Improving Biking Is as Much About Slowing Cars as Building Better Bike Lanes

How stressful is this street to bike on? You can't tell from a photo. Image: Stewart Eastep.
How stressful is this street to bike on? You can't tell from a photo. Image: Stewart Eastep.

Since its founding 50 years ago, the top U.S. agency for investigating transportation injuries had been suprisingly quiet about a phenomenon that’s behind 30 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities.

Like much of the country’s transportation safety establishment, the National Transportation Safety Board had frequently avoided the subject of the speed of private cars. It did so even though the issue has been coming up since the very first collision the agency investigated, in Joliet, Illinois, in 1967.

Avoided the subject until this summer, that is.

In its groundbreaking report released in full last week, the federal agency laid the foundations for a major rethinking of transportation safety practices. The big idea in short, as Kathleen Ferrier puts it: “speed kills.”

“It’s the first time that we’ve seen national leadership on speed, and it’s coming from an authoritative voice,” said Ferrier, policy and communications manager for the Vision Zero Network, a campaign to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries. “The relationship between crashes and fatalities is complex, but the relationship between speed and crashes is very clear. Speed makes crashes more likely and the severity of injury more deadly.”

But many advocates of low-car transportation overlook the importance of traffic speed.

“I’ve been a bike/ped advocate for years and we’ve talked more about safe design than about speed,” Ferrier said.

One of the most important parts of bike infrastructure is invisible

Bike lanes like this one might be quite comfortable on a low-speed street. In this case, not so much.

Most of the NTSB report combines recent data and long-term trends to show how many fatal collisions are caused by excessive auto speed. Speed-related death, for example, is “comparable to that attributed to alcohol-impaired driving.”

And yet it’s sometimes implied that auto speed is unchangeable behavior — for example, in parts of a separate bike safety report published Thursday by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. That report dedicates an entire section to alcohol as a factor in bike-related fatalities but doesn’t even mention auto speed in that context. (To its credit, the GHSA report goes on to discuss and recommend many policies to reduce auto speeds anyway.)

Even biking advocates can be guilty of overlooking speed as a factor in bike infrastructure. Slower-moving cars don’t photograph as nicely as a green-painted protected bike lane, but they’re just as important to whether most people feel comfortable biking on a road — even when a new bike lane isn’t in the works.

“In my experience, speed is seldom discussed until a new bike or pedestrian facility is proposed,” said Jennifer Ruley, a senior project manager for the New Orleans transportation department who works on bicycle projects, reflecting on conversations among people who care about bicycling. “That’s just crazy.”

In the new PlacesForBikes Bike Network Analysis of various U.S. cities, we always look at two factors when calculating the “stress level” of biking on a given street: the roadway design (auto lane count, bike lane width, separation type, and the presence of parking) and the posted speed limit.

That’s based on work by Northeastern University’s Peter Furth, who concluded that auto speeds interact with bikeway design to greatly affect people’s willingness to bike on a street.

What cities, states, and advocates could do to help

Neighborhood bikeways make biking comfortable on side streets simply by slowing and reducing auto traffic.

What can biking believers inside and outside of government do to reduce dangerously fast driving?

One way might be to pay at least as much attention to too-wide auto lanes, which increase people’s “natural” driving speed, as to too-narrow bike lanes.

Another might be to support four-lanes-to-three road redesigns even when the changes don’t include bike lanes, because those designs prevent bad drivers from weaving between lanes in order to get to the next red light more quickly.

On heavily signalized streets, cities could create green waves that give continuous green lights at 20 mph or 12 mph, making it pointless to drive at a lethal speed.

And as the NTSB report recommends, states could give cities the right to use safety cameras — already in wide use on the dramatically safer streets of Europe — to automatically issue fines to scofflaws who ignore speeding laws.

The NTSB report also questions the longstanding “rule of thumb” that speed limits should be set based on the natural speed at which 85 percent of people drive. The NTSB recommends also considering other factors, including recent collision and fatality rates, when setting speed limits.

“They’re basically saying it’s time to reevaluate these outdated practices that have been rules of thumb since the 1950s,” said Ferrier. “But they haven’t been reevaluated, and they’re leading to death on our streets.”

PlacesForBikes is a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks.

  • Stuart

    It’s a California law:

    He doesn’t understand (or willfully ignores) the well-established concept of induced demand in transportation, and thus believes that adding bike lanes is bad for the environment.

  • You’re not helping Western Girl with her ignorance, Stuart, by sharing your own. CEQA, the most important environmental law in Caifornia, was passed in 1970, when Ronald Reagan was governor:

    The point of our successful litigation was compel our city government to do an environmental study of the ambitious, 500-page Bicycle Plan before it began implementing it on the streets of the city, which is what the law clearly required. CEQA doesn’t in fact “prevent” projects from being implemented. It just requires environmental review before they are.

    It was an easy decision for the judge to make:

    That plan proposed taking away thousands of street parking spaces and dozens of traffic lanes on busy city streets to make bike lanes, an obvious environmental impact, since reducing already scarce street parking in SF and eliminating traffic lanes on busy city streets could lead to increased traffic congestion and thus more air pollution.

  • Oh, Western Girl, I didn’t mean to make you sad! I’m not angry or an “auto advocate.” I haven’t owned a car in more than 20 years and walk and take the bus in SF. But the reality is that most people rely on motor vehicles to get around, and cycling, even in SF, is still only practiced by a very small minority in spite of years of pro-bike, anti-car propaganda from City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition.

    Deliberately making traffic worse by taking away traffic lanes as in Playa Del Rey is not helpful to the bike cause. On the contrary, it just makes you seem like elitist jerks.

    But City Hall is also doing that here in SF:

  • I mostly walk in SF, or I take the bus. I wouldn’t ride a bike, because it’s too dangerous. I haven’t owned a car in more than 20 years.

    Yes, people die every day on the country’s roads, but traffic fatalities in the US are actually in decline overall:

  • It can be when you take away traffic lanes and street parking on busy streets to make bike lanes like SF is doing on Masonic Avenue:

    The jury is still out on the consequences of this policy.

  • What the Centers for Disease Control says about cycling: “Bicycle trips account for only 1% of all trips in the United States. However, bicyclists face a higher risk of crash related injury and deaths than occupants in motor vehicles.”

  • Alicia

    ” Safety equals 85th percentile speed limits, longer yellow lights, and stop signs only where needed.”

    As always, you forgot to add what you really meant: “safety for car users” and “stop signs only where needed for car users”.

    “OK, so we make narrower lanes and fewer lanes, then have more crashes, and congestion.”

    Only if (1) the amount of cars people drive stays the same, and (2), people don’t adjust to the new realities.

    “All the eco-people out there had better realize that as you create congestion, you waste energy and pollution increases.”

    Again, you’re working on the assumption that (1), the number of cars on the road is a fixed quantity, and (2) that gasoline powered cars are going to keep their current hold on the market. Those two assumptions are not automatically true in every place.

    “More research needed before the next article is written.”

    Are you talking about actual research or just reading NMA press releases?

  • LinuxGuy

    You are incapable of having a rational discussion, so I will not waste my time. I learned that in the past.

  • Stuart

    And that’s relevant to me showing that your own source shows that your claim that “Cycling is the cause of most head injuries treated in emergency rooms” is a complete fabrication how, exactly?

  • Stuart

    I wouldn’t ride a bike, because it’s too dangerous.

    Some people view the fact that biking is more dangerous in the US than in a number of other countries as a problem to be addressed by building better bike infrastructure.

    Others actively obstruct efforts to build better bike infrastructure.

  • Frank Kotter

    The ‘full disclosure’ Rob failed to mention: It is his own blog. Read the comments. He’s been making these claims and been soundly refuted since 2009 (at least).

  • Frank Kotter

    Again, RichLL, can you provide actual citation for this (not your own blog from 2009)?

  • Frank Kotter

    ???? now you jump to helmets? Oh dear Rob, RichLL, ect. Again, it would be great to have an honest conversation. However, your comments sections takeovers on here where you successfully take any value out of the conversation is just sad. Blocked again. Get busy on your next profile to get your next response from me.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    When a person is killed or seriously injured while riding a bicycle, why does it matter who’s fault it was? Everyone makes mistakes because we’re all human.

    When our streets are designed in such a way that any split second error in judgement results in blood being spilled and lives destroyed, who is guilty of making that mistake isn’t relevant. The goal of safer street designs is to allow greater safety margins which will result in fewer collisions and will cost less than the staggering high cost we’re currently paying for all the blood that pours down our poorly designed streets.

  • Andrew

    I don’t ride a bike, either, and I have no interest in riding a bike, but I don’t see the need to obstruct efforts to make biking safer, since I’m not a selfish jerk.

    Besides, the bike lane installations where I live have also made the streets safer for pedestrians and motorists.

  • Andrew

    Not on city streets, as you’e been told many times. The 85th percentile approach comes out of a 1964 paper about rural roads. Aside from being over half a century old, it never had any bearing on city streets.

  • Alicia

    Rational discussion and NMA members are like oil and water, but okay then.

  • Alicia

    1) Your post (like Frank says) is based on anecdotal evidence rather than comprehensive data.
    2) The numbers you do cite don’t specify whether they differentiate between road biking and mountain biking.
    3) Like a comment on your post says, you gloss over the difference between injuries and fatalities.

    Let’s see if you follow through and improve yourself, or whether you continue as you’ve been doing and try to propagandize against bicycle access.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’m with you, Andrew. I don’t ride a bike very often, but I’ve noticed that where bike lanes (especially protected bike lanes) and other road-diet features have been installed, that the street generally feels safer and more comfortable to walk along (and across).

  • Why would you want to risk your life while going about on your daily errands? In more than 70 years as a passenger in cars, trucks, and buses, I’ve never been in an accident, let alone a life-threatening accident. Riding a bike has intrinsic risks that can’t be prevented by street design. Don’t do it.

  • No, those writers understand that mountain biking is a special case and different than road biking. For one thing, mountain bikers are more honest about their speed/thrill motivation for than cyclists are in San Francisco, those I see speeding down the hills in my neighborhood and running stop signs.

    Why take the chance of either injury or death by riding a bike?

  • Oh Frank, don’t be sad! Your comment reads like a translation from a foreign language.

  • LinuxGuy

    You never read the formal paperwork for it, or the federal report which discussed speed limit setting and how it affects behavior. The people pushing bad laws have selective amnesia with stuff like this.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    The risks of sitting in a car are far worse in the long run for human health than the risks of riding a bicycle. I used to weight over 220 pounds and ride Muni to work each day. As careful as I am crossing the street, I had near misses with inattentive drivers about once every 3-4 weeks just walking the 8 blocks over to Van Ness from my home. Since I’ve bought my first bicycle 4 years ago, I’ve lost 50 pounds, and riding my bicycle in city traffic I experience near misses only about once every 6 months. Collision statistics by the SFGH trauma center confirm this; walking in SF is more dangerous than riding a bicycle. I’m very risk averse so I tend to ride and walk very carefully.

    I used to believe in the myth that riding a bicycle in the city is inherently dangerous. In my case, not riding a bicycle was a much greater risk to my life than riding one. Since I started biking, I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. More importantly, I never need to ride Muni or sit in congested city traffic ever again!

  • Alicia

    Why take the chance of either injury or death walking? 13 people got killed by being hit by a driver while walking in SF last year:

    Also, you haven’t actually addressed my points, so I guess your comment about improving yourself wasn’t all that sincere.

  • roberthurst157

    Do you feel the same way when you get into a car and go 70 mph on the highway, putting your life in the hands of all those strangers driving around you? Probably don’t even think about it.

    It’s true that there are a lot of ways to crash a bicycle, but I wish you would stop dropping my name to scare people away from bicycling. It’s not for everybody, but bicycling would be a great, reasonably safe option for tens of millions of Americans who currently drive everywhere.


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