Jul 8, 2013

Why is bike share safer than regular cycling?

It's not clear why serious injuries associated with bike share schemes are reported to be much lower than for regular cycling. However there are a number of possible explanations

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

An NYC Citi Bike. One rider says it weighs about 45 lbs and ennabled her to average 9.7 mph on the flat

There’s widespread acknowledgement that there’re remarkably few casualties associated with bike share schemes. Boston’s Hubway system had three reported crashes after 700,000 trips (only one serious) and Nice Ride in Minneapolis had four reported crashes after 600,000 trips (none serious).

Three riders on New York’s extraordinarily successful new Citi Bike scheme experienced minor injuries after 500,000 trips (none serious). This study concluded that larger North American bike schemes (> 1,000 bikes) incur an average of just 4.3 injuries per year.

What’s especially interesting is that bike share schemes are reported to be much safer than regular cycling. For example, there were 14.6 million cycling trips in Washington DC in 2011 and 538 reported bicycle crashes. After 4 million trips, the city’s Capital Bikeshare scheme had half as many reported crashes per trip. One estimate for New York is Citi Bike users crashed at a rate 2.5 times lower than regular cyclists. Bikeshare’s safer in Europe and other countries too.

Bike share tariffs usually incentivise shorter trips so comparing crashes on the basis of trip rates might give a misleading answer. Perhaps bike share isn’t any safer than ordinary cycling after all. I don’t have any data to come down either way on that question so for the purposes of this exercise I’m going to accept the conventional wisdom that bike share’s a lot safer than regular cycling.

The intriguing question then is why it’s safer. I haven’t found any studies that formally investigate this question so I’m going to advance some speculative explanations, mostly drawn from what I’ve heard and read (these are framed relative to regular cycling):

One: the sorts of bicycles used in bike share schemes are safer than standard bicycles. They’re heavier and have wider tyres, so they’re slower. They’ve usually only got three gears so riders are less likely to ride in hilly terrain. They’re more upright too, which arguably gives more control and makes the rider more visible to drivers. They usually have lights built-in so they can be seen at night.

Two: drivers are more careful around bike share riders. Since bike share schemes are still relatively new, motorists are cautious about this new phenomenon (this might not last). Or it might be drivers assume bike share riders are more likely to be inexperienced so they take more care around them. Perhaps some feel greater empathy with bike share riders because they’re usually dressed in standard clothes, not lycra.

Three: bike share users are accountable via their credit card for any damage to the bicycle. They accordingly ride with greater care.

Four: bike share schemes operate in the most cycling-friendly parts of cities. These tend to be in and around the CBD where cycling infrastructure is usually better. Congestion, high pedestrian density and controlled intersections often mean traffic moves slowly. In contrast, casualty statistics for regular cycling usually cover a much larger area, much of it with rudimentary provision for cycling.

Five: bike share riders are different. They’re more likely to be drawn from those who don’t own a bicycle and therefore have limited experience with cycling. Rather than their lower skills exposing them to greater danger, it might make them more cautious. They might, for example, intuitively select the safest routes and eschew those that look problematic due to traffic. They might also tend to be drawn from a demographic (e.g. older) that’s better able to judge risk than cyclists in general.

While I can see all these factors contributing to varying degrees, the fact is there’s no definitive evidence. My instinct nevertheless is the first three are the least important. I expect the last two are the ones that really matter, especially number five – the profile of bike share users tends to differ from that of regular riders. For example, Stephen Miller at Streetsblog notes:

In DC, for instance, women comprise 45 percent of Capital Bikeshare’s membership, but only 23 percent of the general cycling population. In addition, 70 percent of Capital Bikeshare members did not already own a bicycle before joining.

If that proposition is right, I’d expect to see much less difference in casualty rates between bike share and regular cycling in places where cycling has a very high mode share, like some European and Chinese cities.

Whatever the explanation, it’s important to bear in mind that bike share still accounts for a small fraction of cycling trips even in cities with long-established schemes (a relative term – there were only seven schemes worldwide in 2002, now there’re almost 500). Policy-makers need to understand that what’s true for bike share users might not hold in all cases for the much larger population of regular cyclists, and vice versa.

(Visited 7 times, 1 visits today)


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “Why is bike share safer than regular cycling?

  1. hk

    All are valid points.
    For Melbourne Bike Share (MBS, wide tires overcome loosing control crossing tram lines and the inability to really speed reduces the probability of unforeseen incidents occurring.
    My over the handle bar observations indicate there is no anti-social risk taking behaviour such as running lights by MBS users. I have been using MBS four to five days a week since its start up in 2010 and find taxis in particular give me more space.

  2. Dylan Nicholson

    “Three: bike share users are accountable via their credit card for any damage to the bicycle. They accordingly ride with greater care.”

    I would have thought the most-at-risk cyclists (a group I’m probably in) were the ones with the most expensive bikes, and hence expensive repair/replacement bills!

    Also: I’d say #5 is more about risk-aversity. Those of use who use our own bikes to get around everywhere are, it would seem, somewhat less risk-averse than the average commuter who might use a bike-share bike now and then, and aren’t so put off by dangerous riding conditions. You’d think experience and presumably higher skill/fitness would go someway to making up for that, but apparently not – as it is, thankfully you don’t get too many opportunities to practice avoiding being knocked off your bike by unexpected auto-mobile manoeuvres (including of the car-door-swinging-open variety). I’m not convinced average age has much to do with it either – are there stats that indicate the average bike-share user is older than the average regular private-bike rider?
    One other factor might be that bike-share riders are especially risk-averse because they’re more likely to be doing something that is novel for them, hence more focused/aware of their surroundings. Unless you stick to very restricted routes, you can’t afford to just ‘switch off’ while cycling, which is what our brains tend to do when engaging in an activity we’ve done many times before and can largely do on auto-pilot.

  3. St Etienne

    Some interesting points. The heavy, upright bikes and shorter length of trips would definitely be factors in my opinion, however I’d tend towards your fifth point as the most likely explanation. Experienced riders in major cities are more likely to put themselves at greater risk than everyday people trying out a share bike for the first time. And it might not just be the case that inexperience leads to greater caution; there are plenty of regular riders like myself who prefer to stick to safer routes. (My years of experience have forced me away from riding in busy traffic, not towards it.)

  4. mook schanker

    Yep, god they’re heavy and slow. Kudos to a couple of cyclists who recently who took them on the Melbourne Around the Bay bike ride…!

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details