Are People on Bikes More Dangerous Than People in Cars?

CC BY 4.0. John Maynard Friedman on Wikipedia

In a word no. But people in cars seem to get a free pass for everything.

There was a bizarre tweet from the Toronto Star which suggested that people on bikes are as deadly as people in cars. It is completely untrue no matter how you look at it, whether with math and physics, or with statistics (like the 42 pedestrians killed by people in cars last year and the 0 pedestrians killed by people on bikes).

star tweet

Tweet in Toronto Star/Screen captureBut the tweet author is correct about one thing, the response was eye-popping. Jack Lakey, the Fixer, writes that "while a few cyclists took issue with the lack of awareness that some pedestrians show on multi-use recreational paths, the overwhelming verdict is that pedestrians have as much to fear from bikes as cyclists do from cars."

He then follows with a pile of anecdata about how "my mother was hit by a cyclist." Or “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been walking on a sidewalk or trail and had a cyclist whiz past me at Mach 1 with no warning, scaring the hell out of me.”

Now let's be clear and upfront, there are jerks on bikes. I have my own anecdotes, walking last year during Toronto's Open Streets festival when a jerk on a bike blew by a foot away from me at 20MPH. It scared the hell out of me.

I was thinking of writing about this and going over the usual reasons why this kind of discussion is so problematic. How people on bikes and people on foot are fighting over crumbs because the cars have taken the vast majority of the space. How the main reason people ride on the sidewalk is that they are scared to death about being killed if they ride on the road. That people on bikes and people on foot are on the same side, and that articles like this one in the Star are fundamentally dividing us. But I have written it so many times before to no end. Everyone is so established in their views. There was no point.

Then I read an interesting article in Strong Towns by Arian Horbovetz titled We gotta be perfect. The author notes that when people driving cars kill or maim someone, it is sad, but it is the cost of doing business. When an SUV driver kills someone on a scooter in Nashville, they ban scooters, not SUVs. People on bikes or scooters are looked at differently than people in cars. A friend of Horbovetz has an explanation:

We’ve gotta be perfect. If a negligent driver kills someone, people see it as a necessary evil. But if a cyclist runs a red light, or a scooter hops onto a sidewalk alongside a busy street, we are just jerks driving crazy little vehicles with no regard for the law.

Like Horbovetz, I get angry when I see someone on a bike go through a red light. But I also see three cars in a row do left turns through red lights, ignore blinking crosswalks, and don't get me started about the parking in our little strips of painted on bike lanes, barely the only concession ever made to people on bikes where I live.

In coming years, the conflicts are only going to get worse. There are more people on bikes without a safe place to ride, more overpowered electric bikes that can go too fast, more new modes of transport like scooters, and a lot more older people who can me much more seriously injured or killed if hit by anyone on anything. The logical thing would be to redistribute space accordingly, provide wider sidewalks and separate bike lanes. But instead, As Horbovetz notes,

The machine that is the established “American Way” can commit countless legal and moral errors and be excused as an individual mistake. All it takes is one perceived misstep by a member of a “fringe” population and the entire movement is seen as deviant and dangerous.

About 6,000 walking people were killed by driving people in the USA last year. 70,000 were seriously injured. In Toronto, 42 people walking were killed by drivers, 5 people cycling were killed by drivers. This is the problem, not a few scary cyclists.

As I always say, it's a design problem; there needs to be safe, connected bike infrastructure that keeps people on bikes away from cars and off the sidewalks. Otherwise this is all just going to get worse.