Atlantic Cities

What Will New York City's Bike Share Program Mean for Rider Safety?

What Will New York City's Bike Share Program Mean for Rider Safety?
Reuters

Citi Bike, New York City's long-awaited bike share program, is launching in July. Earlier this month the program released a draft map of bike share stations; all told Citi Bike will boast 600 stations and 10,000 bikes. In short, the Citi is about to get a lot more Biki. So what does that mean for safety?

Two new studies illuminate potential public safety concerns that the city will have to consider as the bike share program gains popularity. The first is getting users to wear helmets. While state law only requires helmets for riders under age 14, Citi Bike encourages the practice among all users. The official bike share site even sends visitors to another city site that explains how riders can be fitted for and receive a free helmet.

Whether or not that effort will be sufficient is unclear. Both Hubway (Boston) and Capital Bikeshare (D.C.) also steer users toward nearby helmet vendors, yet a great deal of them still fail to helmet-up, according to research in press at the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

For the study, a group of doctors and medical researchers from the Boston and Washington areas observed more than 3,000 bike riders at 36 locations in September and October of last year. While roughly half of people riding their own bike wore a helmet, 81 percent of bike share users went helmet-less, the researchers report. All told, bike share users were 1.6 times less likely to wear a helmet than people who rode a personal bike.

Part of the disparity can be traced to what our Emily Badger has called the "cootie conundrum": a general reluctance to rent helmets from a vending machine near a bike share docking station. Cities can consider stricter helmet laws, but that means more enforcement, diverting resources from bike infrastructure, and could even discourage bike share use, which defeats the whole point. As the researchers writing in Annals conclude, the "optimal way to achieve higher rates of helmet use is not clear."

A second concern is whether more bike riders necessarily means more bike-related accidents. Or, to put it more precisely, whether the rate of bicycle accidents in New York will increase once the rush of bike share users hits the streets. The question is hard to answer conclusively, since the bike share movement remains in its infancy, but there's reason to believe that New York's abundant bike infrastructure will continue to mitigate the hazards of riding in the city.

In a recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a group of researchers led by Li Chen, who studies civil engineering at City College of New York, analyzed the impact of bike lanes on accident rates. Chen and colleagues tallied accidents before and after the installation of 43 miles of bike lanes across New York's five boroughs between 1996 and 2006. They also compared these rates to locations with similar traffic characteristics where bike lanes were never built at all.

The results are a bit complicated, but the researchers believe they shine a positive light on bicycle safety in the city. When Chen and colleagues modeled the differences between street types — in simple terms, compared those streets where bike lanes were added to those where they were not — they found that bicycle crashes seemed to increase a bit, but that this increase was not statistically significant.

"Our results indicate that the installation of bicycle lanes does not lead to an increase in crashes despite the likely increase in the number of bicyclists after the addition of such lanes," Chen and colleagues conclude. Moreover, the researchers think that if they had been able to control for the increased number of bike riders who emerge once bike lanes are built, they might actually have found a decrease in the accident rate. (The research, it must be pointed out, was funded by the New York City Department of Transportation.)

All things considered, the findings suggest that as long as bike share users stick to bike lanes — and as long as New York City keeps building bike lanes at pace with growing ridership — accident rates won't soar, even if the Citi Bike program becomes as popular as many predict. (To further decrease bike-car conflicts, the authors suggest creating "bike boxes" at intersections, so cars can become more aware of riders.) When it comes to biking in the city during the Citi Bike era, there may be some relative safety in numbers.

Photo credit: Chip East/Reuters

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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