From London to D.C., Bike-Sharing Is Safer Than Riding Your Own Bike

Bike-sharing users might be safer because they take fewer risks while riding. These two women trying out Boulder's new bike-sharing system don't look like daredevils. Photo: dgrinbergs via Flickr

People riding shared public bicycles appear to be involved in fewer traffic crashes and receive fewer injuries than people riding their personal bicycles. In cities from Paris and London to Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, something about riding a shared bicycle appears to make cycling safer.

Paris’s Vélib’ is perhaps the most iconic bike-sharing system in the world. Launched in 2007 with 20,000 bikes, its widespread popularity not only transformed how Parisians traveled across their city but set off an explosion of new bike-sharing systems worldwide. With a few years of practice at this point, the Parisian experience is particularly telling.

“The accident rate is lower on a Vélib’ than on ‘normal’ bikes,” a spokesperson for the office of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë told Streetsblog. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, Vélib’ riders were responsible for one-third of all bike trips in Paris but were involved in only one-fourth of all traffic crashes involving a bicycle.

The numbers are if anything more striking in London, where the Barclays Cycle Hire system — or “Boris Bikes,” to borrow the phrase locals have adopted in honor of their mayor, Boris Johnson — opened at the end of last July. Though the London government didn’t track the relevant safety stats of bike-share users compared to other cyclists, they provided us with the data to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

So far, after 4.5 million trips, no bike-sharing user in London has been seriously injured or killed in a traffic crash, according to Transport for London. Only 10 bike-sharing users were injured at all in the first 1.6 million trips on the system, a statistic that was compiled earlier. A spokesperson also told Streetsblog that they estimate that half a million bike trips take place across London each day, 20,000 of which are on Boris Bikes. Finally, during 2010, 10 people were killed, 457 seriously injured and 3,540 non-seriously injured while cycling in London.

Crunching those numbers, no people were seriously injured or killed on the first 4.5 million trips on Boris Bikes, while about 12 people are injured for every 4.5 million trips on personal bikes. And over 1.6 million trips, ten bike-sharing users received non-serious injuries, compared to an average of 35 such injuries for the same number of trips on personal bikes.

Stateside, transportation officials are seeing the same effect.

Chris Holben, the project manager for Washington D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare system, told the Boston Globe in May that bike-sharing users had a much safer rate of crashes than bike owners. He told Streetsblog that his observation was merely anecdotal, but it turns out that his instincts are likely correct.

In its first seven months of operation, Capital Bikeshare users made 330,000 trips. In that time, seven crashes of any kind were reported, and none involved serious injuries. In comparison, there were 338 cyclist injuries and fatalities overall in 2010, according to the District Department of Transportation, with an estimated 28,400 trips per weekday, 5,000 of which take place on a Capital Bikeshare bikes.

So while only seven bike-sharing riders were injured in 330,000 trips, on average, 13 people riding personal bikes are injured over the same number of trips. And bike-sharing riders suffered no serious injuries, while riders using their own bikes suffered injuries that were sometimes serious or even fatal.

In other systems, apples-to-apples comparisons with personal bike riders are impossible, but extremely low injury rates among bike-sharing riders still stand out.

In Mexico City, for example, only three ECOBICI riders have required a trip to the hospital after a traffic crash in the 1.6 million trips taken so far. That’s an impressive safety record in a city known for its dangerous traffic. Mexico City does not, however, compile the necessary data to accurately compare the ECOBICI safety rate with that of other cyclists, said a representative of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which provided technical assistance on the city’s bike-sharing program.

Similarly, Minneapolis’s NiceRide system reported “no significant accidents or major injuries” in its first year of operation. In that time, Minnesotans took 37,000 NiceRide trips.

This is encouraging news for cities like New York that are eyeing bike-sharing systems of their own. Some have worried that bike-sharing would bring a flood of inexperienced new cyclists onto roads that are too dangerous, but if New York’s experience is anything like that of its peers, cycling will be safer overall once shared bikes are added to the mix.

Bike-sharing users are struck and injured less often than people on their personal bikes. One theory is that they're more likely to stick to safe routes like this one in London. Photo: d1v1d via Flickr

For now, we can only speculate as to the reasons for this phenomenon. Streetsblog spoke with two experts on road safety, Professors Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut and Ian Walker of the University of Bath. Each offered a number of possible explanations for the discrepancy in safety numbers.

“It’s shorter trips, maybe,” proposed Garrick. If bike-sharing users are generally taking trips of less than thirty minutes so as to avoid additional fees, each trip might be fewer miles, leading to a lower crash rate per trip.

Walker hypothesized that bike-sharing users might be less experienced riders than those who own their own bike. “They therefore avoid mixing with traffic as much as regular riders, and ride slower, and so have fewer serious collisions,” he theorized. That might be easier to achieve if bike-sharing stations are sited near bike lanes, added Garrick.

Garrick said that even apart from experience in cycling, people who have avoided cycling until bike-sharing presents them with the option might be, by their nature, less tolerant of risk and stick to safer cycling behavior. “It could be that they’re more cautious people.”

Or the other case may be true, said Walker — bike-share users could be more dedicated cyclists with an above-average skill level. “Most people don’t hire bikes from such a scheme, suggesting that the people who do hire from them might be those with a greater than average interest in cycling.” That could be especially true of the tourists taking them out, who might not have brought their own bike along with them.

The physical qualities of the shared bikes themselves might be responsible for their increased safety. “They are slower and they are very visible,” said Garrick.

That visibility might help motorists not only notice the bike-sharing user, but respect her as well, said Walker. “I suspect they are also, in most people’s minds, a sign of a novice or occasional cyclist. As such, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if drivers took more care around people using them than they do around ‘professional’ looking cyclists.” Walker’s own research has shown that drivers passed cyclists more closely if they were wearing helmets or appeared to be male.

Significantly more research will be needed to determine which combination of these factors actually explains the better safety record of bike-sharing users. But in the meantime, cities with bike-sharing systems on the horizon should be pleased to hear that the program will likely be a boon for street safety.