Times: As biking in Seattle grows dramatically, number of crashes stays the same

While I was busy ranting about a questionable Letter to the Editor the Seattle Times Ed Board chose to publish, Mike Lindblom in the news department was working on a story about how the number of bicycle crashes and collisions in Seattle is staying constant even as the number of people biking increases dramatically.

According to an annual Census survey, the percentage of people in Seattle biking to work increased by more than 55 percent between 2007 and 2010 (and that does not factor people who started biking for reasons other than commuting). Yet the total number of collisions appears to have plateaued at somewhere between 359 and 392 crashes per year. This means Seattle is seeing the same “safety in numbers” trend recorded in cities with growing cycling populations around the world.

Basically, as more people in a city bike, the safer biking becomes for everyone.

The Times also put together a pretty cool (though rather daunting) interactive map of bike crashes and deaths in the city from 2007-2011. You can toggle between years and see how things have evolved over time.

The main things that jump out to me are:

  • We need safe bicycle facilities downtown NOW.
  • The Pike/Pine corridor needs to go back to the drawing board. The bike lanes on Pine are not cutting it.
  • The University District needs some serious improvements.
  • As the SunBreak points out, streets that got bike lanes do not necessarily show reductions in collisions. However, given that bike lanes significantly increase the number of people biking, they may still represent a decline in the collision rate. But obviously, we need to be thinking bigger and more family-friendly.
  • The Burke-Gilman Trail has far fewer collisions along it than I would have thought. Given the thousands of people who use it every day, I would say this map shows that it has a remarkable safety record (though some tricky spots need help)

Lindblom notes that the still-unsolved death of Mike Wang has helped to round up energy for bike facilities with more separation than just one simple painted line.

That tragedy helped discredit the fashionable idea in the 2000s that bikes, provided with lane stripes and icons, can coexist happily with arterial traffic.

A groundswell has formed for more separation. On portions of the Dexter bike route, bus-stop medians separate bikes from traffic. On Broadway, a “cycle track” will be separated by curbs, bollards or stripes as part of the future First Hill Streetcar installation [...]

Neighborhood advocates and the city are designing greenways, where plantings, curbs and a 20-mph speed limit would encourage bikes and pedestrians to take side streets, starting in Wallingford this year.

He also notes that downtown has no family-friendly bike facilities, though they could be included in this year’s Bicycle Master Plan update:

But the supply of road space here is tighter than in most U.S. cities, and getting inexorably more crowded through population growth, road projects and office campuses — including maybe a third Sodo sports complex coming mid-decade. Downtown lacks even one north-south bikeway safe for novice or nonathletic riders. The city doesn’t have any major bike projects downtown this year, but will consider ideas in a pending update of the cycling master plan.

Protected bikeways will help, “but intersections are where the crashes are,” says Mauro. “We need more than just separation, we need signalization.”

Meanwhile, Portland reports an astounding 61 percent jump in just one year (!) on their new neighborhood greenways. People are thirsty for family-friendly bike routes. Let’s make it happen.

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14 Responses to Times: As biking in Seattle grows dramatically, number of crashes stays the same

  1. chrismealy says:

    “Family-friendly bike route” is a lot more obvious than cycle track. I love it. Where do you think the downtown route should be?

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Good question. 2nd? 5th?

      • Kirk from Ballard says:

        Maybe third. It could be closed to vehicles, making it for busses and bikes only. I think most of those busses run north-south, with few making turns.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        The big potential problem with Third is that Metro buses will be kicked out of the tunnel when U-link opens in 2016. So those buses are going to push the limits of 3rd and probably need to spill onto other streets more than they already do. I agree that a car-free Third with a separated cycle facility would be very cool. But only if it could be designed without delaying buses or decreasing bus peak capacity.

        There are several streets with too much space dedicated only to cars, so I am eager to look into those possibilities. 2nd only ever backs up due to freeway access backups, not due to a lack of lanes. I bet it could lose one of its three general traffic lanes and be fine, giving plenty of space for a two-way parking-separated cycle track or something. This would also dramatically improve the walking environment on 2nd, which completely sucks.

  2. Jake says:

    I think the quoted excuse regarding downtown that ‘supply of road space here is tighter than in most U.S. cities’ is pretty absurd. Have they seen how wide our roads are? You could put a modern dedicated bicycle facility plus a transit-only lane on 2nd, keep the 20 foot wide sidewalks and parking, and still have room for three lanes of general traffic! Lack of space is not the problem. Poor road design is.

  3. Steve A says:

    Safety in numbers certainly is one possibility, but it discounts improvements in engineering as the traffic guys figure out how to put in safer facilities and how to design to suit bicyclists. It also discounts increasing experience of the average cyclist about how not to do really DUMB things.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      The odd thing about the theory is that experience tends to have little to do with safety at a certain point. In fact, in cities with bike share systems, bike share users tend to be far safer than bike owners (though, obviously, there is a lot of crossover). Maybe it’s because there are other people cycling to follow and more examples of proper behavior. Or maybe it’s because drivers are more used to the presence of cyclists in bike share areas. Or maybe it’s because the bike share bikes are not designed to go super fast and have all the proper lights. Or maybe it’s because areas with bike share are more likely to have good infrastructure. Or maybe its a bit of everything.

      My point being: Experience may not be as big a factor in safety as you might think. Having other cyclists around might be more (or at least as) important. Plus, experienced cyclists do stupid stuff, too. Maybe we need to define “experience.” Someone with years of experience bombing down a hill may be more experienced than the person riding their squeaky brakes, but who’s more likely to be hurt? Maybe it’s even?

      • Al Dimond says:

        Owning a bike is hardly evidence of cycling experience, and even cycling experience is hardly evidence of doing it right. I think the rank novices using bike shares are likely to ride so conservatively as to assure their safety. On the other hand lots of people that own bikes have ridden enough without being hit to feel safe doing stupid things like following Seattle’s pavement markings for cyclists (welcome to the door zone — and while you’re at it, why not try to squeeze to the right of right-turning traffic?).

        I’m sure there’s a major bias based on the location of bike shares. Bike shares also tend to exist in places where car traffic is pretty slow, or where there are separated facilities that don’t suck. The speed of car traffic is one of the biggest factors in collision risk, generally. Sadly, a lot of collisions are due to drunk driving or drunk cycling. Maybe people don’t, for whatever reason, take bikeshare bikes to the pub. It’s also likely that in dense urban areas where people can walk or take transit to the bar (and parking is expensive and inconvenient) there are fewer drunk drivers. It’s also likely that in dense urban areas the roads are well-lit and slow-moving — drunk drivers are less dangerous when speed and darkness are removed from the picture. Yet more reasons that car traffic should be slowed down, and that expensive and inconvenient parking is a good thing.

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  5. David says:

    Regarding Safety In Numbers:
    Fatalities did not keep pace with increases in motoring perhaps as motorists learned to avoid crashes better as traffic increased.

    The more poorly bicyclists operate, with respect to other drivers, the greater the “Safety In Numbers” (SIN) effect should be, as the more frequently motorists are reminded of poor behavior the more likely they will learn to compensate.

    But, that doesn’t mean that poor bicycling with respect to other drivers is safer.
    What is required is a study of bicycling behaviors to see which are safer but no such study has ever been done. Shouldn’t a study of bicycling behaviors be an essential component of bicycling safety?

    For example which bicyclists are safer and more mobile: those who avoid traffic, or those who embrace it and learn to handle it? And, what impact does more bicycling in traffic as a driver have on traffic?

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