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Happy trends in Minneapolis bicycling: Commutes are way up, collisions down

Courtesy of MnDOT
Each commuter who parks a car and pedals instead is making a significant move in personal fitness, of course, but also not-insignificant contributions to cleaner air, lessened traffic congestion and a particular form of civic harmony.

After nearly 30 years of living in Minneapolis, plus a few more within commuting range,  I rarely encounter a statistic about life in the city that surprises me.

But this month’s city report finding that the number of regular bike commuters in the city has more than doubled in less than  two decades— from around 3,000 in 1993, to 7,000 in 2010 — was really quite a stunner. The more so, perhaps, because I was a rider in those ranks for much of that time.

Can there be a more encouraging single measure of urban wellness?

Each commuter who parks a car and pedals instead is making a significant move in personal fitness, of course, but also not-insignificant contributions to cleaner air, lessened traffic congestion and a particular form of civic harmony. One that arises not from lifestyle homogeneity but from working through perpetual conflict.

The cyclist/motorist divide

And make no mistake — bike commuting is a source of conflict, and likely always will be when practiced in a streetscape so thoroughly designed for accommodation of automobiles, where congestion seems to worsen by the week, where even bus drivers have a heavier burden than in some other large cities with a better networks of transit lanes.

As a Minneapolis motorist, I once hit a stoplight-running cyclist downtown, trashing his bike but causing no personal injury. I also had a memorably close call right by my home in the Kenny neighborhood, at twilight, with a cyclist who wasn’t as visible as he assumed.

But as a Minneapolis bike commuter, highly invested in defensive riding and reasonably compliant with rules of the road, I had more close calls than I like to recall.

So it is particularly amazing to see that during a period in which the number of bike commuters, as counted by the U.S. Census, swelled by some 230 percent, serious collisions involving a bike and a motor vehicle have declined significantly, from 320 a year in the latter 1990s, on average, to 270 in the decade from 2000-2010.

To be sure, the city doubled its bikeway mileage in this period, from 80 miles in 1999 to 166 now. However, nearly all that increase came in the form of newly marked-off traffic lanes, rather than expansion of the nonmotorized trails system.

All this in a 7-month season

And if one deducts the five bad-weather months from November through March, when bike commuting drops dramatically and only about one-tenth of the tallied accidents occurred, the reduction is all the more striking.

Because of the city’s intensive data collection on vehicle-bike collisions from 2000 to 2011, the report is able to analyze a wide range of causes and contributing factors. On everybody’s No. 1 question — whether drivers or cyclists cause more of the trouble — the report is diplomatically even-handed:

Assigning fault is a difficult and inexact task. However, it appears that bicyclists and motorists are equally contributing to the causes of crashes. Bicyclists are estimated to have contributing factors in 59.0 percent of crashes and motorists in 63.9 percent of crashes. The totals exceed 100 percent as both parties have contributing factors.    

But not all factors have equal weight, nor are the consequences evenly distributed.

Cyclists were found to run more stop signs and stoplights — no surprise there — and were not quite twice as likely as motorists to engage in “improper lane use” (9.2 percent to 5.2).

Motorists, on the other hand, were more than twice as likely to be cited for failure to yield right of way, 31.2 percent to 13.3.

As for consequences, 87  percent of cyclists involved in a reportable accident were injured; 4 percent suffered incapacitating injuries; a dozen were killed from 2000-2011. No motorists were known to have been hurt.

crash diagram
Source: Minneapolis Public Works
From the report, example cases of motorists failing to yield right-of-way while turning.

Each cycling fatality involved wet pavement, an aggressive or impaired motorist, a large vehicle, or some combination of these factors; five of the fatal collisions were hit-and-runs.  In fact, about 20 percent of all the collisions were hit-and-runs, with motorists comprising 93 percent of the fugitives.

These figures should be considered minimums, by the way. As my former Strib colleague and longtime bike commuter Steve Brandt has written, “One limit to the data is that it includes only reported crashes, and other studies using hospital visits estimate that between one-third and two-thirds of crashes go unreported to police.”

Safety in numbers?

The report argues that cyclists are benefiting from a “safety in numbers” phenomenon, reasoning that as more cyclists enter the roadway, motorists become more attentive. I want to hope that’s true, but the data seem to point in two directions on this.

  • Crash rates are higher on lightly traveled routes, where a smaller number of mishaps is divided into a much smaller number of car and bike trips.
  • The highest crash volumes remain in heavily traveled corridors — like East Franklin, Lyndale, Hennepin, Nicollet and Portland Avenues, and 26th and 28th Streets — and often in places where drivers and riders have had the longest to get used to each other.

Brandt, whose street knowledge is more current than mine, says that some have marked-off bike lanes and some don’t.

Part of a wider trend?

Looking at these numbers, and thinking back over my own years in the saddle, I wonder if it’s not at least as likely that the accident rate is dropping not because motorists are waking up but simply because the flow of cyclists has been channeled into certain commuting routes and away from others, geographically reducing their exposure.

I also wonder — and this is going to sound snarkier than I intend — whether the proliferation of traffic jams and potholes that I notice on every visit to Minneapolis these days isn’t slowing everybody down somewhat.

Finally, it seems possible that Minneapolis is simply registering its piece of much broader trends. Even New York City is registering a bike-commuting boom, reports Time magazine:

More than twice as many New Yorkers commuted to work by bike in 2011 than in 2006 — to nearly 20,000 — while the number of New Yorkers who ride their bike daily increased by more than 13% over just the past two years … and the number of bikers is growing faster than the number of bike accidents.

Whatever their origins, these surely are trends in the right direction.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Robert Owen on 01/31/2013 - 11:17 am.

    Has every bike commuter parked a car?

    There are more bike commuters in recent years. Surely there are personal health and financial benefits.

    But how many of these commuters parked a car to ride a bike? I’ve been a bike commuter for several years but the bus I ride when the weather is terrible still runs five days a week whether I’m on it or not. My bike commuting contributes nothing to better air quality or reduced congestion.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/31/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    Bikers and bikes

    The trend doesn’t surprise me at all. I think I would attribute lower collision rates primarily to better biking. The US has been kind of interesting in the last 20 years. We have much higher rates of fatalities and accidents than Europe for instance and think part of that has to do with the profile of US bikers. For a while there in the 80s and 90s there were few biker at all. Even children weren’t riding bikes very much. When I was riding in the 80s for instance by and large the only other adult riders I saw were biker dudes with spandex and fancy road bikes. Consequently when biking started growing the late 90s what you had were inexperienced young adults who knew how to ride but hadn’t ridden much as children, and older adults who hadn’t ridden much if at all for over a decade.

    This is very different profile than that in Europe where riders start young and ride throughout their lives. There was a lot of confusion in this country amongst riders as well as to how and where to ride safely. This summer I regularly saw this family of two adults and 4 children riding with traffic on the street around lake Harriet and Calhoun (instead of using the bike path 10 feet away). I told them once that are one distracted driver away from having the worse day of their lives but they are convinced that this safer than riding on the path. Frankly, they’re being stupid, I hope their luck never runs out.

    Another thing I personally think might be contributing to bike collisions is the bikes themselves. We ride a lot of road bikes in US and few of these bikes are equipped with brake handles on the top bar. I know people claim they can get to their brakes quickly but the fact is this bike design descends from racing bikes that didn’t have brakes to begin with. They are designed to ride on tracks and race courses. They are not designed for situations involving unexpected and frequent braking. If you at the bikes in Europe very few of them are road bikes. I think that fact that a biker with a curved handlebar has to reposition their hands to break might well be contributing to some of the collisions.

  3. Submitted by Jon Matthews on 02/16/2013 - 02:06 pm.

    Very Ineresting

    Very interesting and highly education piece.

    Did a short video on cycling and it is still very disconcerting to see cyclist and motorist driving most outrageously.

    Just last week, I saw a cyclist flying past a red light. The motorist had to brake harshly to avoid a collision. Another time, I saw a cyclist pushing between two cars at a very tight junction, There’s just no more patience in the world.

    As for the motorist, there’s been many a time and many places where they flagrantly park on cycle lane all over the UK. One positive outcome I saw recently was a driver shifting a little closer to the pavement while waiting at a set of lights. The cyclist was forced to stop. It was an effective way of getting cyclist to stop, but was it really necessary?
    Here’s a link for Cyclist in the UK:


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