Thoughts on danger and biking

Photo by Lindsey Wallace

You may have seen me on the news last week in the piece “KSTP Investigates: Dangerous Minneapolis Bike Routes.” Pretty sensational title, huh? You can read and watch the whole thing here.

When I was first contacted by KSTP, I was pretty happy. They’d found out about the hit-and-run through this blog, and I felt like even though the police department never caught the person who hit Lindsay, maybe we would do some good by sharing our experience on the news. I was hoping that there would be a weighty human element to the story. Viewers would see how this terrifying event affected us, and maybe that would encourage them to not hit people with their cars.

I was pretty disappointed when I first saw the preview for the story. It was very fear inducing. The voice over said that biking “is not always as safe as you might think.” Well actually, it’s probably a lot safer than you think. I was pretty disheartened to think that something I participated in may negatively influence the way people view biking. I would hate for someone to see this preview and be influenced not to ride a bike because of it. The full story was better, but I’m sure many people saw only the preview.

Biking is safe

I hate that this story was framed around danger, because biking in Minneapolis is a pretty safe and pleasant activity. In the past two decades, the number of bike commuters in Minneapolis has more than doubled, but the number of crashes has stayed steady at around 300 per year (see the figure below). That means that the crash rate is actually decreasing as more people are biking. This phenomenon has been shown elsewhere, one study phrased it well when they concluded that “a motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling when there are more people walking or bicycling.”

The city is focused on making bike infrastructure safe and convenient for all people, which is why they’ll be building 40 miles of protected bikeways in the next five years. Biking infrastructure has greatly increased in the last decade, from 1999 to 2011 the miles of bikeways doubled from 80 to 166. This improvement has probably contributed to safety in two ways: by making roads safer and by increasing the number of bikers on the roads. A public works report on bicyclist-motorist crashes highlights a trend where the number of bikers on a street reduces the rate of crashes on that street. The report concludes:

“The results are especially encouraging because it may be a sign that motorists are coming to expect bicyclists on certain streets. Passing a bicyclist on the street is more and more a normal event rather than a rare occurrence. While engineering, enforcement and education should support a safe environment, bicycle traffic itself is playing a large role in making streets safe.”

My favorite discussion on the issue of general bicycling safety comes from financial guru and all-around badass, Mr. Money Mustache. He goes through some statistical analysis and concludes that driving a car at 70 mph for one hour will erase 20 minutes of your life and cost you $35, while riding a bike at 12 mph for one hour will gain you 4.5 hours of lifespan and $100. I like this analysis because it reminds me that everything has risk. It’s the way we analyze risk that makes a difference. Most people give more weight to the acute risk of being hit by a car than to the more distant risk of chronic disease caused by physical inactivity, when in reality it’s much more likely that someone will die from the latter rather than the former. It can be hard to objectively measure these risks when biking can feel much riskier than driving. Those emotional responses can be extremely powerful.

Today is exactly one month after the crash. Lindsay and I both wrote summaries about how we’re feeling on our bikes in the aftermath.

Lindsay’s thoughts

I was and still am pretty nervous. It is slowly getting better, but I’m still not anywhere near comfortable. I spend much more time planning my routes before I leave, going out of my way to take bike paths as much as possible, even if it means doubling my trip time. When I have to go on the street, I feel very nervous every time a car comes up behind me. When I’m just biking straight in a bike lane on the street, I have this buildup of anxiety each time a car approaches that releases when they safely pass. Pretty much every time, every car.

Sometimes, when I need to get in the left left to turn (as I did right before the crash), I actually stop at the curb to fully turn around and wait for all traffic to clear before changing lanes to turn left. Which is dumb and makes me feel bad, like I’m a bad biker. I used to just glance over my left shoulder and make sure no one was there, but even if it looks clear, I still don’t trust cars not to speed up into me now.

For night biking, I attached the rim lights that Cycle Lights, LLC gave us, I got a new, really bright head light, and now I have two tail lights. I also got a reflective vest. I’m trying to make it impossible for people not to see me biking at night. I know that biking is still mostly safe and that my level of safety hasn’t changed, but my comfort level absolutely has changed. I’m not sure how long it will take to get back to normal.

My thoughts

I have felt differently about biking since the crash. I know that the likelihood of getting hit from behind is very low, but it almost feels like that incident was hard-coded into my subconscious. I’m a less assertive biker now. I find it hard to hold my place in the road when I hear cars coming up behind me. I find myself choosing lower stress routes than before. I’ve realized that I used to take routes just because they seemed like the quickest way to get somewhere, and they possibly seemed that way because I used to drive on those routes before I biked so much. I’ve been finding new ways to get around town that take me on side streets and minimize interactions with traffic. I’m more likely to bike on the sidewalk, even though I know intellectually that it’s more dangerous.

I haven’t stopped biking, and I haven’t reduced the amount I’m biking. I have, however, been much more nervous while doing it. In light of this, it makes me incredibly thankful to live in a city that actively supports cycling. It especially makes me thankful that we’ll be seeing a lot more protected bikeways in the next few years. If there were more protected bikeways now, you can be sure I’d be using them.

Summary

Riding a bike is a generally safe activity, on par with other types of transportation, even though sometimes it feels more harrowing. We’re conditioned to think of driving and walking as normal, and biking for transportation as something risky and foreign. The experience Lindsay and I had may well have deterred us from riding our bikes if we weren’t such avid bicyclists in the first place. If people don’t feel safe biking, they won’t do it. We need to keep building protected bikeways since they both improve safety and make people feel safer. We need to keep normalizing biking through the way we talk and write about it. And we need to keep riding our bikes, so others see us out there and feel like they could ride a bike around town too.

This post was written by Lindsey Wallace and originally published on Biking in Mpls. Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @bikinginmpls.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 08/04/2015 - 11:44 am.

    author is wrong?

    not to pick nits, but this post was pretty obviously not written by Lindsey but by her partner or friend, which is why it refers to her in the third person constantly. my guess is that it was written by Lindsey’s husband Dan?

    (it helps that I know them…)

    Still, good article, and makes two great points. 1) biking is NOT dangerous and 2) bike accidents can have serious psychological consequences.

  2. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 08/04/2015 - 03:55 pm.

    “I find myself choosing lower stress routes than before…… I’ve been finding new ways to get around town that take me on side streets and minimize interactions with traffic.”

    This seems like common sense to me now, but when I started biking to work a decade ago, I was complaining about traffic and a colleague told me that I’d feel a lot better if I found bike friendly routes. I did find those routes and I did better, a lot better. Even though it may add time and distance, lower traffic routes make biking to work a much more pleasurable experience. Sure you have every right to ride on whatever street you like, but that doesn’t mean its a good idea.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/04/2015 - 11:03 pm.

    Route selection is really important.

    I spent years riding to and from a job in Uptown (from St. Louis Park) in the early 80s. There were no bike trails at the time except for the ones around the lakes. The most obvious route was straight down Minnetonka Blvd, but that was an awful choice for cycling, even worse then than now. I had a route that kept me off of Minnetonka for all but three blocks.

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