Cycle Tracks Safety Neutral at Worst, Safer and Attract Bicyclists At Best

January 23, 2012 in Bicycling, Featured by bikewalkadmin

On the Right Track from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

TULSA – You can already ride your bike down Tulsa’s Cincinnati Avenue, Harvard Avenue, 11th Street (Route 66!), or even 71st Street near Memorial. It’s perfectly legal. But does it feel safe? Is it a pleasant experience? The answer for most people is likely no, which is why you rarely see anyone doing it.

In fact, according to a research study published in 2011 and conducted in part by the Harvard School of Public Health, the chief obstacle to bicycling, especially for women, children and seniors, is the perceived danger of vehicular traffic. We didn’t need a study to know why most people elect to travel busy Tulsa streets by motor vehicle instead of bicycle. It’s not rocket science, people are scared.

Imagine now if some of these busy Tulsa streets had cycle tracks or buffered bike lanes. Many more people would likely be willing to venture out on their bikes because cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes offer an environment more suited to bicyclists of all ages and abilities, especially the many bicyclists who aren’t comfortable riding in mixed traffic. The video above from Portland, OR explains the cycle track concept as well as buffered bike lanes.

Cycle tracks are basically bike lanes that swap spaces with the parallel parking lane. Instead of cars parking next to the curb, cars park a distance away from the curb, allowing a bike lane to be placed between the parked cars and the curb. The parked cars provide a physical buffer between bicyclists and passing motor vehicles that can improve bicyclists’ safety and level of comfort. A cycle track can also be created where there is no parallel parking by installing a physical barrier such as a curb or a narrow median between the cycle track and the travel lane.

Those who oppose cycle tracks often do so on the grounds of safety, making the claim that cycle tracks put bicyclists in more danger at intersections. To improve visibility at cross streets, parallel parking can be prohibited within a defined distance from a cross street so turning motor vehicles will have a clear line-of-sight that enables them to yield when a bicycle is approaching.

But is riding on a cycle track more dangerous than riding in the street? If a city installs a cycle track, are they really sending unsuspecting, untrained, newbie bicyclists into a bike lane instrument of death?

The aforementioned Harvard study sought to determine the risk of injury for bicycling on cycle tracks versus in the street. The study examined six North American cycle tracks located in Montreal and compared them to reference streets without cycle tracks.

Cycle tracks were found to have a relative risk of injury 28% less than bicycling in the street. Source: injuryprevention.bmj.com

Turns out, the overall relative risk of bicycling on a cycle track is 0.72, which means the rate of injury on cycle tracks was 28% less than the regular street. What’s incredible about this result is that all the cycle tracks examined in Montreal for the study were two-way cycle tracks, which are thought to be more dangerous than one-way cycle tracks. So you might expect the relative risk of bicycling on a one-way cycle track to be even better.

What’s more, 2.5 times more bicyclists used the cycle tracks than the regular street. The findings of the study showed that separated cycle tracks are safer at best and no more dangerous than bicycling in the street at worst.

The study also mentions that in The Netherlands, where cycle tracks are prevalent, 27% of Dutch trips are made by bike, 55% are women, and the bicyclist injury rate is 0.14 injured per million kilometers traveled. In the United States, however, only 0.5% of commuters bike, 24% of adult bicyclists are women, and the bicyclist injury rate is 26 times greater than in The Netherlands.

Earlier this month in a City Council Public Works Committee meeting, Planning Director, Dawn Warrick said, “The comprehensive plan, through the PlaniTulsa process, really did talk to the community about the concept of Complete Streets. It is prevalent throughout the document that there is a desire for us to fully utilize our infrastructure and provide choices for people when it comes to how they get around the community. So there is public support for this type of concept.”

Given the public support for Complete Streets and the results of this study showing that separated cycle tracks are, at worst, no more dangerous than bicycling in mixed traffic, what are we afraid of when it comes to cycle tracks and buffered bike lanes?