SAFETY IN NUMBERS
October 14, 2013
By Scott Freitag
Salt Lake City’s Mayor Ralph Becker is a bicycling proponent. Big time. And since he is technically my boss as chief executive, I feel somewhat obliged to give his bicycling initiatives thoughtful consideration. I’m not a bicyclist at heart, and coming to work perched on two wheels will never happen for me; however, in the spirit of community I decided to take my bike to the streets pedaling alongside other officials celebrating the Year of the Bike.
The inaugural ride was scheduled for after work on June 5, and it was estimated to take about two hours, depending on ability. The later start would permit more people to follow a 13.5-mile loop developed by the Salt Lake City Transportation Department. We’d also avoid rush-hour traffic. On paper, the route sounded, well, nice. It led from a park, continued through several more parks, and passed a few of the city’s architectural gems before ending close to where we first clipped into our pedals.
Safety factors were a concern, even more so than wearing Spandex.
Fortunately, our city streets are wider than most, thanks to the planning of City Founder Brigham Young. He wanted roads sufficiently wide for maneuvering ox and cart. We promote train and bus transportation.
I wouldn’t say I was stoked, but the ride was doable. My road bike tuned, a new, properly fitted helmet to wear, and I was ready to hit the road for a practice ride prior to the big event. I knew the route, and off I went.
In hindsight, I didn’t realize what I was getting into, and it wasn’t about putting on clothing that fits a little too closely for my comfort. The mayor’s advocacy of bike riding bringing more bikes to the road, and the infrastructure to support it, is apparently bringing resentment to the roads. It’s a battle of territory and nerves. One doesn’t like the other.
In all fairness, the road rage comes from both sides. During my ride, I saw bike riders ignoring traditional rules of the roads, blasting through stop signs and lights, blowing past traffic by riding on sidewalks and jeopardizing pedestrians, and traveling in side-to-side formations swooping down roadways like a school of angry fish. Impatient motorists cut in front of riders to turn corners and beat red lights, drove inside designated bike lanes, and—in more than one instance—swung open car doors without glancing back directly in the path of cyclists.
I won’t start on the number of drivers talking on phones and texting or in other ways distracted from what was supposed to be taking their attention. Again, to be fair, bicyclists zoned out with ear buds and headphones missed the sounds of sirens, honking horns, and trains.
I later read that this type of inattention and negligence resulted in the deaths of 677 bicyclists involved in car collisions nationwide in 2011. The statistics do not include the number killed in the associated vehicles.
I was glad to get off my bike.
And the ride (which I’m not ashamed to admit ended well before the “finish” line) made me think about how we safely and sanely mix bicyclists and motorists in overall transportation policies. I’m no expert, and can only offer my opinion from the angle of public safety, but, from what I’ve read, it seems that Mayor Becker is onto something. It’s a more the merrier approach. Studies have shown that bicycling fatalities tend to decrease in a counterintuitive way: As the number of bicycle riders on the road increases, the number of bike crashes and deaths has declined.
Bicycling experts call it a “safety in numbers” phenomenon attributed to the higher level of awareness among drivers when more cyclists are sharing the road.
In Philadelphia, Pa., dozens of bike lanes and bike routes have been created, and according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Paul Nussbaum, Sept. 17, 2012) the safety in numbers phenomenon is really playing out. Traffic crashes involving bikes in Philadelphia have fallen from a high of 1,040 in 1998 to 553 in 2010. The city hopes to increase bike lanes to 300 miles, with a goal to boost the percent of commuters traveling by bike from the current 2% to 5% by 2020 and to reduce injuries and fatalities by 50%.
Salt Lake City’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan, now in the public comment stage, includes enhanced walking and bicycling facilities with an emphasis on developing a network of low-street, family friendly bikeways. Similar to Philadelphia, bike lanes will be added, with the goal of more bike commuters and fewer accidents.
I won’t pretend that such a plan will hasten a bicycle commute for me. I won’t trade in my car and—truth be told—I was unable to make the June 5 ride. I like to blame my busy schedule for missing the chance. Yet, I’m slowly developing into a fan of two wheels, especially if more biking means safer biking, and that can only mean fewer calls to 9-1-1 involving bicycling fatalities.