New American Study Confirms: Physically Separated Bike Lanes Are Crucial for Safety

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©. Chris Bruntlett and daughter

A new study by John Pucher and Ralph Bueler confirms what every cyclist already knows: physically separated bike lanes are by far the best way to reduce injuries and deaths. The two researchers had already shown that more bike lanes mean more cyclists and that bikes keep you skinny, but now demonstrate that cycle tracks keep you alive. In an editorial they compare the death and injury rates among different countries:

The death and injury rate in the US is high compared to Europe, Controlling for exposure levels, cyclist fatalities in 2010 per 100 million kilometers cycled were 4.7 in the United States versus 1.0 in the Netherlands, 1.1 in Denmark, and 1.3 in Germany. Serious injury rates in 2010 were also much higher in the United States: 207 serious injuries per 100 million kilometers cycled versus 44 in Germany.
bike infrastructure

© Bueler and Pucher

But look what happens as bike infrastructure is installed in the US: as the bikeway network grows, the number of trips explodes and the rate of fatalities and injuries drops dramatically.

It is not simply a matter of expanding bicycle infrastructure, however. The specific type of bicycle infrastructure matters. Several studies show the crucial importance of physical separation of cycling facilities from motor vehicle traffic on heavily traveled roads. A study of different kinds of cycling facilities in Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, found that the safest kind of facility, by far, were cycle tracks, which are on-street bicycle lanes that are physically separated from motor vehicles by raised curbs, bollards, or concrete barriers.
Maisoneuve bike lane

Lloyd Alter/ Maisoneuve bike lane/CC BY 2.0

The authors find that cycle tracks are 89 percent safer than streets with parking and no bicycle infrastructure, and not surprisingly determine that “removing car parking and replacing it with cycle tracks is an ideal way to improve cycling safety on major streets” – loss of parking spaces being the single thing that drivers and businesses complain about most. But they conclude:

It is crucial to provide physical separation from fast-moving, high-volume motor vehicle traffic and better intersection design to avoid conflicts between cyclists and motor vehicles. More and better bicycle infrastructure and safer cycling would encourage Americans to make more of their daily trips by bicycle and, thus, help raise the currently low physical activity levels of the US population.
cycling deaths

© Bueler and Pucher

When you look at the data tracking the fatality rate for cyclists, every country has improved over the last 25 years. But the US has pretty much flatlined since 2000, as has Canada, albeit at a lower percentage. And in Canada and the US, every bike lane is a political struggle, a war on the car. But the data are clear: cycling and walking save lives. So do separated bike lanes. It’s staring us in the face.