There are lots of good health, environmental and economic reasons for using bikes as replacement for other forms of transport and recreation. However, on average, your chances of being killed or injured are much higher when riding a bike than travelling by car. This post looks at some of the advantages and disadvantages of riding a bike instead of travelling by car.
First the advantages:
In many situations bikes will actually have lower trip times than public transport and cars, particularly during peak hours. They can be even more time efficient if you compare travel + daily exercise times. (Daily exercise time is part of a bike trip while having to be done outside of car travel time.)
It is also worth noting here that travel time using public transport (and to some extent bikes) can be part of work planning time at the start of the day or winding down time at the end of the day. Driving a car just adds to the daily stress.
To get a feel for comparative travel times I used Google maps travel time estimates for the 12.5 km trip from home (Chapel Hill 4069) to my old workplace at Southbank (leaving home at 8.40 AM.) The estimated times were 50 mins by bus + walking, 21 mins by car and 46 mins by bike. (NOTE: The 46 mins is about right based on the time it takes me (age 71) to make the trip on a mountain bike. The 21 mins estimate by car is wild optimism for travelling to the CBD at 8.40 AM) Once exercise time is taken account of the bike ride looks pretty good.
What about safety?
The available statistics suggest that riding bikes is a lot more dangerous than travelling by car. For example, this report on Cycling Injuries in Australia calculated that, for 2007/08, a cyclist in the Melbourne Metropolitan area was 4.5 times more likely to be killed per km travelled than someone travelling by car. The serious injury stats were even worse at 34 times for bike riders compared to those travelling by car (Based on hospital reported injuries.)
NOTE: The actual number of bike riders killed per year is low (8 bike riders were killed for 2007/08 in the area studied.) As might be expected from this low number there is considerable difference in the number of deaths from year to year.
The report did not analyse the causes of bike accidents. However, the report did say that:
International experience demonstrates that cycling safety can be improved markedly using the same sort of strategic planning that has been used to improve safety for car occupants.
Improved cycling conditions that are likely to contribute to increased cycling safety include:
• more extensive, high quality and well-maintained cycling infrastructure, including separated cycling facilities
• basing priority systems on needs of vulnerable road users (where appropriate), rather than car occupants
• improved interactions between cyclists and drivers in the form of mutual respect, courtesy and willingness to share public road space
• education and training for drivers and cyclists aimed at improving skills, attitudes and behaviours
• urban speed limits based on human tolerance to injury in collision with a motor vehicle
• placing greater responsibility for traffic safety through the legal system on those road users who have the potential to cause the most harm to others.
It also said that:
International comparative data show large variations in cyclist fatality and injury rates between countries. Large variations also occur in the relative risk of injury for cyclists compared
with car occupants. A survey of Toronto commuter cyclists found that bicycle accident rates per kilometre cycled were between 26 and 68 times higher than similar rates for car travel, and the authors reported much lower cyclist accident rates for a similar survey conducted in Ottawa, Canada.
These large geographical variations in cyclist injury rates and in relative risks for cyclists and car occupants indicate substantial differences in driving/cycling conditions, including road infrastructure and driver/cyclist behaviour.
Substantially lower cyclist fatality and injury rates in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark have been attributed to better cycling infrastructure; national cycling education, skills and promotion programs; widespread traffic calming, including lower speed limits (30km/hr) in urban areas; and driver licensing and road safety systems that place greater responsibility on drivers for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians
Vicroads provided the following Facts about bicycle crashes:
Bike riders most likely to be involved in crashes were:
- Male – 76%
- Aged 26-45 years – 46%
Bicycle crashes are most common (61%) at intersections.
12% of bike rider casualties occur when a driver or rider who is turning right fails to give way to an oncoming vehicle travelling straight through.
10% of bike rider casualties occur when a driver or rider fails to give way at a cross-section.
10% of bike rider casualties occur when a driver opens their door into the path of a bike rider. This is much higher in inner Melbourne.
9% of fatal and serious injury to bike riders occurs when it is mainly the rider coming off the footpath.
8% of fatal and serious injury to bike riders occurs when it is mainly the car driver emerging from a driveway.
It is worth noting that only one of the causes listed by Vicroads did not involve an interaction with other vehicles and that this cause accounted for only 9% of fatal and serious injuries. The implication here is that priority should be given to action that keeps bikes separate from other vehicles. Dedicated bikeways are highly desirable. However, replacing parking spaces with separated bike lanes like the ones below go a long way to help.
Sometimes it will make better sense to combine bike and pedestrian ways when bike and pedestrian traffic is light. For example:
Replacing parking spaces with separate bikeways may meet resistance. The prompt for this post was this article that looks at the strategies used by a number of cities to overcome resistance.
There are other bits of simple infrastructure that may help. In some cases this may be as simple as putting in a stop sign for bikes where there is a dangerous road crossing.
Bike rider safety does not just depend on infrastructure or the behaviour of other road users. Vic roads had these useful suggestions for helping bike riders avoid accidents:
Keep safe on your bicycle. Obey the road laws and be alert to the traffic around you. Ride in the same direction as other traffic and keep your bicycle one metre from the kerb.
- Before changing lanes and turning, always scan behind and signal your intentions to other road users.
- Try to make eye contact with other road users to help them know that you are there.
- Look out for other road users particularly when they are approaching you from behind or pulling out in front of you.
- Look out for drivers and passengers getting in and out of parked cars and be aware of the risk of car doors opening.
- Don’t ride on the inside of larger vehicles such as buses and trucks – the drivers can’t see you and these vehicles may be turning which will require more space than a normal passenger car.
- Be careful riding over tram tracks, especially in wet weather.
- Wear a correctly fitted, Australian standards approved, bicycle helmet.
Take extra care when cycling at night. It is harder for drivers to see you and for you to see hazards. Try to ride on well-lit roads and wear bright or light coloured clothing or a reflective vest.
When riding at night or in conditions of low light, your bike must have a white front light, a rear red light, both visible from at least 200 metres, and a red rear reflector visible from at least 50 metres.
- Ride defensively. This means being alert to other vehicles and acting predictably yourself.
- When using a single lane roundabout, ride in the middle of the lane. This is so you are more visible to other road users and you are less likely to be cut off when other road users are exiting the roundabout.
- When riding through a multi-lane roundabout you are permitted to ride in the left lane, even if you are turning right. If you do, you must give way to vehicles exiting the roundabout. Make sure you signal your intentions and where possible, try to make eye contact.
- When using a shared path or separated footpath, ride in a manner and a speed that will enable you to give way to pedestrians. Always let people walking or slower bike riders know you are about to pass by ringing your bell or simply calling out.
- We recommend that children under the age of twelve years ride under adult supervision.
Crashes between cars and bicycles are more likely to occur when light is poor.
Bike riders are most difficult to see when they are approaching a vehicle and the driver is viewing them from the front.
Tips for being seen both day & night
Wear a bright top day & night
It is more likely that you will be seen by drivers if you wear a brightly coloured top that makes you stand out. There are also reflective vests or similar accessories that you may want to consider wearing to improve your chances of being seen.
Use lights at night
This is the law. If you do not use lights at night or in conditions of low light, penalties may apply. The front and rear lights must be visible from 200m and the bicycle must also have a red rear reflector visible from 50 metres. Bike riders who do not have bicycle lights fitted to the front and rear of their bicycles are very difficult to see at night.
Ride so that you can be seen
Drivers and other road users should look out for bike riders. However, some may not, so to help drivers see you, you should ride in a prominent position on the road at a distance of approximately one metre from parked cars. You should also obey traffic signals and stop signs.
I would also suggest that bike selection can be important. For example:
- Very narrow tyres make it easier to lose control when there is loose gravel.
- Handlebars that allow you to sit up straight give better visibility and more control.
- A speedometer is useful when there are bicycle speed limits
So what am I going to do?
Me, I am going to keep on riding my bike in places i think are safe to do so. And take even more care than I do at the moment.