Data is king when it comes to bike safety
Researchers and Boston city officials show us a map to improve conditions
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.
PARTNER WITH A LOCAL UNIVERSITY
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.
BETTER DATA, BETTER FUNDING
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.