Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robert Hurst: "Is cycling dangerous? Yes."

Below are excerpts from "The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America," by Robert Hurst:

Is cycling dangerous? Yes. Yes, it is. Deadly, no, but definitely dangerous. This is actually a controversial thing to say. There are those who bristle at any suggestion that cycling is dangerous, because they fear it will scare noncyclists away from ever ditching their cars and trying a more healthy form of transport. This is a good point, but it doesn’t change the fact that cycling is dangerous. This is not some urban legend that needs to be debunked. It is reality, and we need to embrace it (page 69).

Statistics fail to paint an accurate picture of the overall risk of cycling. The biggest reason for this failure is simple: The vast majority of bicycle accidents never get reported, written down, or noticed in any official way. Researchers can’t count the numbers if the numbers aren’t there. You see, when a cyclist gets smashed by a car, there is usually a police report saying so; when a cyclist visits an emergency room, there may be some record of the visit with a general description of the accident. But when a cyclist wipes out in a dime-a-dozen solo wreck---the most frequent sort of bike wreck by far---even though that cyclist may be hurt, she or he will usually not seek medical attention or file any kind of report, and therefore leaves no paper trail. Cyclists do the bulk of their suffering in silence. They tend to limp home, tough it out, and chalk it up to experience---all without notifying the Department of Transportation (page 158).

The most important lesson to be learned here is a bitter pill to swallow: There is no greater danger to the cyclist than the cyclist’s own incompetence. As a whole, it turns out, cyclists are not an entirely smooth and skillful lot. The majority of cycling accidents are embarrassing solo incidents, with the cyclist sliding out on turns, stacking it up after ramming potholes, curbs, and other obstacles, or just generally losing control (page 161, emphasis in original).

Collisions with motor vehicles are potentially more damaging but account for no more than about 15 percent of all cycling accidents. About half of car-bike accidents are instigated by cyclists who ride into traffic without looking, ride on the wrong side of the street, blow lights and stop signs, or otherwise ride in an unpredictable and lawless manner. This means that about half of car-bike collisions could be prevented if cyclists would simply follow traditional traffic-law principles. Most of the rest could likely be prevented with a little experience, preparedness, and respect for the perils of the road. Admitting it is the first step toward moving beyond it. That surly looking character in your bathroom mirror is often your worst enemy out on the street (page 161).

Realistically, it is not the prospect of dying in an accident, but that of being sent to the hospital with a serious injury, that hangs over the vulnerable heads of cyclists. The cyclist’s primary goal should be, first and foremost, to avoid serious injury. This is the cyclist’s bottom line. We must do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, short of staying at home (page 70).

Instead of just hopping on the bike and pedaling, we should take a moment before any ride to soberly consider the dangers we are about to face and how we will avoid them. We will need to carry this underlying seriousness into the ride and maintain it throughout, despite all the distractions of everyday life that compete for bandwidth in our skulls. It is absolutely true that accidents happen when they are least expected. The old warhorses of cycling---and there is not a single one of them who hasn’t been hit at some point or another---will always say their worst wrecks came at a time when their minds were wandering. They had momentarily forgotten the danger. They let themselves slip, just a little. Just enough (page 70).

While [John]Forester claimed that even children could ride safely on busy streets using the vehicular-cycling principle, our way is unquestionably for adults…The streets demand from us an awareness and maturity that would be very rare in a child (page 66).

The most effective way for a cyclist to stay out of trouble on city streets is to forget entirely about the possibility of blaming others, and to take on full responsibility for his or her own safety. This attitude will be fundamentally different from the prima donna mind-set displayed by many humans, drivers and cyclists among them, who put their safety in the hands of others, count on everything working out just right, and have a royal freak-out at the first sign of trouble. The successful cyclist counts on nothing but chaos and stupidity (page 67).

Go ahead and take measures to enhance your visibility---the orange vest, the flashers, et cetera---just don’t fool yourself into believing these measures will always work. It’s better to stubbornly assume that you are unseen until it is made absolutely obvious that you are seen (page 80).

Cyclists are often overlooked, no matter how or where they ride. We should accept this as reality, and proceed from there. We should deal with reality as it is, not how we hope or wish it to be (page 80).

Next time you are in the driver’s seat of a car, look to your right, past your wildly gesturing passenger with his gigantic head and comically large sombrero, fight through the glare of the sun on the dirty windshield, you know, that little triangle of mud-splattered glass where the wiper doesn’t reach, and imagine how hard it might be to see a fast-moving cyclist out there. And notice how the doorposts on new cars have grown plenty large enough to completely block the view of an approaching cyclist---total eclipse of the cyclist---potentially for several seconds at a time if the driver is inching the car forward (page 87).

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At 11:44 AM, Blogger John Spragge said...

Your use of quotes from Robert Hurst appears to consist mainly of a manipulation of language:

1) The word "dangerous"
In the past, when you called cycling "dangerous" you used the term as a reason not to cycle. Mr. Hurst clearly does not use the term that way. Given the manifest benefits of cycling, I do not believe the risk of some bumps rates the term "dangerous" in the sense in which you ordinarily apply it. When you count only serious incidents leading to a visit to the emergency room, which would justify the use of the word "dangerous" in the sense in which you habitually use it, the numbers do not show cycling as dangerous.

2) Children and cycling
I can't tell from your limited quotes what kind of cycling Mr. Hurst considers unsuitable for children. Certainly, cycling environments exist that young children have neither the physical ability nor the experience to cope with. But bicycling does not demand too much for children's cognitive abilities. The curses of our time include our habit of steadily moving minimum ages upward, reducing even the minimal responsibility we give young people.

In any case, none of the quotes you posted addressed the issue of educating young people on safe and healthy cycling, something you have gone on record as opposing. Certainly, I wouldn't (and I don't) let my kid cycle unsupervised in heavy urban traffic, but I do support safe ride to school programs, and I do strongly support safe cycling education in schools. If indeed Mr. Hurst opposes those things, and your quotes contain no evidence that he does, then to that extent I disagree with him.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Hurst's book is all about warning cyclists about the dangers of cycling, and he's been a bike messenger for years. He's a dedicated bike guy even when he isn't on the job. There's nothing tricky or ambiguous about the way he uses the word "dangerous." Clearly Hurst thinks children shouldn't be riding a bike in an urban environment, which he sees as dangerous even for adults. Again, nothing vague or ambiguous about the quote I pulled from the book. What I objected to is having the SFBC go into the city's schools to indoctrinate our children as young as nine-years-old in the great cycling "lifestyle." It's in the Framework Document, the first volume of the 527-page Bicycle Plan.

At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could figure out a way to get other people to pay my way through life while making their lives miserable! You are my hero. I think it is awesome that you figured out a way to not only avoid work but found a way to waste taxpayers' money fighting your crackpot ideas. Pure genious.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Mitch Haase said...

Bicyclists in SF and Berkeley are whiny little pricks. Keep up the good work and stop these elitist thugs from trying to take over our cities with their asinine plans. People like Jason Meggs need help getting their heads pulled out of their asses.


At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Stephen Keith said...

Mr. Anderson,

I read the article in today's WSJ about your objection to construction of bike paths w/out an environmental study being performed.


I live in Birmingham, Alabama, in one of its sorta trendy subdivisions where a huge class of professional middle-aged men have become notoriously angry cyclists, behaving like the "Critical Mass" riders in San Fran. I can see we are headed where SF is--cyclists demanding they be allowed to clog the streets, but refusing to follow the rules of the road and exhibiting at least a little common sense to stay off of major, high-speed thoroughfares.

That you turned the tables on them and insisted that the truth of environmental impacts at least be examined is simply beautiful.

Keep up the good work. It's high time someone called these holier- than-thou Lance Armstrong wanna be's out for their entitlement mentality.

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous david howard said...

I just read the WSJ article today, aug 20th.

I've also been reading the book "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths - How Smart Growth is Hurting American Cities,"

On page 363, O'Toole quotes John Forester who thinks bike lanes are more dangerous than riding in a vehcile because they increase errors between cyclists and drivers. The safest cyclists are those who act and are treated as operators of vehicles. (As defined in California law.) Bikes and autos aren't mutually exclusive choices, but the bike proponents seem to think that way.

I watched a cyclist in Berkeley almost get flattened last week by the left-turning SUV in front of me. The cyclist was on the road as she entered the intersection, but then suddenly claimed pedestrian status by swerving into the pedestrian crosswalk, rather than asserting her right away as a straight-through driving vehicle, or yielding it.

Adults of a certain age should be made to ride on the road like a vehicle, and trained for it, as drivers are trained, and trained NOT to play hocus-pocus I'm a pedestrian, now I'm a vehicle games. Children below a certain age certainly have no place on the road and that leaves only the sidewalk.

Keep up the good work Mr. Anderson.

At 11:47 AM, Anonymous Glenn said...

Mr. Anderson,

Encouraging an environmental impact review is great. Many cyclists are on your side if a better environment is your goal.

The city should review the impact of many factors, not just fewer v. more bicycles. Just as many cyclists assumed their choice was better for the environment, you assume that our car culture is as immutable as the laws of nature, however peoples view's on cars change all the time. And this decade is seeing former proponents of big American cars opting for smaller hybrid -- and soon electric -- vehicles, and others realizing that for many of the short trips typical in urban areas, cars don't make sense.

You're right; further study is needed.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Jason Wheeler said...

The Journal article was great. I always like to see people debunking supposed "green" solutions. People need to wake up to the fact that most "green" solutions are just transfer of impact rather than a reduction in impact. Keep up the good work.

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just as many cyclists assumed their choice was better for the environment, you assume that our car culture is as immutable as the laws of nature, however peoples view's on cars change all the time."

A good indicator of how willing people will change their transportation choice is that Muni ridership went up 12.2% in the first quarter of the year. And gas prices have gone up even further.

I'm very glad that a side effect of the increasing gas prices is people are being more judicious about when they drive. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like parking has been easier lately.

That WSJ story was interesting, I didn't know Rob was a welfare queen.

At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cars should be banned from most urban areas where other transportation options exist. Bicycles would not be dangerous if cars didn't exist.

urban and suburban sprawl and over 40,000 deaths a year are the direct result of the personal automobile are these good things? Why are you defending our dependancy on automobiles? Oil is running out and you want to allow us the waste this resource on oversized SUVs when farmers and truckers need oil to keep the economy moving foward?

bicycles aren't perfect but the are fun. more fun then sitting in traffic and they are safer then cars.

At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Courteous Bicyclist said...

Anecdotal evidence of poor cycling behavior seems to motivate your efforts. What if I don't like the attitude of car drivers? Does that mean they don't have the right to a safe place to drive?

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Robert Hurst said...

Interesting to see my book quoted here.

I believe it's silly to overlook the dangers of cycling in traffic, and there is a faction of cycling advocates who seem to want to do that.

On the other hand, I hope I made clear in my book that the benefits of bicycling far outweigh the risks.

Also, I think building a lot of new multi-use paths in SF is a damn good idea. They are extremely useful for transportation purposes.


At 2:34 PM, Blogger tOM Trottier said...

Cycling is far safer in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany where there are many bike lanes and pathways - safer than driving, even though few wear helmets.

But even currently in North America, the health benefits from cycling outweigh the dangers. Cyclists live longer, and live healthier.

As for cars being safe, I think you can look at the statistics and see that far more people are being killed and injured by or in cars than by or on bikes. Energy goes up by the square of the speed. And then there are the deleterious effects of lack of exercise.

I hope the environmental review you forced counts all the lives that can be saved and improved by encouraging more motorists to bike due to improved health and cleaner air. (BTW, the air motorists breathe is much dirtier than upright cyclists' air!)

tOM Trottier

At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

cycling anywhere near is road is very dangerous, a car or suv out of control can crush you if it hits you.
better to give up the road bikes and just ride on dirt trails or indoors. its dangerous enough just being a pedestrian on foot near a road.

At 2:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

43,000 die each year in US auto accidents, 800 in bike accidents.

You're safer on a bike!

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

You suggest statistics underreport the occurrence of cycling accidents, as minor injuries go unreported. I think you are missing the fact that if cyclists do not report minor accidents it means they are not worth reporting IE they do not affect the life and wellbeing of the cyclist. In my opinion only accidents that involve third parties or require medical attention should be reported and accounted for in statistics.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The post is entirely excerpts from Robert Hurst's book. Hurst's point is that some bike advocates deliberately downplay the dangers of cycling for fear of scaring away potential recruits. The Bicycle Coalition, too, is caught in that contradiction. On the one hand, as an advocacy group, they want to encourage cycling in SF, while on the other they complain about the safety of city streets.

That an accident doesn't get reported doesn't make it any less painful. In fact the Bicycle Plan itself says that cycling accidents are underreported in SF. Even the source of accident numbers in the city's "collison" reports is a little vague. Are these reports by the Highway Patrol, city cops, or from emergency rooms?

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous tOM Trottier said...

A number of studies have confirmed that cyclists have longer and healthier lives. So even if you increase your risk of accidents, the health benefits far outweigh the accidents.

It's even been shown that the pollutants cyclists(on upright bikes) breathe in are less than those car passengers endure.

Since freeways are far safer than other roads, cyclists may even have the same risks as drivers do on those other roads.

And it has been shown that pedestrians have 3x the risk of cyclists of being injured walking along roads.

So driving or walking are MORE dangerous than biking.

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous oboe said...

But when a cyclist wipes out in a dime-a-dozen solo wreck---the most frequent sort of bike wreck by far---even though that cyclist may be hurt, she or he will usually not seek medical attention or file any kind of report, and therefore leaves no paper trail. Cyclists do the bulk of their suffering in silence. They tend to limp home, tough it out, and chalk it up to experience---all without notifying the Department of Transportation (page 158).

You and I have vastly different ideas of what constitutes "dangerous".

My child climbed a tree yesterday and scraped her knee in the process. Is tree-climbing "dangerous"? I suppose so. I stubbed my toe on my bedside table yesterday morning. I live in a dangerous bedroom.

What a dangerous world we live in. :)


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