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Cycle Tracks and Seattle, Part 3: The Great City presentation

Great City hosted a so-called “brown bag” discussion (no one brings a brown bag lunch to these things…) about cycle tracks last week. In part three of our series on cycle tracks, inspired by the discussion, we take a look at the presentation slideshow.

Speakers Phil Miller of SvR Design Company and Seleta Reynolds of Fehr + Peers have gathered a lot of information here about cycle tracks in both Europe and North America. Clearly, as a slideshow, some of them don’t make sense without the explanation (watch video of the brown bag here). But you get to see a tour of different facilities, both good and bad.

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The debate around cycle tracks really revolves around the ideas in this graphic, based on the ideas of Roger Geller from Portland. Vehicularists point to data suggesting facilities that separate bicycle traffic from vehicular traffic actually lead to more collisions. Basically, bikes should ride as though they were a car, with all the rights and responsibilities (of course, there is also data suggesting the opposite).

However, the number of people who feel comfortable doing this is fairly low (see “Fast & Furious” and perhaps part of the “Enthused & Confident” groups in the graphic). The masses lie in the “Interested but Concerned” group, who simply don’t feel comfortable riding in traffic. Cycle tracks (and more wide and buffered bike lanes) will appeal to many in this crowd and put more people on bicycles. This is a LARGE crowd, and once the city taps into their numbers, the face of biking in Seattle could change.

But how can we make sure it’s safe? I guess that’s what we need to figure out now. Broadway and Dexter are opportunities to increase biker ridership, but also opportunities to make big mistakes that leave us with unsafe bike facilities that result in injury or death.

Flip through the presentation and leave your thoughts in the comments.

View the rest of the series

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9 responses to “Cycle Tracks and Seattle, Part 3: The Great City presentation”

  1. Steve

    Interesting that the first slide of a cycle track shows a bike about to be right hooked.

  2. The more I learn about cycle tracks, the more confused I become about the net effect on safety. I’m about on the borderline of the “Fast & Fearless” and “Enthused & Confident” categories, and I’m now convinced that–all other things being equal–a cycle track would leave me less safe than normal road use, for all the same reasons that sidewalk cycling does. But all things never are equal, so:
    a) given that increasing the number of cyclists dramatically reduces accident & injury rates, and cycle tracks really do have potential to get a large chunk of the “Interested but Concerned” group on their bikes, what would the real net effect on my safety be?
    b) given that increasing cycling rates has real public health benefits (the overall heart health benefit outweighs all harms from accident risks and pollution), perhaps cycle tracks are desirable anyway, even if they’re less safe than sharing roads with cars and don’t really suit me personally.

    1. Andreas

      People like to repeat that “safety in numbers” mantra, but it seems to me that the numbers don’t support it.

      This analysis of the effect of cycle tracks in Copenhagen found that installing a cycle track on a road resulted in an 18-10% increase in bicycle/moped traffic (and a 9-10% decrease in car traffic), but a 9-10% increase in accidents. There was a 10% decrease in accidents between intersections—fewer cyclists being hit from behind, fewer cyclists hit while turning left (since such a turn is generally impossible from a cycle track)—but an 18% increase in accidents at intersections, e.g. right hooks. Where’s the safety in numbers there?

      There was only a 1% increase in accidents among men, but an 18% increase in accidents among women, and since I believe women tend to fall into the “Interested but Concerned” category more than men (google “cycling gender gap”), this suggests to me that new cyclists are making up most of the new accident victims. So if you’re an experienced cyclist who’s used to riding vehicularly and assuming that drivers won’t see you, I imagine your individual risk of being in an accident doesn’t change much. But for all the folks who get out of their cars because cycle tracks seem safer than bike lanes, cycle tracks appear to be more dangerous, regardless of an overall increase in the volume of cyclists.

      As you point out, the benefits may still outweigh the risks, especially from a governmental perspective. The overall costs of a few more deaths or broken bones may be considerably less than the savings accrued by the 9-10% decrease in vehicle traffic and the lower maintenance and environmental costs that come with that. But as a cyclist it seems wrong to get people out of their cars by putting in facilities which make them feel safer but in fact put them at greater risk. Especially if you’re selling those facilities on the public by saying they’ll increase safety (either by increasing numbers, or by another means), which is an argument that seems to be made implicitly by those advocating these facilities.

      At the very least, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s been an honest and open discussion of the reasons for putting in cycle tracks, and their costs and benefits. Do we expect to see a 10% decrease in vehicular traffic, and a 20% increase in cycling traffic? What will that realistically translate to in terms of: decreased asthma? more broken bones? tax savings? obesity rates? Maybe the public will be accepting of cycle tracks even if they know they’ll increase accidents. But to not say that up front and to knowingly allow the public to assume they decrease accidents is repugnant to me and many others.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        One question I have about any Dutch or Danish study like that is: How do those numbers translate to American streets? They are VERY different. Streets and street culture in Copenhagen have developed differently. Are their drivers going slower/more cautious around bikes than American drivers? This would change the stats…

      2. Andreas

        @Tom: I hear ya. One of the big take-aways from that brown-bag was how different the cycling culture is in Copenhagen, and presumably their driving culture is comparably different. Their citizens seem far more apt to follow the rules that are meant to reduce collisions, yet they still see an increase in collisions with cycle tracks. In an environment where both cyclists and drivers are wont to flaunt the rules of the road (read: in America), I can only imagine things would be worse.

        I wonder if any US cities installing separated facilities are gathering this sort of data. When it was mentioned at the brown-bag that NYC was classifying its facilities as temporary in order to get around having to do EISes, I couldn’t help but think that there goes a prime opportunity to see how well these things work in America. Without solid data on traffic and accident rates before the installation of such facilities, there’ll be no objective way to know whether or not they’re doing any good, or in what sorts of environments they do well. I’d love it if it turns out cycle tracks do indeed improve cyclist safety here, but as it is, we’ll have no way of really knowing. We’ll just have a lot of anecdotes and BS on both sides, and cyclists still getting hit.

      3. Patrick McGrath

        Two things jump out at me from the report you cite. First, the authors state that “[t]he construction of cycle lanes has resulted in an increase in accidents of 5% and 15% more injuries. These increases are not statistically significant.

        But even if these number were statistically significant, the authors seem to be analyzing the raw number of collisions, not the collision rate (# crashes/volume). So if you have cycle traffic going up by 18-20% but the number of collisions is only going up 9-10%, then you’ve got a decrease in the collision rate, or the chance that an individual will be struck–similar to what’s happened in Portland over the past few years. Seems like an improvement to me.

      4. Andreas

        @Patrick: Yeah, I concede that the accident rate is actually lower. I still don’t like the increase in right hooks, or the net increase in accidents. Irksomely, that study gives the change in traffic and in accidents for cycle tracks, but not for cycle lanes. Are cycle tracks actually safer vis-a-vis bike lanes? Is it just that they get more people riding and there actually is something to the “safety in numbers” mantra, or is it the form that does it, e.g. by greatly reducing risk of overtaking-from-behind accidents? I’d just like to see a lot better information on how and why cycle tracks reduce the risk of accidents.

        It seems like safety in numbers has to come from increased visibility, so when cycle tracks are designed like Dexter, with parked cars obscuring cyclists from drivers, it seems you’re just throwing away a lot of the safety gains that cycle tracks could bring through increased ridership. If you’re trying to get safety in numbers, wouldn’t it make sense to have those numbers be as visible as possible?

  3. @Andreas: reading that whole study has left me just as confused. As Patrick points out, the authors seem to be analysing raw numbers of collisions, in which case collisions per cyclist are actually decreasing, but as far as I could tell they never make explicit whether they’re discussing an 18% increase in total collisions or an 18% increase in collisions per thousand cyclists. Then there’s the oddity that having said that many of their results are statistically significant, they seem to dismiss the most interesting ones as not significant, and some spikes in the numbers that are so hard to see a cause for (a reduction in injuries specific to child passengers in cars??) that make me wonder if the whole set of data isn’t too noisy to be useful.

    The other thing that concerns me about that study is that it seems to only consider specific stretches of road. We really need to look at the whole system – if a cycle track increases accidents where it is, but also brings so many people out to ride that we get the safety in numbers effect when mixing with motorised traffic, I would take that as a win.

    I completely agree with you about the missed opportunity if NYC is not studying the effect of their facilities. It sounds like details of the design make quite a big difference to how safe these things are, but we really do need more data to get past hand-waving about that.

    @Patrick: I think that Portland data was what I was remembering. The total crash rate staying pretty flat while cyclist numbers almost tripled looks pretty impressive to me. But then… have they built any of this type of facility?

  4. […] presentation on Cycle Tracks, Sharrows and Seattle Bike Master Plan on July 21. Tom Fucoloro in his Seattle Bike Blog reviewed the talk (that includes great slides!): “The masses lie in the ‘interested but […]

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