Local
11:57 pm
Tue October 4, 2011

Safety Concerns Keep Many from Biking to Work

On Memorial Day, Bob Noll and two of his friends decided to go on a bike ride. As their small group reached the bottom of the hill behind the Pittsburgh zoo, they turned right.

"There's a traffic light at Allegheny River Boulevard and Washington, and it's almost always red. It was green! I was delighted because it's downhill," he said.

A vehicle approached on their left, and cut in front of the riders as it made a right turn onto Washington Boulevard.

"I never saw him. I never heard it coming. He just ran me over … or she."

The driver fled the scene and hasn't been found. Noll, a professor of pediatrics, psychology, and psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, continues to recover. He says most of the damage was to the left side of his body.

He jokes, "I'm left handed, too! It's not fair!"

Though Noll has a sense of humor and acceptance about his brush with death, the crash disrupted an important part his life. For decades, Noll has been racing, commuting, and cross-country touring. He's lived in cities around the country, and finds that bicyclists are treated the same regardless of geography.

"I think most of the drivers in Pittsburgh are just as careful as drivers in other places where I've lived," he said. "I think a lot of the animosity that you get from drivers, the bike riders sort of bring on themselves."

Impatience can make a person do funny things. Vulnerable cyclists weave in and out of traffic, and drivers irritated at having to share the road maneuver three-thousand-pound vehicles dangerously close to bicyclists.

But biking is safer than most people think. According to the US Census Bureau, fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters fell from 21 in 1980, to 9 in 2008, with an overall decrease of 57% since 1980.

Safety in Numbers

John Pucher, professor of City Planning and Urban Transportation at Rutgers University, says there is safety in numbers.

"As cycling levels increase, the fatality rates and injury rates of cyclists fall," he explained. "And the reason is the more people that are on bikes, the more visible they become to motorists. And the more visible cyclists become, the easier it is, or the more likely it is, that cars will avoid them."

The only way to get those numbers up is to make people feel safer, which requires changes to infrastructure. Pucher says the dearth of bike lanes and separated bike lanes means only a small segment of the population is willing to ride to work.

"Maybe 80, maybe 75 percent, of all regular commuter cyclists are in fact white males. So, unfortunately, cycling in the United States is very dominated by white males, roughly from 20-45. Something like that is just stunning."

Left behind are women, youths, seniors, and anyone who is risk-averse. In the U.S., less than two percent of the population bikes to work. That's in sharp contrast to a country like the Netherlands where around 30% of trips are made on bikes.

In Pittsburgh, few streets have painted bike lanes, and they don't usually connect to each other, leaving islands of relative safety amidst a sea of traffic. Scott Bricker heads the advocacy organization Bike Pittsburgh. He says having more bike lanes would be in keeping with Pittsburgh's "livable city" image.

"When it's car-centric, that's not where people want to live. Just drive along McKnight Road. Is that the vision of Pittsburgh that people think of when they think of a livable city with a high quality of life? No, absolutely not," Bricker said.

While some might not think that Pittsburgh's narrow streets can accommodate bike lanes, Europe, with its ancient roadways, has managed to make room in many cities. Pucher says bike lanes that either have a cement barrier or a buffering line of parked cars make people feel safer.

"There have been many surveys asking 'What will it take to get you on a bike?' and almost every single survey, the number one thing people want is physically separated cycling facilities," Bricker said.

Biking Advocate Lolly Walsh fondly recalls the first time she rode in a separated bike lane.

"I had a giant swoon and immediately all my worries about somebody coming up behind me were gone. It's amazing how many worries it takes off your shoulders."

Comfortable but Not Safe

That feeling of safety eludes many bike riders. On a warm Friday evening, Jane Kaminski waited outside the Main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland. She's with Flock of Cycles, a group that leads its family friendly, traffic-signal-abiding rides with a bumping boom box.

While Kaminski says she feels comfortable riding her bike, she doesn't feel safe.

"Comfortable means I have a confidence about biking," Kaminski explained. "I know the streets, I know what it feels like to have a loud bus passing me. But I don't feel safe because you never know what's going to happen."

Nick Drombosky co-founded Flock of Cycles. One of his defenses against cars is to ride an outlandish double-decker bike.

He said, "You cannot be mad at it."

But short of riding a tall bike, he wishes everyone would take a deep breath and calm down.

"Everyone has a destination," Drombosky said. "What makes your destination any more important, or your life any more important, than anyone else's?"

Bike Pittsburgh's Scott Bricker said that when the organization began nearly a decade ago, a week wouldn't go by without a threat from a driver or someone yelling at them to get on the sidewalk.

"And really the culture is changing in a huge way here. So is that saying we're all done and we don't have any more work to do?" Bricker said. "No, not at all, there's still a long way to go here."

But what about the cost of bikeways? Pucher says cities struggling to pay their bills should check out Berlin, Germany, a cash-strapped city that's investing in bike infrastructure to squeeze the most out of its limited resources.