Should I quit cycle-commuting? I’ve been mulling over this question for the past month during my daily round-trip from Silver Lake to Century City. I’m not alone in these musings; I’ve since read two recent accounts of other cyclists dismounting for good. Cycling’s dangers and indignities have become the primary, even sole, deciding factors in these cases and mine.
Before taking up bicycle commuting about two years ago, I walked to work in Century City. For eighteen years I really looked forward to those walks, bookends to my workdays. To be sure, I had scary experiences as a pedestrian, perhaps one per month. I used to joke that I would die at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Century Park East, where hurried drivers would zoom past me in the crosswalk. Once I started cycling to work, however, the frequency of these terrifying experiences has skyrocketed. It’s no longer once monthly, but closer to once or twice daily. The number of intersections in which I can joke about dying has increased manifold. I don’t look forward to my commutes anymore. I’ve stopped joking, I now have nightmares.
Prepping for my commute is almost a religious ceremony. I pull on a breastplate, a high-visibility vest. I don a prayer cap, a helmet. I anoint my face with a pollution mask, and I gird myself with gloves. I light talismanic candles, bright and blinking lights totaling thousands of lumens to protect my journey. I wheel my bicycle into the street, say a little prayer, and then commit my spirit into the mercurial hands of driverdom.
Around seventy cyclists die annually in Southern California, over one per week. Ted Rogers of bikinginla.com keeps the statistics, gleaned from news accounts and emails from riders. Official statistics from SWITRS come years behind and aren’t complete, but they usually show that cyclists are killed in numbers in excess to their share on the road. No one keeps good statistics on injuries, but once in awhile a researcher will write a paper about hospital admissions; the results aren’t encouraging.
I often read these grim numbers to understand how I can avoid being one of them. Somehow it helps if I can distinguish the kind of riding I do from the riding that “they do.” If this rider was killed riding at 2:30 AM, I can breathe a little easier, for I don’t ride in the wee hours. If that rider was killed while riding against traffic, I remind myself that I don’t salmon. However, more often than not, I can’t shake the increasingly obvious fact that deaths and injuries happen frequently, randomly, and unpredictably, no matter what sort of choice I make about when, how, or where to ride.
Is cycling in traffic safe? I can find statistical support for any answer I want: yes, no, who knows. My own experiences suggest the answer should be no, not safe. In 2009 I was rear-ended while riding on Los Feliz Boulevard; last year I was brushed (side-swiped) on Fountain Avenue. I can recount several other close passes, terrifying moments — the usual stuff that you will hear from almost any cyclist. I shrugged off these experiences when they happened, but they still haunt me. They’ve also made me into a poor advocate; I cannot argue for cycling’s essential safety, I am a personal testament to its dangers. As much as I want to believe the opposite, little by little I’ve had to admit to myself that I don’t feel safe on the road. I never feel safe out there.
At least three possible antidotes present themselves: bike trains, vehicular cycling, and improved infrastructure. Can any of them solve my safety concerns? Bike trains test the theory that riders are safer in numbers. They’ve been on the scene in Los Angeles for a few years now. I haven’t used or studied them, and I don’t know how successful they’ve been. I’d try a train if I could find one going my way, but ultimately I believe they have limited usefulness: they typically run only one day a week, only one-way, and they are routed on roads busier than I like to ride.
In a similar vein, vehicular cycling (VC) provides some useful techniques for situations in which I have few other choices. However, my experience with VC riding hasn’t shown promise: the two crashes I’ve had with cars happened when I was riding VC-style, in the manner that proponents would say is safest. More fundamentally, I’ve yet to understand how VC techniques make cycling safer. I get that they dictate a set of normalized behaviors, which if everyone followed would improve the experience of cyclists. What I don’t understand is what fundamental constraints (aside from law) ensure motorist cooperation. Sharrows, for example, are city-approved VC principles in paint; their (non) “efficacy” at informing and controlling motorists can be illustrated with two recent incidents in Corona del Mar and Toronto, Ontario. In both cases, cyclists riding down sharrowed streets found themselves in unpleasant altercations with drivers.
Infrastructure improvements would change my experience completely. My cycling trips to The Netherlands and Denmark showed me that. But Los Angeles’ 2012 Bicycle Master Plan envisions no improvements in my area. It does not even add bicycle lanes, those sirens of infrastructure, which are better than nothing but not exactly great. When the Beverly Hills City Council shot down lanes along Santa Monica Boulevard in 2014 citing safety concerns, I wasn’t very happy about it, but they may have been right. I frequently find myself unpleasantly boxed in between buses and car doors while riding the West Hollywood lanes along Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s really too bad neither city considered cycle tracks.
More generally — and contrary to the conventional narrative — cycling is not enjoying robust growth in this country, much of it probably due to safety concerns. Bicycle sales have declined for over a decade; last year, cars actually outsold bicycles by about 70,000 units. Similarly, “…on a per capita basis, half of American cyclists have quit riding bikes in the past 20 years.“ Membership in USA Cycling has fallen off since 2012, in part because the “general increase of risk aversion in society … carries over to sports [with] greater risks like cycling.” The mean age of USA Cycling members in 2013 was 39 years-old, and young cyclists have all but disappeared, both at school and on the race course. One parent told me asking her children to cycle to school would be child abuse. The cyclists that remain are turning to off-road disciplines like mountain biking and cyclecross, with at least one bike shop owner attributing the trend to safety issues. While cycling clubs are said to be bursting with members, I see this growth partly as evidence of cyclists looking for safety in numbers.
I am fortunate to have a great car, reliable and comfortable, and I can afford it. Some people will remind me that cars aren’t exactly safe, though I think that perspective misses the mark. My driving commute happens at roughly the same speeds as my cycling commute; I can assure you that driving at fifteen miles per hour is vastly safer than cycling at the same speed. I’ve been in two fender benders in thirty years of driving; there are no fender-benders in cycling, only road rash and worse. When I “fight traffic” in a car, I am mostly describing getting to my destination as quickly as possible; on a bike, fighting traffic is about staying alive. Driving is easy compared to cycling, and in fact too easy: I cannot imagine how I’d go about texting while cycling, but it’s so simple in a car that everyone does it.
I really don’t want to quit cycling. I feel better physically and mentally after a ride. I love the exercise, the wind in my hair, the sun on my back, the quiet whirr of my chain and the bicycle tires against pavement. I love almost everything about it except for the damned cars. I don’t want to give it up. I don’t know how much longer I can responsibly hold on.
From 2001 until 2012, the years for which we have full SWITRS data, deaths on California’s roadways have gone from 3,926 to 2,995, a decline of about twenty-four percent. This is the good news. In 2013, a year for which full data isn’t yet delivered, deaths are already running higher than the previous year, at 3,102. The last four years have actually brought much of the same, with gradual year-over-year increases. Before that, deaths had been falling sharply, from 2007 to 2010, perhaps because high fuel prices and the “Great Recession” kept drivers off the roads.
These overall road safety gains have mostly accrued to drivers of motor vehicles, and specifically to drivers of cars and pickups. Vulnerable road users have seen few safety gains at all. Deaths among motorcyclists have risen an astonishing fifty-two percent (295 to 449), and cycling deaths by twenty-six percent (116 to 147). Pedestrian deaths look flat, down by nearly three percent (721 to 701) for the same period, but 2013 is going to be bad for them, according to the preliminary numbers I’ve seen, with 752 total deaths already reported, erasing all gains.
The stats above suffer from one big problem: they don’t have a base rate, they don’t show us per-capita changes. If motorcycle riding increased by fifty-two percent over the years from 2001 to 2012, then the increase in deaths might explainable. I haven’t spent time (on this lazy Sunday) locating base rates, if it’s even possible. But there is one easy way to use this raw data as is to show how savagely vulnerable users have suffered. We can look at the proportion of deaths each category of road user represents, per year, and look at the changes year-over-year.
Here are the proportion of deaths for all major road user categories for the years 2001-2012:
|Year||Car & Pickup Occupants||Motorcyclists||Cyclists||Pedestrians||Others|
The motorcyclist death-rate proportion increase is horrible, one-hundred percent (7.5 to 15), but every other vulnerable road user has also seen huge changes. Cyclists proportion of deaths has increased by sixty-three percent, and the proportion of pedestrians dying has increased by twenty-seven percent. Motorists, by contrast, are the sole road users showing a decrease, about twenty percent overall.
I haven’t done the hard work necessary to explain these numbers, but I’d guess car manufacturers are responsible for most of it. That is, fewer people are dying in cars because cars have gotten safer, while vulnerable users have seen no safety improvements. These users need changes in infrastructure and the laws for their safety, and we — our society and government — have done little with our roads or legislation. We haven’t lowered speed limits, improved pavements, bettered sidewalks or bicycle paths or crosswalks, tightened drunk driving standards, or enforced mobile phone restrictions. We’ve done hardly anything. The stats show up the problems: road users who have no access to better automobile technology are dying in ever greater proportions.
Here’s a count of all cycling fatalities in California from 2001 to 2012, tabulated by year and day of week. The raw data comes from SWITRS.
Is there any knowledge to be gleaned here about the safest day to cycle? One of the biggest problems in analyzing SWITRS cycling data comes from the lack of base rates, or overall counts of cyclists for a given period. The single worst day came from the 34 people who died on Sundays in 2004, but without knowing whether many people were cycling on Sundays in 2004, we can’t determine the rate of fatalities, and there’s not much we can derive about safety from these numbers. In a word, then, we don’t know when it’s safest to ride.
Still, my guess is that cycling rates climb on the weekends. If that’s true, we should expect to see higher fatalities overall on Saturdays and Sundays. They don’t show here in the totals for the weekends, which look rather like the rest of the week. The cause could be as simple as less car traffic on the weekends, or as rich and complex as this notion of safety in numbers, the idea that so many people are cycling on the weekends that drivers notice them.
Ultimately, we really need better information about cycling in California. We don’t know much about ourselves, how many of us ride, when we do, how we get into crashes, and why.