“I grew up biking in Europe,” the woman said after she cut across four lanes of traffic in downtown DC.
I had caught up to her at a red light to tell her that she was lucky — cars had slammed on their brakes, some right next to me as I carefully pedaled in the narrow strip between the curb and the flow of traffic. At least she was wearing a helmet, which is not true of other bicyclists who have also assured me they “grew up biking in Europe.”
“But this is DC!” I called after her as she maneuvered into traffic again. The people around us may have grown up driving in Europe, but also in Africa or Asia or North America.
As a daily bike commuter, it is an exceptional day if I don’t feel threatened by a bus, truck, or car. And I never fail to see risky behavior by my fellow bikers.
So I decided to gather some data.
- In the U.S., 677 bicyclists were killed in 2011, and even that is potentially a low estimate since a victim’s mode of transport is often not noted in police and hospital records.
- In the EU-23, 2,440 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents in 2008. But again, the researchers compiling the report warn that this is a low estimate.
I detected a Dutch accent in my short conversation with the blithe lane-crosser. If I see her again, I’ll be ready: 22% of traffic fatalities in the Netherlands in 2011 were cyclists. No doubt this has to do with the huge number of people who bike there, but the data don’t lie. There is not a magical zone of safety around cyclists in the Netherlands, just as there is certainly not one around us in DC.
For more on this topic, please see Ted Eytan’s blog posts tagged bicycling. In particular:
Video Friday: only thing we can do is change conditions so no more daughters die
Every bicyclist counts – a memorial project of the League of American Bicyclists (founded in 1880!)
Here’s to making good choices, when we can, for ourselves and for those around us. As Jody Struve writes, “Thank you for your health.”
David Harlow says
Kudos to you for biking to work and for calling out a kamikaze cyclist. I gave up trying to commute by bike when I worked in downtown Boston because the roadways and drivers were none too bike-friendly, though things have improved a bit in recent years.
A couple of related thoughts:
I would love to see the bikeshare programs popping up in US cities deliver a helmet with each bike. I’m sure someone can figure out a way to make sure the helmets don’t all walk off.
I like the bike lanes in NYC because they are between the parked cars and the curb (not between parked cars and traffic lanes) — bikers can’t get “doored.”
Susannah Fox says
Thanks, David! I’m in awe of Boston bike commuters, where it’s a sign of weakness for drivers to signal before they change lanes or turn (to name just one characteristic of Boston drivers).
I’ve read about ideas for programs for getting helmets out to bike-share members. I’m happy to say that there are two stations in my neighborhood and most people bring their own helmets.
The people who really scare me are the tourist families who don’t wear helmets AND don’t know the ways of DC drivers and certain intersections (Dupont Circle is like the Bermuda Triangle with its now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t stop lights and conflicting pedestrian signals for the outer and inner circle).
DC is adding more bike lanes all the time, some protected, some not. Alice Swanson was in a bike lane on R St. NW when an inattentive truck driver turned and crushed her under his wheels. Personally, I stick to the Mass Ave sidewalk for most of my ride because it is a wide, designated bike path. I just have to dodge all the Brits and former British colony embassy workers who walk on the wrong side. My new bell speaks all languages.
Mike Painter says
Agree with David-I love that you’re riding your bike to commute. I also agree that safety on our roads is a major issue. That’s true whether you’re riding in a crowded metropolitan area like DC or even here where I live and ride extensively in the more bucolic roads of the Princeton area. I like that you and others are raising the issues about bike safety and risks. I worry some that folks might be intimidated by the numbers and stories, though, and decide not to ride at all. I think the more cyclists take to the roads the more normal it will become to both drivers and cyclists. We clearly have some tension on the roads now between drivers and cyclists. Both groups need to take great care with each other-take proper precautions-and obey the existing rules. We also need our community leaders to build infrastructure that presumes cyclists will be on our roads (I just spent some time in Boulder, CO-that’s a unique community in which that presumption has shifted dramatically in favor of cyclists, for instance). Anyway, thanks for riding–and for the great post.
Susannah Fox says
I grew up in Princeton and biked *everywhere*. It was my default form of transportation until I left for college. Bucolic roads, indeed. That’s why I felt brave enough to start commuting by bike a few years ago, just a few times a week. I had the muscle memory of avoiding doors, knowing when to slow down, how to signal effectively, etc.
Hopefully more and more people will join us — there has been an explosion of bikers in DC over the past year — and I would not want to discourage anyone by talking too much about cyclist deaths. However, I cannot believe some of the antics I see — people biking without a helmet, going the wrong way, wearing earbuds, changing lanes without signaling, squeezing between a truck and the curb in order to get to the light and get their break-away…and that was just this morning.
Here’s my #ifihadglass — I’d start a Tumblr entitled, “Your hair is not that great” and snap photos of cyclists without helmets. Kickstarter?