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

The finding that the number of regular bike commuters has more than doubled in less than  two decades was really quite a stunner. 

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.
Courtesy of MnDOT

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.

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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.