Saturday, July 03, 2010

How dangerous are city streets?

Although they insist that riding a bike in the city is a safe and sensible way to get around---even for children---the bike people and the traffic calmers also claim that our streets are dangerous, that, as a cyclist or a pedestrian, you take your life in your hands as soon as you step out the door. From a comment by Adrienne on Streetsblog:

SF is broken for EVERYONE. Our entire street system is dangerous for ALL users---potholes, over crowding, patchwork planning, skewed priorities, legacies of freeway planning/unplanning...We need to go back to the drawing board and redesign these streets for all users with emphasis on protecting vulnerable users, not on moving vehicles faster (faster vehicles = more vehicular damage to street users).

Marc Salomon's comment on the same thread:

Since cycling is dangerous, DPH injury, death and collision data should drive both the provision of new bicycle facilities as well as the allocation of scarce SFPD enforcement resources. Wherever there is a health threat based on the data, the evidence, then the City's attentions should be triaged there first and a safety based feedback loop established to direct future interventions.

The city accident reports I refer to below discuss how the city is trying, with some success, to make specific streets and intersections safer.

And then you have the wild hyperbole, which is what Matt Smith gets when he talks to bike guy Sean Breward:

"I started bike commuting when Feinstein was mayor," he says the next day by phone. "I just naturally loved it. It's just one of those things I'm blessed with...I ran into you yesterday. I ran into another person today and had a conversation. It gets you out there, and you can talk to people. If you stop to talk with someone in a car, you get the finger, or shot...With unsafe conditions, you're sending people out on a siren's song where they think it's supposed to be safer," Breward says. "It's just too dangerous."
I guess I missed all the stories in the local media about motorists shooting cyclists. The facts about accidents on our streets provided by the city in their annual "collision" reports tell a different story: the streets of San Francisco are actually getting safer for everyone.

According to the "City of San Francisco 2008 Bicycle Collision Report," issued in February, 2010, between 1998 and 2008, an average of only 1.8 cyclists have died on city streets each year (page 16). Maybe cyclists shot by motorists is in a separate category, but that report doesn't mention any such incident, fatal or non-fatal.

True, total "bicycle injury collisions" were up in 2007 (451) and 2008 (468), but that's evidently a result not of increased danger on the streets but an increase in the total number of cyclists on city streets: "The 2009 data revealed a 53.5 percent increase in bicyclists since 2006" (page 8). Whether that percentage is accurate or not, "San Francisco had the lowest number of bicycle injury collisions per 100,000 bicycling trips to work among California cities with more than 250,000 residents. Only Seattle and Portland had lower collision rates" (page 10).

When cyclists complain about the dangers of riding bikes on city streets, the implication is always that motorists are the problem. But as bike messenger and author Robert Hurst tells us, "There is no greater danger to the cyclist than the cyclist's own incompetence." This report supports that notion: in 2008 where fault was assigned for 406 "bicycle injury collisions," motorists were at fault 48.7% of the time (in 201 accidents), and cyclists were at fault in 49.6% of those other (205) injury accidents (page 22).

What about "injury traffic collisions" overall? According to the San Francisco 2008 Collisions Report, issued on December 18, 2009---the report that covers all traffic injury accidents---the numbers show steady progress in safety on our streets: "San Francisco has made progress in reducing injury traffic collisions in the past two decades. In 1990 San Francisco reported a total of 5,804 injury collisions and 64 fatal collisions. By 2008 those totals had declined to 3,010 injury and 27 fatal collisions" (page 4).

The same positive trend over time is true for pedestrian injury accidents: there were 26 pedestrians killed on city streets in 1999, but only 13 in 2008 (page 33). The trend is the same for injury accidents in general for pedestrians on the streets of SF: in 1999 there were 915 such accidents, while in 2008 there were 799.
The moral of the story: everyone still has to be real careful out there, but the streets of San Francisco are getting safer all the time.

These reports can be found on the MTA's website.[Later: no, you can't find these docs on the MTA's website, and its new site is even worse than the old site. If you don't have a hard copy of old studies---or have a PDF link made by someone else---you're out of luck.]

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