Bike Lanes or Bust?

Is it Bike Lanes or Bust? How We Can Make Bicycling Safer

Today I picked up a copy of the Metro on my way to school.  Page 4 had three articles looking at the dangers of bicycling and what we could do about it; with most advocating bike lanes and others advocating car-bicycle training.   I’ve always found that the discussion regarding bicycling safety like a bunch of people screaming about what to do with a bomb that has a clear, big, red ‘OFF’ button on it.  Some are suggesting everyone run and others suggest we throw it into the water, but noone wants to touch the button.   The Off button here is the sidewalk.  The analogy may have some holes, but given that the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) reported 26,000 bicycle related emergency visits in 2009 alone, the dangers associated with a bomb and bicycling may not be too far off.

Before you read on, please note that my opinions shifted throughout the course of this article.  As I did some research not all the facts lined up with what I had initially thought and therefore they changed.  However, because of this, this article is not a succint piece of writing.  Some of the thoughts go off in difficult to follow tangents.  I hope to come back to this article and re-write it when my opinions have  settled once again.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting points and some cool facts so I hope you still enjoy your read.

While I could not find exactly when and why the prohibition of cycling on a sidewalk came into place, it appears to be at least as old as 1990 and at least STILL in place because of the idea that sidewalk bicycling is more dangerous than being on the road.  Why it first was enacted is probably the same reason, but I am unable to find any information regarding that.   I was actually under the impression it was in order to keep pedestrians safe, not bikers; so perhaps there is another reason.

So is sidewalk biking more dangerous than biking on the road? If you look at the statistics, they back this claim up  (1) (See bottom for references) but once again, I can’t help but feel this is a simplified look at the statistics.  (They are U.S. statistics, but likely transfer to Canada; Feel free to explore them)

A few things to note.  The most ‘dangerous’ activities happen because either the driver or the cyclist is not obeying proper traffic rules or the person is a child (between the ages of 0-14).  The second is a confound when looking at statistics.  If approximately half of all cycling accident happen to people that are excluded from normally bicycling on the road then it is not surprising that more accident happen on the sidewalk.  The traffic rules issue will be discussed later.

A study looking at T0r0nto and Ottawa (2) found more injuries and accidents on the sidewalk than on the road as well. A few things to note.  The first is that ‘more accident’ doesn’t mean more by number, but more in the rate per 100,000 kms biked. (total injuries strongly suggest the opposite – (3) Another thing to note is that some cyclers are both side-walk and road cyclers.   Without proper controls, how can one argue that it really is more dangerous; most likely (in my opinion, because it is what I do) cyclers take to the sidewalk is the most busy areas.   This prevents road accidents and increases sidewalk accidents.  Also, it is shown that sidewalk users travel shorter distances, given the same amount of time (another confound).  Lastly,  sidewalk users get into more road accidents than non-sidewalk users even when controlling for how long they spend on the road, presumably due to a lack of confidence or ability.   Another study found that sidewalk riding was safer, except for when it met a road (4)

So what do these statistics show?  Biking on the sidewalk is statistically more dangerous, Yes.  It’s easy to take a simple statistic and enforce a law on it; it’s much harder to try and understand the statistic.  Correlation doesn’t equate to causation.  So, (armed with my preexisting, but now weaker belief that sidewalk cycling is safer than road cycling) here are some of my speculatory reasons for what causes these statistics!

1) Inexperience – bikers who use the sidewalk do so because they are not confident enough on the road.  They are not confident enough, presumably for good reason, they aren’t great bikers.  As worse bikers, they are more likely to run into people, cars, or other obstacles.  If these bikers were on the road; you’d see a lot more injuries

2) You aren’t a motorist, you aren’t a pedestrian, so what are you?  – One issue is that since biking on the sidewalk is illegal, bikers aren’t sure exactly sure what to do, and drivers aren’t looking out for them.   If you’re speeding down a sidewalk and a car pulls out, they may look in the close vicinity for walkers but if you’re 100 metres away on a bike, it’s likely they’ll be pulling out just as you’re crossing their path.  Similarly,  while pedestrians can cross at a stop sign, they are usually going slow enough for a car to get to a stop sign and pull away before the pedestrian has time to get there (or if not, the pedestrians walk around).  Bikers using the sidewalk often see themselves as a pedestrian and attempt to race on through, motorists see you as a vehicle and expect you to stop. What happens is an inevitable collision due to this mis-communication.

3) Bells and Whistles – or horns and helmets.  Although it’s ‘required’ for bikes to have a bell or horn, very few do.   This makes biking with pedestrians quite challenging.  In Europe and Asia, the bell is essential, and pedestrians who fail to hear it are usually scolded.    Also, perhaps a post, or at least a point in itself, those who choose not to wear a helmet, may feel more inclined to get away from cars by using the sidewalk.

4) Pedestrians OWN the sidewalk. – On the road, while not all drivers are happy about bikers on the road, they know it’s the law.   They may have to go slower or wait til they can go around, but you are where you’re ‘suppose’ to be, Likewise, you know how the drivers are feeling and do things to accommodate them as well, there’s a little give and take.  The sidewalk is a little different.  Pedestrians feel bikers aren’t suppose to be there, but the bikers might think it’s totally acceptable.  A pedestrian may expect a biker to go onto the street or grass to pass them, a biker may expect a simple side step from the pedestrian.  Once again this miscommunication of norms causes accidents.

5) Bikers use the sidewalk at the most dangerous times.   It’s rush hour, you are downtown.  Cars are swerving in and out and you’re scared out of your mind.  What would you do? I’d hit the sidewalk.  Sure it’s filled with people, but that’s better than cars right?

So, where does that leave us?  Ideally separate blocked off bike lanes are ideal, but while they get built every now and then, they are generally hard to come by.  With that option all but gone, why not give part of the sidewalk to bicyclists?  It’s not perfect and a few things would need to change and I have a few suggestions.  First off, let’s not take away the road for those that can and want to use it. Secondly, motorists now know that cyclers can be on the sidewalk so activities like backing out of a driveway would now have to take into account that cyclists may be coming down the street, and in turn cyclists should learn that it’s not so easy for drivers to see, a little give and take here.  Thirdly, let’s enforce some cycling rules, new ones for both roadcyclers and sidewalk cyclers.  For example, even though, bikers are on the sidewalk, they have to stop at intersections (not even just stop signs).   This allows cars to pull out in front of the sidewalk and make the right hand turns as necessary.    Pedestrians have to learn that cyclists now share the sidewalk with them; ideally many sidewalks would be divided in two, like good walking/cycling paths; this will allow for easy flow of traffic.  While cyclists should stay to one side of the walkway, and pedestrians the other; often people want to walk in groups.   In these scenarios, pedestrians should be listening for a bell and be prepared to sidestep when required.   Furthermoe, extremely busy sidewalks are off limits.   If you are planning on biking dowtown where the streets are packed with people shopping, buying food, and/or waiting for a bus and you can barely maneuvre without toppling over it, its time for the biker to get off the bike and walk it or find a sidestreet to go down.   Lastly, you’re either a sidewalk biker or a road biker.  No switching in and out unless you have no choice and when you you have to switch, making the ‘jump’ at a proper crosswalk or intersection, not swerving over 2 lanes.

Biking is an amazing activity.  It can get you to where you are going, almost as fast as a car (over short distances at least), while allowing you to get some exercise at the same time.  It’s light on the joints, saves you money, good for the environment and can be used to explore some scenic parts of your town; but many don’t because of the apparent risks involved. If we aren’t going to implement bike lanes, then I think it’s at least time to start looking at the causes behind these statistics, and work to make biking easier and safer for all!