Bike-Share Has a Great Safety Record in Cities More Dangerous Than NYC

With bike-share stations hitting the streets but the launch still a few weeks away, there’s a lot of misinformed speculation floating around about Citi Bike. A favorite tactic of the bike-share opposition is to conjure visions of chaos and “hell on wheels” after the system launches, as the Daily News did in a recent opinion piece. But there’s a reason the anti-bike-share crowd has to invoke imaginary scenarios: In the real world, crash statistics from bike-share cities show that bike-share users are less likely to be involved in crashes than other cyclists.

If New York's experience is like other cities, Citi Bikes will be the safest bikes on the street. Photo: Planetgordon/Flickr

Earlier this week, US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood was at a bicycle safety summit in Minneapolis, where the seasonal bike-share service Nice Ride has logged 575,000 trips since its launch in June 2010. At the same time, LaHood wrote, “the number of bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes in Minneapolis has actually declined.” This meshes with the “safety in numbers” effect, first noted by researcher Peter Jacobsen in the journal Injury Prevention ten years ago, which holds that the injury rate for walking and biking is lower in places where more people walk and bike.

Of the Nice Ride system’s nearly 600,000 trips, only four have resulted in crashes, executive director Bill Dossett told Streetsblog. There were no serious injuries, and only two resulted bruises and cuts, he said.

“Nice Ride has had a very good safety record,” said Simon Blenski, bicycle and pedestrian planner for the City of Minneapolis, adding that the system has not caused a significant change in the city’s total number of bike crashes since it opened.

The experience in Minneapolis is typical of other American cities that have launched bike-share systems. Streetsblog’s Noah Kazis wrote about this phenomenon in 2011, and we recently got some updated stats that show the pattern has held since then.

In Boston, Hubway, also a seasonal service, has logged more than 700,000 trips since its launch in July 2011. There have been only three reported crashes, Hubway general manager Scott Mullen told Streetsblog. One crash resulted in serious injuries after a van driver ran a red light, while one resulted in a minor sprain, and the third resulted in no injuries.

“We’re seeing overall a much lower incident rate among bike-share users as compared to regular bike users,” said Jessica Robertson of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for the Boston area.

Although limitations in data collection make it hard to rigorously compare bike-share riders with other cyclists, the available numbers suggest the superior safety record of bike-share holds true in Washington, DC, where Capital Bikeshare launched in September, 2010. Since then, users have made more than 4 million trips. In that time, there have been 64 reported crashes, says DDOT bike-share project manager Chris Holben. At the same time, Holben says there are an estimated 40,000 daily bike trips in DC, which works out to about 14.6 million trips per year, while the District saw 538 bicycle crashes in 2011, according to DDOT. Run the numbers, and it’s clear that, even accounting for some variation in the number of total bike trips, Capital Bikeshare riders are far less likely than other riders to be involved in a crash.

New York, it should be noted, has lower traffic fatality rates than Boston and DC, according to NYC DOT’s Pedestrian Safety Study [PDF]. In other words, NYC streets are safer than streets in cities that have already launched bike-share systems and observed low crash rates.

There are a number of possible explanations for why bike-share users are less likely to crash in the first place, but there are two main avenues for conjecture. First is the type of bicycle being ridden, and second is the type of person riding it.

Bike-share bikes are heavy and sturdy, with only three gears. They are not built for speed. In addition, each bike comes with bright front and rear lights that continue to operate even while the bike is stopped at an intersection. The general population does not come close to a 100 percent bike light usage rate. (At the low end, researchers observed a 15 percent rate in Boston in 1998, while at the high end, 80 percent of evening rush-hour cyclists in Portland were observed using adequate front lights in 2011.)

Bike-share also tends to attract a different population than cycling in general. In DC, for instance, women comprise 45 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s membership, but only 23 percent of the general cycling population. In addition, 70 percent of Capital Bikeshare members did not already own a bicycle before joining. It could be that the people attracted to bike-share are more likely to behave cautiously and ride on safer bike routes. (With GPS embedded in each Citi Bike, researchers will be able to learn more about the routes that bike-share users select.)

Of course, any discussion of bike-share safety must eventually turn to that much-debated object of American bicycle safety advice, the helmet. Bike-share riders, who are less likely to be involved in a crash to begin with, are also less likely than other cyclists to wear protective headgear. In Boston, only one in three Hubway riders wear a helmet, compared to 72 percent of all cyclists. In DC in 2012, a quarter of all cyclists went helmetless, while 43 percent of Capital Bikeshare users reported never wearing a helmet. Most said they went without because they were making an unplanned trip or they weren’t carrying a helmet with them.

Here in New York, the city is encouraging helmet use for bike-share by offering discount coupons for new bike helmets and helmet fittings, but has strongly pushed back against proposals for mandatory helmet laws, citing the negative impact on bicycle ridership. In Melbourne, Australia, a mandatory helmet law has discouraged people from using bike-share, and helmet laws have been a hurdle in getting systems off the ground in Seattle and Vancouver, BC.

For now, it seems like no amount of data is going to sway the tabloids or the other bike-share critics that Citi Bike is going to work well. But in Boston — a city famous for its aggressive drivers and noxious traffic — bike-share’s safety record “has helped quiet skeptics,” the Boston Globe reported in December. It’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens here in New York.