traffic would be bound for the Richmond and Sunset; two of the most car-dependent districts in town (unless I'm reading this place all wrong).

Part of the problem is that those districts have to transit service leaving the city. No BART, no Transbay, no caltrain; nothing. So, externally they are car-dependent because of they are marooned.

But internally they are car-dependent as well, which would predispose them to trips outside the city by car (which would, in turn, send them through D5 on their way back).

Stroll through the Sunset and the only thing that distinguishes it from an automobile suburb is the SF architecture. A lot of the Richmond is the same way. This only feeds freeway travel.

So the way I see it, the answer to getting less traffic dumped on surface streets in Hayes valley, for example, would be to revamp those areas of the city that are organized around automobiles. "Ped"ification, if you will. This would mean less freeway trips to jobs and shopping, for example.

The inner Sunset sets a good example of this, but doesn't solve the problem of being marooned from transit that leaves the city. Clement st in the Richmond is another analogue to a pedestrian-friendly setup.

I doubt many people are going to transit to transit, but from my perspective, people do seem to be willing to take bike trips to transit (assuming they are using their cars merely for transportation and not for some other job purpose such as hauling tools, etc.).

It might seem pie-in-the-sky to imagine people in auto-oriented districts to pick up bikes and ride them to transit, but the connection of too much car use to traffic congestion on freeways to traffic being dumped on Fell st seems straightforward (cars would work also, if they didn't require so much space to park, but this wouldn't make the situation any better on surface streets-- only on the freeway.).

 
At 9:49 AM, Blogger georoad said...

Thanks all for pointing out why it is more dangerous not to pedal cycle- in the raw numbers it is impossible to tell relative risk.

Sure, there are a 65000 reported hospital visits from head injuries suffered while cycling. But is against the backdrop of the millions of trips, hundreds of millions of miles bicycle driving- the relative risk is quite low (especially factoring in the health benefits of cycling).

In a overall risk sense, cycling is less hazardous than walking (and will get you to your destination faster, with less energy expended).

There should not be a law to require pedestrians to wear a helmet- though it would reduce injury and death.

The cupertino deaths are all about the deputies behavior, not about the risks of cycling. Most of the risks are false perceptions. Risk for most crash types can be mitigated through education, and enforcement.

 
At 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In a overall risk sense, cycling is less hazardous than walking..."

Where are the data that support this assertion?

 
At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cycling need not be dangerous as long as cyclists are constantly vigilant. I have been cycling to work frequently in SF for over 25 years -- primarily to avoid parking hassles in the Cow Hollow area where I work. I have had only one collision in that time -- when a dog off the leash ran across my path. I use a mirror and assume that each and every motorist in my vicinity will do something stupid and illegal that will endanger me. Most don't, thank God, but when they do I am prepared to take evasive action. It think it is time to admit that San Francisco, for all its self-righteous liberalism, is a city full of people that don't know how to behave and don't think that traffic laws apply to them. Stop signs and bicycle lanes are now seen as mere suggestions by far too many people using the streets. There is plenty of blame to share with motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. As long as human behavior in San Francisco continues to ignore common sense and common decency, we will have to explore more and more physical restrictions - such as bicycle lanes - for the safety of all. The only other possible solution is a greatly enhanced police presence for enforcement of existing traffic laws. Somehow, I don't see that happening.

 

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