Here's the Ironic Reason Bike Sharing Could Be the Key to Keeping Riders Safe

Less experienced cyclists riding sturdier bicycles means fewer crashes.

A bike-share rack in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/Getty Images)

Apr 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Ditching your car for two-wheeled transportation is better for the environment, but avoiding swerving vehicles or car doors that suddenly open can make cycling through crowded urban roads a dangerous gamble. Riders are encouraged to wear helmets or reflective gear, yet, according to a new study, one unexpected factor seems to keep them from crashing: bike sharing.

According to the study, which was released by the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research organization at San Jose State University, there have been no deaths in the U.S. from bike-share rides. The risk factor for collisions and injury in private bike usage is also significantly higher than it is for bike sharing, according to the study.

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Data on non-bike-share accidents showed that in 2013, more than 900 bicyclists were killed in the U.S., with an estimated 494,000 emergency department visits owing to bicycle-related injuries.

In Washington, D.C., the first city in the U.S. to launch a commercial bike-sharing program, the collision rate was 35 percent lower, according to the study.

Along with examining bike-sharing safety data in D.C., the study’s authors analyzed information on two other big bike-sharing cities: San Francisco and Minneapolis. They found that the lower collision numbers in bike-sharing programs aren’t because there are fewer riders. Bike sharing is booming, with more than 2,500 bike-share stations operating in 65 cities across the U.S.

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Instead, the higher safety rates can be attributed to factors ranging from the type of bikes used in sharing systems to the lack of experience of riders.

Unlike the light 10- or 12-speed bikes that experienced cyclists often prefer, bike-share systems offer users cruiser-style bicycles that are solid and sturdy. Cruiser bikes are heavier and have fewer gears than their generally slimmer privately owned counterparts, which makes for a slower ride. Their wider tires make them more stable, and their brighter colors make them easier for drivers to spot on the road. Many bike-share programs also provide built-in lighting on the bikes and even safety tips on the handlebars for less experienced riders.

Handlebar safety reminders. (Photo: Courtesy CoGo Bike Share via Mineta Trasportation Institute)

(Illustration: Mineta Transportation Institute)

Many bike-share riders are just that: less experienced. The study found that people who use bike shares have spent a lot less time behind the handlebars and are less familiar with bike routes and roads.

This level of inexperience may be contributing to the trend’s safety levels. The study’s authors interviewed cycling experts and found that untrained bikers are often more cautious and aware on the road and therefore less likely to be in accidents.

In another seemingly contradictory finding, the authors discovered that bike sharing is safer despite lower rates of helmet use. Some experts have argued that riders may be more vigilant because they are aware of the risks involved when not wearing a helmet. Still, the study’s authors emphasize that mandating helmet use in bike-share programs would increase safety.

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Elliot Martin, the principal investigator and author of the study, said cyclists should take these findings with a grain of salt.

“This doesn’t mean that bike-sharing bicyclists have a force field around them. [A helmet] is like a seat belt. You’re not changing the odds that you get into a collision—you’re changing the odds you’ll be seriously injured,” Martin told TakePart.

Other factors, such as location density and road speeds in the area around bike-share stations, also contribute to bike-sharing being safer. The study found that most bike-related injuries and fatalities correlated to bike riders and drivers going faster and not paying attention. Bike-share programs, on the other hand, are most popular in the crowded downtowns of large cities, on roads often jammed with slow-moving cars and bustling with pedestrian traffic. In these areas, drivers and pedestrians are more likely to be on the lookout for bikers, the study showed.

Martin said his team also researched the “safety in numbers” hypothesis but found there was generally no tie between the number of riders in a group and collision rates.