Using a bike-sharing scheme is way safer than hopping on your own bike and speeding off through the city streets. In fact, not a single person has died on a shared bike in the U.S. since bike sharing began in 2010. But why? What makes clunky public bikes, ridden by inexperienced cyclists, safer than journeyman commuters used to weaving through traffic on high-end bikes?
According to findings from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), the crappy bikes and plodding, cautious cyclists might be the very reason bike sharing is so safe.
MTI’s study looked at existing data in many cities, spoke to focus groups of cyclists, non-cyclists, and bike-share participants, and also interviewed experts. Their result is that bike sharing is safer than private cycling on almost every count:
Partly, this is due to bike design. Road bikes encourage faster use because the rider typically sits high and leans forward. Public bike-sharing bicycles tend to be heavier with wider tires, painted bright colors, and fewer gears. Also, riders–even experienced cyclists–don’t trust the bikes as much.
The other big factor in increased safety is the cyclists themselves. Inexperienced riders are often more cautious, they ride slower, and they avoid risks. They probably won’t run red lights. The study’s experts “believed that when accidents did occur, they were less severe because of the lower roadway speeds in these urban areas.” However, inexperienced cyclists are less likely to know the road laws, or to be able to extract the self from a jam. For example, regular cyclists know how to avoid the classic “right hook” maneuver, where a large vehicle turns right, crushing the cyclist that’s in their blind spot. It’s a big killer.
Less certain (according to the study), but observable if you live in a bike-share city, is the “safety in numbers” argument. More cyclists on the roads force drivers to pay attention, bringing increased safety not just to the cyclists, but to pedestrians, thanks to the increased awareness of non-car traffic at intersections and crossings. There may also be a psychological effect–if the local government has mandated the bikes, and provided them infrastructure (bike lanes), then drivers may be more likely to see them as legitimate traffic, rather than as a nuisance.
There is another “network effect” at work here too–that of spreading the word about cycling. “Specifically, the experts said that by getting novice users into bike sharing, these users spread the word of cycling among other non-cycling users, which helps to raise awareness among drivers and non-cyclists.”
Some of the MTI’s focus-group participants disagreed with the safety-in-numbers argument. Riding in large groups, they say, diminishes the individual’s sense of responsibility.
Participants in both focus groups said group riding increased the likelihood of collisions between bicycles—especially if people were riding side by side, talking, or trying to pass each other. One member pointed out that groups created a ‘herd mentality’ in which members toward the back of the pack simply followed members in front and often became less aware of traffic hazards.
You’ve seen the same thing happen at pedestrian crossings. A few people cross before the walk sign turns green, dashing through a gap in oncoming traffic, and somebody staring at their cellphone screen senses the movement and follows without looking up.
The final big factor in bike-sharing safety is infrastructure. Most bike-sharing stations are in dense downtown traffic areas, which means lower car speeds. Also, if the stations are located on the curb, then the users are “more likely to complete their journey riding on the sidewalk.”
The overall recommendation, though, was for better cycling infrastructure in general. Segregated bike lanes, for example, prevent “dooring,” overtaking crashes (when cyclists move into car traffic while overtaking each other), collisions with pedestrians, and rear-ending by drivers who aren’t paying attention.
While data on bike-sharing use is plentiful to the point of overwhelming, data on regular bike journeys is almost non-existent. This makes comparisons difficult, but some of the lessons from the MTI report can be applied every kind of cyclist. For instance, helmet use, while provably beneficial to people involved in accidents involving head injuries, mandatory helmet laws kill bike sharing, and all other non-planned bike journeys. The MTI study concluded that the health benefits of cycling outweighs the risks of riding without a helmet.
The fact is that cycling just isn’t that dangerous, especially bike sharing. Here’s what one of the study’s experts, an emergency-services supervisor and licensed paramedic, had to say on the matter:
“I have not seen a bike-sharing wreck. I asked my colleagues. We cannot recall a bike-sharing accident. It has always been personally owned bicycles. It is our opinion that we believe bike-sharing is safer.”