Anyone who’s ever ridden a bikeshare bike can tell you: they are hardy, aluminum tanks on two wheels. But does that translate to an inherently safer experience on the street, especially when many casual riders are likely unfamiliar with a city’s bike infrastructure?TRANSPO TAKEAWAYLow crash rates mean bikeshare systems continue to be an essential low-barrier transportation option, attractive and open to all kinds of riders.
A recent study from the Mineta Transportation Institute determined that yes, bikeshare systems in major metropolitan areas have low rates of collisions, and are in fact safer than riding a personal bike.
The report, “Bikesharing and Bicycle Safety,” examined at data from three active bikeshare systems: Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., Nice Ride in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Bay Area Bike Share in the San Francisco Bay Area. Researchers also met with focus groups of bikeshare riders and non-members in San Francisco and San Jose to determine riders’ habits and perceptions, sought insight from road-safety experts, and analyzed crash data from the various operators and state transportation agencies in the three metropolitan areas.
While Washington, D.C., had the highest rate of bikeshare crashes of the areas surveyed, using bikeshare is still 65 percent safer than riding a personal bike. To date, there have been no fatalities in the United States as a result of a bikeshare-related crash.
The report points to several likely factors to explain the generally low rate of crashes for bikeshare riders. The form of the bike, which is heavy, has just a few slow gears, and puts the rider in an upright position, encourages a slower bicycling style. The weight and wide tires make bikeshare bikes more resilient to the potholes and bumps of urban riding. In addition to the bike design features, bikeshare riders often appear to ride more cautiously.
The authors also suggest that the form of the bike alerts drivers to be more careful. The pre-installed, pedal-powered lights and bright paint jobs make bikeshare riders easily recognizable and visible on the road.
Despite the high safety findings, the researchers found “the reason is definitely not due to increased helmet use, which is widely documented to be lower among bikeshare users.” Bikeshare riders consistently wear helmets less frequently, either due to using the system as a connecting mode in a longer trip or its use by tourists. It’s worth noting that outside of the regions covered in the study, cases suggest that helmet requirements are often a barrier to people trying out bikeshare systems.
Interestingly, the report could not find any evidence to suggest that bikeshare systems benefit from the “safety in numbers” concept. The hypothesis asserts that, as the number of people walking or biking in an area increase, the number of crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists decreases. It’s possible that the number of bikeshare bikes added to the road was not high enough to create a measurable increase in the safety-in-numbers phenomenon. In the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., the number of bike-related crashes has increased in recent years, proportional to the rise of additional bicyclists on the streets. In the Twin Cities area, while collisions did not rise as more people began biking, there was not enough evidence to suggest that the Nice Ride bikeshare system contributed to a distinct safety-in-numbers effect.
“The results … [that] there is little to no relationship between the relative change in collisions within a zip code and the number of bikesharing trips in that zip code … suggests that there is little evidence in the collision and activity data to support a safety-in-numbers effect resulting from Capital Bikeshare.”
The availability of clear data on bicycling trends in cities was a key challenge for the report’s authors. While the American Communities Survey provides a glimpse at biking as a commuting modeshare, there isn’t a good source of details on other kinds of trips and miles traveled. According to the report’s authors, finding better ways for cities to document the “number of bicycle trips and miles traveled more regularly and continuously would aid researchers so they could more rigorously track movements as well as injury and fatality rates.” As bikeshare systems expand, however, more detailed records of biking activity emerge, as not only the number of trips can be captured, but also their duration, start- and end-points, and estimated distance.
Data gaps aside, bikeshare remains an extremely safe choice for getting around a city. Smart, safety-focused designs and cautious riding habits have created an option that, in many cities, is a low-barrier complement to their many transit options.
Photo: A man rides a Capital Bikeshare bike on Pennsylvania Avenue (Angela N., Flickr, Creative Commons).