When the CitiBike was proposed for New York City, it was predicted that there would be blood in the streets as all those inexperienced and tourist cyclists got mixed up in New York traffic. In fact, even though there are now bike share systems in 94 cities, not a single person has been killed in the USA using a bike share in more than 35 million trips. (There have been two deaths in Canada and one in Mexico.) Why is this?
Researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute had a look at the question, using statistics, expert interviews and focus groups, and came up with a number of reasons.
It certainly isn’t the helmets; very few bike share riders use them. “Low levels of helmet use were attributed partly to the spontaneous nature of bikesharing trips, which are often unplanned. Respondents also reported that the awkwardness of carrying helmets and lack of helmet ownership were two other factors limiting helmet use.”
It might be the bike design; they are generally heavy, solid, slower, and often covered with lights. “Differences in bicycle design tend to encourage a slower, more conservative riding behavior among bikesharing users.”
It might be the location of bikeshares, usually in denser downtown areas where the traffic is slower. “Because most public bikesharing kiosks are located in dense urban environments with lower roadway speeds and higher levels of pedestrian activity, motorists are more readily looking out for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
It might be that cyclists on bike share bikes are more cautious: “While some experts believed casual users were more error prone because of less familiarity cycling with traffic, they believed this inexperience was compensated for by greater attention, defensive cycling, and motorists who were more forgiving of bikesharing riders.”
Interestingly, the researchers could find no evidence for the “safety in numbers” theory, which suggests that the more cyclists there are, the more visible they are and the lower the rate of accidents. It may just be too soon: “the presence of bikesharing activity at its current scale may not be large enough effect to have any impact on the broader bicycling safety of the general population.” Or as Brad Plumer notes in Vox, “Maybe we haven't hit the tipping point just yet.”
In the conclusions, it appears that the design of the bikes is far more important than one might have thought. But they also point out the demographic differences among the riders:
Bikesharing bicyclists may be inherently more cautious while riding such bicycles given the more limited familiarity. Demographics could also play a role. Surveys of bikesharing users consistently suggest that they do not reflect the general population, but among other characteristics, they are younger and more educated.
Whatever the reasons, it is all good news for those cities that have implemented bike share systems and for those that are considering them.