Monday, October 22, 2012

Canadian study shows importance of bike infrastructure

Cyclists prefer safer routes
According to a new study entitled Route Infrastructure and the Risk of Injuries to Bicyclists: A Case-Crossover Study, the presence of bicycling infrastructure has a significant impact on reducing bicycle crashes. The conclusion of the report: "The lower risks on quiet streets and with bike-specific infrastructure along busy streets support the route-design approach used in many northern European countries. Transportation infrastructure with lower bicycling injury risks merits public health support to reduce injuries and promote cycling."

Atlantic Cities published a good article summarizing the results, Dedicated Bike Lanes Can Cut Cycling Injuries in Half that is worth quoting at length:
The research will provide weighty evidence for advocates of dedicated bike infrastructure precisely because transportation engineers have long believed the exact opposite to be true. For years, they’ve counter-intuitively argued that you’re actually better off learning to ride alongside cars than having your own bike lane.

"That became a very often repeated philosophy," says Kay Teschke, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of the new study. She traces it back to a guy named John Forester, who popularized the idea of "vehicular cycling" 40 years ago. Forester famously argued against separated bike lanes in Palo Alto, on the grounds that bikers should learn instead to behave like drivers.

Some spotty research followed on this topic that seemed to reinforce Forester’s idea: Biking in traffic did appear to be safer than many of its alternatives. But the alternatives that researchers had to examine in North America were unpaved routes, sidewalks, off-road and even mountain bike trails. At the time, we had little of the dedicated commuter bike infrastructure many cities are just creating now.

"I think a little bit of what happened was [engineers] knew this was counterintuitive, they knew the few studies out there were not particularly well controlled or appropriate," Teschke says. "But it just further entrenched them."

So along comes this new study. Teschke and her colleagues worked with five hospitals in Toronto and Vancouver to identify adult bikers who were treated in an emergency room within 24 hours of a bike accident. Over an 18-month period between summer of 2008 and fall of 2009, they identified 2,335 injured cyclists. Of that group, 690 were considered eligible for the study and agreed to participate.

In the end, Teschke was still concerned about one other question: Are the safest routes the same routes that bikers actually want to use? Several years ago, she conducted another study into this question of preferences, using the same 14 route designations employed in the latest research.

"We were told in advance that young males and people who are experienced riders would tell you they’d rather ride on major streets without bike infrastructure," she recalls. "It turned out not to be true. Everyone had the same order or preferences."

So how did those preferences line up with this latest injury data?

"When my statistician finally finished doing the analysis for the injury study, I can remember sitting at the desk, and my heart was just pounding because I thought 'what am I going to do if the injury results are the opposite of the preference results?'" Teschke says. How can anyone advocate for safer bike infrastructure if no one wants to use it? “Isn’t that going to be just awful for the present situation?” Teschke was relieved (bike advocates more broadly should be, too). Here the results of the two studies are plotted on a single graph (above).
Hat tip to the WashCycle.

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