On a City Bike, all Traffic Lights are Yellow


11949849782053089133traffic_light_yellow_dan_01.svg.hiIn both the US and in Europe, the use of bicycles in cities has shot up. According to the League of American Bicyclists (which endorses none of what follows), bike use has gone up 39 percent nationally since 2001. In the seventy largest US cities, commuter bike use is up 63 percent. Leading the pack is San Francisco, where I bike to work most days; Chicago, New  York, and Washington have also seen huge increases. European cities, which generally had a head start, have also seen an increase in bike commuting. The growing ubiquity of City Bikes (public rental bikes designed for short urban commutes. In London, “Boris Bikes” after the mayor who sponsored them.) has accelerated this trend. Cycling is safe. Mile for mile, your odds of dying while walking or cycling are essentially the same. Surprisingly, even with more cyclists on the road, fewer cyclists are getting killed by cars.  From 1995 to 1997, an average of 804 cyclists in the United States died every year in motor-vehicle crashes. During an equivalent three-year period from 2008 to 2010, that average fell to 655. (The number rose again in 2011; not clear why). Credit does not appear to be because of bike helmets, which continue to generate serious debates. On balance, they seem to prevent death from skull fractures but do little to prevent brain injury from concussion. Traffic laws that slow cars down make a big difference. According to the Economist, dying while cycling is three to five times more likely in America than in Denmark, Germany or the Netherlands mainly due to cars traveling more than 30 mph. Europe frequently has traffic “calming” laws to slow cars down when bikes are nearby. It also helps pedestrians: A pedestrian hit by a car moving at 30mph has a 45% chance of dying; at 40mph, the chance of death is 85%, according to Britain’s Department of Transport. The British seem to gather better national data on cycling accidents than anyone else, although they appear to be far worse statisticians (they unhelpfully conclude that most bike accidents occur during those times when people ride bikes, for example). Nonetheless, they document a finding that will surprise no experienced urban cyclist: “Almost two thirds of cyclists killed or seriously injured were involved in collisions at, or near, a road junction…” In other words, cars kill cyclists at intersections. Knowing this, the single largest safety priority of every urban cyclist must be to avoid cars where possible; yield to them where not. Making this your number one safety priority  brings with it some surprising implications.

In short, when biking in a city, all traffic lights are yellow. Avoiding cars means stopping on green when you must and going on red when you can.

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