Data is king when it comes to bike safety

Re­searchers and Bos­ton city of­fi­cials show us a map to im­prove con­di­tions

Calgary Herald - - YOU - JILL BARKER

As bike traf­fic surges in cities across North Amer­ica, the call for in­creased safety gets louder ev­ery year.

Most of the dis­cus­sion cen­tres on bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing more ded­i­cated bike paths, yet a large part of in­jury preven­tion is learn­ing more about where and why cy­cling ac­ci­dents hap­pen.

The city of Bos­ton did just that, invit­ing a team from the Har­vard In­jury Con­trol Re­search Cen­ter to dive into bi­cy­cle ac­ci­dent data and cre­ate a map iden­ti­fy­ing ar­eas in the city where ac­ci­dent rates are the high­est.

The job was a big one and re­quired a large num­ber of vol­un­teer uni­ver­sity stu­dents with ex­pe­ri­ence in statis­tics to quan­tify, code and in­ter­pret the data in po­lice re­ports, in­clud­ing writ­ten state­ments by of­fi­cers and am­bu­lance tech­ni­cians who were present at a crash.

The re­sult was a pic­ture of how safe it is to cy­cle the streets of Bos­ton, based on four years (2009-2012) of data col­lected from 1,797 bike crashes.

Keep­ing in mind that the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered was in­dica­tive only of in­ci­dents where po­lice were called to the site, 91 per cent of cy­cling-re­lated crashes in­volved an­other ve­hi­cle; the rest in­volved fall­ing off a bike or a col­li­sion with an­other cy­clist or pedes­trian.

Eighty one per cent of crashes re­sulted in an in­jury to the cy­clist, with male cy­clists in­volved in two-thirds of the ac­ci­dents.

Sixty per cent of crashes oc­curred at in­ter­sec­tions and along cor­ri­dors near a ma­jor uni­ver­sity. Rush hour was prime time for bike ac­ci­dents, with a third of the crashes oc­cur­ring be­tween 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Go­ing against traf­fic or fail­ing to stop at a red light were com­mon rea­sons for crash­ing, as was not be­ing seen by mo­torists.

The Har­vard team sub­mit­ted a com­pre­hen­sive re­port to Bos­ton city of­fi­cials. It was the ba­sis for some key poli­cies and pro­ce­dures aimed at in­creas­ing cy­clist safety:

Re­duce the num­ber of rush­hour ac­ci­dents by work­ing with com­pa­nies and busi­nesses to of­fer bike ed­u­ca­tion for green com­muters.

Bet­ter en­force­ment of road safety rules and street-level ed­u­ca­tion in ar­eas where high num­bers of ac­ci­dents oc­curred.

Us­ing the mapped data that pin­pointed high-risk in­ter­sec­tions, a team was man­dated to re­design traf­fic flow or in­fra­struc­ture to in­crease safety.

In­sti­tute a public ser­vice cam­paign in taxis re­mind­ing pas­sen­gers to pro­ceed with cau­tion be­fore open­ing the door. Stick­ers were also sup­plied for use in­side taxis as a re­minder to watch for cy­clists be­fore ex­it­ing.

The city made the re­port public, pub­lish­ing it on­line for cy­clists to read.

Four years af­ter post­ing, it has been viewed 23,247 times.

Based on the suc­cess of the project, the city beefed up its staffing, hir­ing a direc­tor of ac­tive trans­porta­tion and a trans­porta­tion safety an­a­lyst.

An­other re­sult of this col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach be­tween re­searchers and city of­fi­cials is a list of lessons learned, which should be con­sid­ered a road map to im­prov­ing cy­cling safety in Cana­dian cities from coast to coast.


There needs to be to­tal top­down buy-in by de­ci­sion-mak­ers to keep the project on track and al­low for the shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion be­tween stake­hold­ers, ad­vo­cacy groups and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.


Bike safety is po­lit­i­cal, with politi­cians, civil ser­vants, ad­vo­cacy groups and health and safety of­fi­cials all jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion. Find­ing a cou­ple of in­flu­en­tial in­di­vid­u­als to cham­pion the project helps nav­i­gate the mine­field and re­mind the group of the greater good.


Re­sist the knee-jerk re­sponse to start an­a­lyz­ing the ex­ist­ing data in­stead af­ter com­mis­sion­ing a study. The re­search team used in­for­ma­tion from po­lice re­ports, but found it was miss­ing im­por­tant de­tails like time of day of the ac­ci­dent and weather. So they im­proved the re­port­ing struc­ture, cre­at­ing drop-down boxes that left lit­tle to in­ter­pre­ta­tion (e.g. rain: none, driz­zle, heavy), thereby im­prov­ing fu­ture data sets.


Iden­tify key stake­hold­ers and lis­ten to what they have to say. No one per­son has all the an­swers, but when you talk to a wide col­lec­tion of peo­ple who view the prob­lem from dif­fer­ent an­gles, you cre­ate win­ning con­di­tions.


There’s of­ten a lack of trust be­tween ad­vo­cacy groups and public of­fi­cials, which can re­sult in mis­con­cep­tions and a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion — es­pe­cially when it comes to shar­ing and in­ter­pret­ing data. En­cour­ag­ing trans­parency and re­spect will lead to more trust and bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion.


A lack of staff, es­pe­cially qual­i­fied staff, can grind a good project to a halt. When faced with more work than a small team can man­age, look to lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties for ex­per­tise.

Bike safety is a cause most stu­dents can get be­hind.

Yet the pool of qual­i­fied and eager stu­dents trained in statis­tics and ur­ban plan­ning and look­ing for real-world ex­pe­ri­ence is largely un­tapped.


Data-sup­ported ar­gu­ments lead to bet­ter de­ci­sions. They can also lead to bet­ter fund­ing. Ap­pli­ca­tions for pro­vin­cial and fed­eral fund­ing are stronger with proof of need, and num­bers talk louder than words.


A “ghost bike” marks the spot where a cy­clist was killed in Mon­treal. Cana­dian cities can learn from find­ings of a Har­vard study to im­prove cy­cling safety on our roads.

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