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Safety in Numbers: Creating a Swarm of Bicyclists

A Call to Arms Manifesto

By Dom Nozzi


I joined a bicycling and walking board of directors in 2008 because I was no longer able to tolerate the annual carnage of bicyclists and pedestrians killed on roads throughout the nation. For example, in 2007, 698 bicyclists killed and 43,000 were injured in traffic crashes in America. That same year, 4,654 pedestrians were killed and 70,000 were injured in traffic crashes.

I joined the board because I am impatient with how bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations have muddled along without showing any meaningful progress with regard to their two prime objectives: Growing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians, and dramatically improving bicyclist and pedestrian safety.

I joined the board because I presume that a bicycling and walking organization would be interested in showing the courage, wisdom and leadership to break out of this unfortunate pattern of having very little to show for its efforts to grow bicyclists and pedestrians, or improve their safety. To take measures that are effective in achieving larger numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians, and substantially improving their safety.

With that introduction to what I have to say below, and based on the Bike/Walk Virginia Board of Directors meeting held on May 20, 2009, I humbly suggest the following recommendations:

  • Change the name “Bike/Walk Virginia” to “Bicyclists & Pedestrians of Virginia”

Proposed name is more bold, more personalized and more proud. It is also less of a “jargon” term than the current name.

  • Change the mission statement to “Growing the number of active transportation and recreationalists in the State of Virginia”

Four Important Concepts

I have realized four important things in recent years with regard to bicycling and walking:

  1. That true safety for bicyclists comes from low-speed street design (I’ve long known this), and Safety in Numbers (SiN).
  2. That nearly all state and local bicycle advocacy groups are undercutting their (presumably) prime objective of recruiting new bicyclists by obsessively, aggressively pushing bike helmet use.
  3. That SiN is perhaps one of the most effective ways to achieve increased bicyclist safety, which means that bicycle advocates must start identifying and deploying the most effective bicyclist recruitment tactics to improve safety. Below is my own personal list of what I believe are such tactics.Cyclists-in-Copenhagen-001
  4. That large numbers of bicyclists effectively create a virtuous cycle: Lots of bicyclists means much safer bicycling conditions. The improved safety due to the large numbers of bicyclists sends the message that bicycling is safe (many who say they don’t bicycle say so because biking is thought to be too dangerous). And with large numbers of bicyclists, bicycling seems normal, not weird. These factors, in turn, recruit non-bicyclists—who formerly feared bicycling dangers and worried about looking weird—to start bicycling. Which adds more bicyclists to the community. Which makes bicycling safer and more normalized. And so on…

Of course, an additional, important benefit of successfully recruiting and maintaining large numbers of bicyclists in a community is that doing so inevitably sets in motion the political will to improve bicycling and walking conditions in the community transportation system—in particular, by slowing and narrowing streets, and creating more bicycle lanes, sidewalks, paths, and connectors.

Effective and Essential Tactics

In my humble opinion, this is a list of the most effective and essential tactics to induce bicycling & walking, roughly in order of effectiveness…

  • Scarce and priced car parking
  • Proximity (via mixed use and higher residential densities)
  • Keeping all roads and intersections modest in size, and reduced in size (road dieted travel lane reduction). Widening projects, especially those done in the name of safety or capacity, are opposed. Wider roads and intersections are among the biggest deterrents to walking and cycling.
  • Slow speed street design (via attentive rather than forgiving street design)
  • Converting one-way back to two-way streets
  • Relatively high gas prices (via a gas tax)
  • Short block lengths and connected streets
  • Full-time staff assigned to bicycling and pedestrian commuting

Bike lanes and sidewalks are conspicuously absent from this list because while I believe they are a vital way to convey the important message that the community is bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, I do not believe such facilities, alone, induce a meaningful increase in “utilitarian” bicycling and walking.

Safety in Numbers

“Safety in Numbers” needs to be promoted and leveraged as one of the most effective means of improving bicyclist and pedestrian safety, and thereby substantially reduce the appalling number of annual bicyclist and pedestrian deaths.

Safety in numbers creates a herd mentality: safe, hip, and normal. “If everyone else is doing it (including “normal-looking people”), there is no reason why I shouldn’t give it a try, too.”

When there are large numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians using streets on a regular basis, motorists are more likely to expect to see bicyclists and pedestrians. Expectation improves safety, in part because surprise is reduced. In addition, when motorists drive on streets, crosswalks and sidewalks being used by bicyclists and pedestrians on a more regular basis, the motorist learns how to drive more safely near bicyclists and pedestrians.

In an article entitled “Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling,” (Jacobsen, P.L., Injury Prevention 2003;9:205–209), the abstract of the paper noted the following:

“Objective: To examine the relationship between the numbers of people walking or bicycling and the frequency of collisions between motorists and walkers or bicyclists. The common wisdom holds that the number of collisions varies directly with the amount of walking and bicycling. However, three published analyses of collision rates at specific intersections found a non-linear relationship, such that collisions rates declined with increases in the numbers of people walking or bicycling.

Data: This paper uses five additional data sets (three population level and two time series) to compare the amount of walking or bicycling and the injuries incurring in collisions with motor vehicles.

Results: The likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods.

Discussion: This result is unexpected. Since it is unlikely that the people walking and bicycling become more cautious if their numbers are larger, it indicates that the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling. It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling. There is an urgent need for further exploration of the human factors controlling motorist behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling.

Conclusion: A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”

“Normalizing” instead of “Dangerizing”

It is important to soft-pedal helmets and lycra for city bicycle commuters. Helmets and lycra discourage bicycling, and promote the perception that bicycling is dangerous and weird, not normal. Overly zealous bicycle helmet promotion visibly promotes the “dangerization” of bicycling, which is the last thing that a community seeking to increase the number of bicyclists should do.

It is appropriate, of course, to support and encourage wearing lycra and a bicycle helmet for off-road trail riding and long-distance, higher speed road riding, as long as the safety limits of helmet use are understood.

Bicyclists, AS INDIVIDUALS, are probably safer when wearing a helmet. But if we were to look at the life safety of an entire community or nation, that this GROUP of people, overall, would be safer if we did NOT require or aggressively push use of a bike helmet.

Recommended BWVA Positions to Promote Safety in Numbers (i.e., to significantly grow the number of bicyclists and pedestrians)

  1. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that communities provide car parking efficiently rather than excessively, and that on-street car parking be priced to provide an occupancy rate of approximately 85 percent during busy times of day or night. Donald Shoup has persuasively pointed out that underpriced, excessive parking is the largest subsidy in America. A subsidy that strongly promotes excessive car trips, and significantly discourages bicycling and walking. The parking subsidy also inequitably increases the cost of goods and services that non-motorists must pay to help subsidize parking costs. Perhaps the most effective and feasible tactic to end car parking subsidies is to employ “parking cash-out,” where the employee is given the option of retaining a free parking space, or getting a larger paycheck. Similarly, new residences, when feasible, should have the cost of parking “unbundled” from the cost of the housing so that the home-buyer has the option to pay more for parking, or pay less and not have parking. Excessive, inefficient, inappropriately located surface parking also consumes an enormous amount of space and creates unwalkably large dead zones, which undercuts the essential goal of proximity. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that proximity to travel distances be promoted by strongly encouraging communities to create abundant mixed use areas (housing mixed with commercial land uses) and, where appropriate, higher residential densities. [Planning studies show that the low densities and single-use land use patterns in most of America create enormous travel distances — distances that make regular, utilitarian bicycling and walking impractical for nearly all Americans.]
  2. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that the State and Federal Government adopt relatively high gas prices via a gas tax, and that this tax be automatically inflation-adjusted. [Artificially low, subsidized gas prices strongly promote excessive car trips and create a highly inequitable economic situation in which non-motorists must help pay for roadway costs (through such things as property & sales taxes) necessitated by motorists.]
  3. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that communities require relatively short block lengths and relatively connected streets through their land development codes. [Urban designers have found that one of the most effective ways to promote walking and bicycling is to keep block lengths short and streets connected. The added benefit is that car speeds tend to be lower in residential and retail areas.]
  4. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that state and local governments design town center and neighborhood streets for low speeds by incorporating traffic calming, road diets, and attentive rather than forgiving street design. [Too often, street design standards and an excessive number of travel lanes unintentionally encourage high-speed, inattentive driving in inappropriate locations such as neighborhoods and retail areas. Such driving is extremely dangerous and discouraging for bicyclists and pedestrians.]
  5. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that local and state government avoid creating one-way streets in the future, and convert existing one-way back to two-way streets. [One-way streets strongly promote higher-speed, inattentive, impatient driving. They therefore not only create dangerous conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians, but they harm abutting retail & residential, and create inconvenience for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.]
  6. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends keeping all streets and intersections modest in size. When streets contain an excessive, high-speed, and unsafe number of travel lanes, such streets should be reduced in size (road dieted travel lane removal). Widening projects, especially those done in the name of safety or capacity, should be avoided. [Wider, multi-lane roads and intersections are among the biggest deterrents to walking and bicycling.]
  7. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that local governments hire full-time staff assigned to bicycling and pedestrian commuting and recreation. [Traffic engineers who are assigned to motor vehicle travel management typically have insufficient time or interest to devote to bicycling and walking design.]
  8. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that to the extent allowable by liability management, that bicycle helmets and lycra be soft-pedaled for city bicycle commuters, rather than “dangerizing” bicycle commuting by aggressively urging the use of helmets. [Bike/Walk Virginia continues to support the voluntary use of helmets for commuter bicyclists but wishes to promote overall safety for all bicycle commuters by promoting safety in numbers, and take the position that helmets are not the first line of defense for bicycle commuter safety. We know that one of the most common reasons given for not wanting to bicycle is that it is “too dangerous.” Why, therefore, would a bicycle advocacy group wish to profoundly undercut a prime objective of recruiting new bicyclists by constantly requiring helmet use? Helmets undermine recruitment because they send a loud and clear message: “Bicycling is very dangerous! You are wise not to bicycle because you might get killed!”]. I’m not suggesting that helmet use should be discouraged, I simply believe that as an organization, BWVA needs to turn down the volume on aggressively promoting bike helmets for low-speed urban bicycle commuting.” Otherwise, the organization will be undercutting this important advocacy objective of growing the number of bicyclists and pedestrians.
  9. Bike/Walk Virginia recommends that local and state government establish a statewide network of off-road bicycle and pedestrian greenway trails, in part by getting “more bang for the buck” by making utility easements and rail rights-of-way multi-use. The organization recognizes that greenways and rail-trails are important gateway “training grounds” for novice bicyclists and others who are not confident, skilled bicyclists. The organization also strongly supports the conversion of abandoned rails to trails, and “rail banking.”

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