More Bicycles Make Roads Safer for Everyone


While researching this week’s post, I ran across a fascinating study, entitled “The Relationship Between Bicycles and Traffic Safety For All Road Users.” Its author, Jasmine A. Martin, submitted it in December 2014 as part of her master’s thesis in City Planning and Traffic Engineering at California Polytechnic State University.

The study, which runs over 60 pages, is nothing if not thorough. Some of the math is complicated, and the author is fond of engineering-ese, peppering her prose with terms like “modal splits” and “risk homeostasis.” Martin admits the difficulty of drawing ironclad conclusions in the presence of many variables, but she presents her information in an impartial, unbiased, and most importantly, scientific fashion.

Her results will come as a surprise to those people who rail against bicyclists and claim that their presence makes roads more dangerous. In fact, the opposite is true.

Martin begins by comparing the rate of traffic fatalities in the United States with other high-income countries. Traffic fatalities include drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. In 2010, the United States had 12.3 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents (FHPY), according to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization. This compares with 9.2 in Canada, 5.7 in Australia, 3.9 in Japan, and 3.6 in the United Kingdom.

She then looks at American cities in comparison to Europe. The implication shown by the statistics is inescapable. Portland, Oregon, is the most bicycle-friendly large city in the United States. It’s also the safest for drivers, with 3.39 FHPY, barely above famously bike-friendly Amsterdam, which had 3.36 FHPY.

The next-safest American city is New York (3.49 FHPY), which has the lowest rate of car ownership in the United States, and where much business is done by bicycle. The cities with the least safe roads are also the most car-dominated: Los Angeles (7.64), Detroit (10.31), and Atlanta (10.97).

Note that even in the worst cities, the rate of car fatalities per 100,000 residents falls below the national average. This makes sense when you think about it, because people in rural areas drive more than their urban counterparts. They also tend to be less friendly to bicyclists, and more likely to view them as a nuisance and an inconvenience rather than as a normal part of traffic.

Bicycling is good for everyone on the road. The widespread presence of bicycles, coupled with marked lanes, traffic islands and other infrastructure designed with bikes and pedestrians in mind, has a calming effect on the behavior of drivers. This reduces accidents overall, as pointed out in the February 2011 issue of the Environmental Building News: “Cycling may improve traffic safety overall, not just for cyclists… drivers exercise more caution with more cyclists on the road.”

There are encouraging sign around Bangor that the city is beginning to take lessons from “the other Portland” to heart. The improvements along Main Street will have a moderating effect on car traffic. Bicycle racks are proliferating all over the city. A new group called Walk-n-Roll has formed to promote bicycling and walking in the greater Bangor area.

But more needs to be done. The article in the Environmental Building News goes on to report:

Portland offers 300 miles (480 km) of trails, lanes, and bicycle-friendly streets to encourage bicycle use. As this network has developed, the city’s overall crash mortality rate has dropped significantly, especially when compared with national figures. According to an analysis in New Urban News, the trends in Portland can’t all be attributed to Portland’s bicycle policies. Portland has also invested in reducing automobile use through improvements in mass transit, transit-oriented development, and limits on the availability of parking downtown.

That’s nice. Buses and bicycles work together, to make the roads safer for all of us, inside and outside of cars. It follows that Bangor and similar communities should pursue policies that encourage more of both. A good start would be to equip all the Community Connector buses with the larger bike racks that can hold three bicycles instead of two. Later evening hours would be a plus, too, as would restoring the lost Saturday Hampden and weekday Odlin Road routes, and expanding the service to other outlying communities such as Hermon and Orrington.

Every bicyclist and bus passenger is part of a growing movement. Our car-driven, shopping mall, drive-thru lifestyle is incredibly unhealthy. Bicyclists as an integral part of traffic are here to stay. Next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, there will be more of us.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.