Special Report: Cycling

New Study Seeks to Understand Why Bike Share is So Safe

People riding bike share bikes have significantly lower risk of crashes, collisions and injuries than the general cycling population.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 05, 2016

In a little over a year of operation with 242,435 trips totalling 509,510 kilometres over almost 73,000 hours (as of this writing), Hamilton Bike Share has not had one reported crash, collision or injury. The evidence suggests that this is not just a remarkable run of good luck.

Using Hamilton Bike Share in winter (RTH file photo)
Using Hamilton Bike Share in winter (RTH file photo)

A new study looks at the cycling safety data in three cities with bike share programs - Washington DC, San Francisco and Minneapolis - and concludes that people riding bike shares have a significantly lower risk of injury than the general cycling population.

This is despite the fact that helmet use among bike share riders is low and many bike share riders are otherwise new and infrequent cyclists.

The reason or reasons for this safety boost are not yet entirely clear, and the study serves as more of a discussion piece than a set of proofs. It draws on qualitative data collected from several focus groups involving both bike share members and non-members in cities with bike share programs, as well as expert analysis, to draw out some theories on what explains the improved safety record.

Interestingly, the limited data the authors considered on the safety-in-numbers effect was inclusive: it is not clear whether bike share programs increase the density of cyclists enough to confer an unambiguous safety benefit through this mechanism.

Most focus group members strongly agreed that helmet use should be up to personal choice, and that compulsory helmet rules would prevent unplanned bike trips, which make up a significant proportion of total bike share usage. Both regular helmet-wearers and non-wearers were in agreement on this.

Not surprisingly, the groups composed of drivers and non-bike share members concentrated more on perceived cyclist behaviour, reporting frustration with cyclists running red lights, riding side-by-side, on the sidewalk, against traffic flow, and so on.

However, all the focus groups, including the drivers, agreed that the quality and extent of municipal cycling infrastructure also plays a vital role in the safety and accessibility of cycling.

The study, prepared by Elliot Martin, PhD, Adam Cohen, Jan Botha, PhD and Susan Shaheen, PhD, was published by the Mineta Transportation Institute in the College of Business, San Jose University.

The results for Hamilton Bike Share usage are from Social Bicycles, the company that provides the bicycles and data technology for Hamilton Bike Share.

Chart: Hamilton Bike Share Trips, Distance and Duration, 2015-01-16 to 2016-04-05
Chart: Hamilton Bike Share Trips, Distance and Duration, 2015-01-16 to 2016-04-05

(h/t to Vox for drawing attention to this study.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Hello (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 14:46:02

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By Truth (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 22:49:25 in reply to Comment 117462

Spot on. However, you will now be banished from the bicycle realm of insanity for your totally legitimate remark. Your comment will now go grey, but your spirit will be remembered. Cyclists cringe when they realize that licensing is coming, mostly because they can do no wrong on the roads, and they are known to always (Sarcasm, I really mean NEVER) stop at stop signs.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 23:19:02 in reply to Comment 117521

Licensing cyclists makes no more sense than licensing pedestrians.

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By Glend1967 (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 07:28:40 in reply to Comment 117521

If you want to roll through the odd stop sign....get a bike ,itll be fine.Just pay attention.Ive been doing it for 30 years.The main reason i can do this?Physics.And who would pay for bike licensing?.The fees wouldnt cover it.Just slow down realize there are others on the road and itll all be good.

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By amazing (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 23:48:41 in reply to Comment 117521

Bike licensing is never coming. Guaranteed. I assume you are 100% pedestrian and you don't drive or cycle? You must be equally upset about every single driver breaking laws every single trip they take, right?

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 15:48:06 in reply to Comment 117462

Yes we get it, you have an irrational hate-on for cyclists, thanks for coming out

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By SoBi rider (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 15:23:05 in reply to Comment 117462

So, you didn't bother reading the article before commenting. Nice.

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By jorvay (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 15:11:49 in reply to Comment 117462

In my experience biking and driving, the rate at which people break laws is about the same in both modes. The laws that road users tend to break may change but people diving cars break tonnes of rules every day. I'm not even factoring speeding into this. If you consider speeding, then motorists are no doubt worse offenders than cyclists. The best way to get more cyclists with licenses is to making cycling more attractive. Let's assume that a snapshot today would show that 60% of adults that bike regularly in the city have drivers licenses (I'm guessing it's higher, but it doesn't matter for this example). So for every 100 cyclists, 60 have licenses already and 40 don't. Now imagine that the city makes a year long push to attract more people to regular cycling (dedicated infrastructure, road rules that actually make sense for people on bikes, etc.) and sees an increase of regular cycling of 25% year-over year. So for every 100 cyclists a year ago, we now have 125. Some quick math would suggest that we now have 75 cyclists with licenses and 50 without (60% / 40%) but realistically, the 40 from last year that didn't have licenses isn't actually going to grow that much. People without licenses a year ago would choose to bike more often for lack of choice. Really what we'd see is probably something closer to 83 cyclists with licenses and 42 without, or 66% / 34%. So the best way to increase the number of licensed cyclists is to encourage people to switch to biking. It's probably a lot cheaper than developing and enforcing a whole new cycling license, even before you factor in the cost of increased traffic caused by dissuading potential cyclists from leaving their cars at home.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 14:50:36 in reply to Comment 117462

Even safer than zero accidents out of 242,000 trips?

Other than that, helmets, personal insurance and licenses are not required by law although most adult cyclists are also motorists and so already have a driver's license.

The comment about the rules of the road apply equally to motorists (almost all motorists speed and roll through stop signs, for example, and thousands run red lights as shown by the red light camera statistics). And motorists kill 20-30 and injure 2000-3000 Hamiltonians each year.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-04-05 14:52:29

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By kevinlove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 20:35:58 in reply to Comment 117463

Motor vehicle operators poison and kill an average of 93 people in Hamilton each year. They also crush and kill a 5-year average of 19.6 people each year. So motorists are currently killing an average of 112.6 people in Hamilton each year.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted April 06, 2016 at 20:20:45 in reply to Comment 117470

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 08:17:52 in reply to Comment 117494

I guess this is a rhetorical question (or you would have answered it yourself) aimed at getting a small number that you can ignore.

But for the benefit of readers who might want to have an idea of how to estimate the risk of being a "killer" or "injurer" here is a calculation:

percentage of total population who are licensed to drive: 66% (taking this number underestimates the risk since many licensed drivers do not drive or drive infrequently) based on stats can figures from 2006.

population of Hamilton: 520,000

number of years someone is driving: about 60

number of annual deaths: 25 (roughly) number of annual injuries: 2500 (roughly)

So this gives the lifetime risk of a driver killing someone as:

(1-(1-25/(0.66x520000))^60)*100 = 0.44%

And the lifetime risk of a driver injuring someone as:

(1-(1-2500/(0.66x520000))^60)*100 = 36%

So the risk of a driver being a "killer" is indeed small, but certainly non-negligible (about one out of every 2300 drivers will kill), while the risk of injuring someone is very high: more than 1/3 of drivers will injure someone during their driving career.

This doesn't include air pollution deaths and disease for which all drivers roughly share the responsibility.

If we include the 93 deaths caused by air pollution and randomly assign them to individual drivers, then the "killer" rate goes up to a very significant 2%. So, including both collisions and air pollution the lifetime risk of a driver killing someone is greater than 2% (given the fact we included all licensed drivers rather than only active drivers).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2016-04-07 08:30:44

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 19:01:28 in reply to Comment 117504

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 06:27:42 in reply to Comment 117494

Clearly you don't understand how air pollution works.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 19:01:54 in reply to Comment 117501

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 10, 2016 at 11:50:56 in reply to Comment 117539

Pity, for a few days it seemed like you were trying to not be a jerk, but here you are back in usual form.

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By I do (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 11:08:48 in reply to Comment 117501

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 12:41:28 in reply to Comment 117507

Remember kids! If you can't do every single thing that needs to be done right now, don't bother trying to do anything at all. That way we make sure nothing ever gets better!

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By yep (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 15:49:52 in reply to Comment 117512

I agree. So eliminate the wood burning stoves and eating meat.

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By in my opinion (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 16:11:58

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 18:57:51

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 06, 2016 at 07:11:15 in reply to Comment 117468

I don't knows how you can argue that any street should be reserved solely for those who own and are operating a car. What you are talking about is a freeway, and those are neither high density nor arterial.

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 04:08:24 in reply to Comment 117477

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By reality (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 23:34:28 in reply to Comment 117498

Cars kill way more drivers than they do cyclists. So by your logic we should ban drivers from being in cars. Cars also kill more passengers. So we should ban them too. I guess the result is millions of cars permanently parked. That's very progressive of you!

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 23:26:09 in reply to Comment 117498

Make us safer by removing us? Sounds like the plot to terminator.

But seriously, screw you and your attempts to restrict where people can and can't go with their own two feet and wheels. Who wouldn't you ban "for their safety"?

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 19:51:49

One interesting point from the linked article is that there have been zero deaths on bike share bikes in the USA. US bike share programs hit 23 million rides in August 2014 and are probably at about double that number today.

Here is my take on why bike share is so safe.

  1. Safety in numbers. The article talks about this, but only analyses the casuality in one direction, the safety effect of the additional cyclists on the road due to bike share. In my opinion, the casuality goes in both directions. Bike share systems are implemented in areas where there are high levels of existing cycling. These systems therefore take advantage of a pre-existing safety in numbers effect. As we see in the graph from Hamilton Bike Share, average SoBi trips are in the 2-3 km range. So those bikes are not being taken great distances out of the SoBi zone.

  2. Bike design. I see a lot of racing configuration bicycles on the road. These force the user into a head-down position that makes it difficult for the user to see what is going on around him. In a real race, there are race marshals who ensure that the road is clear of obstacles and other road users. In Hamilton, not so much. SoBi bikes are of a safe, practical upright design.

  3. Maintenance. I see a lot of bikes without fenders. If the road is wet, the rider is being showered with water and road filth. What a distraction. I also see a lot of people riding at night without lights. This is moderately disfunctional. Good quality bike lights can be purchased for less than $15. And if someone is not willing to spend $15 for a set of bike lights, I shudder to speculate on the state of maintenance of his brakes.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2016-04-05 19:53:06

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted April 05, 2016 at 20:58:14

I ride a Sobi, and my own bike, both for different purposes, yet both here in the same city.

I've had countless close calls with maniac drivers screaming at me, swearing, speeding up and flying past my handles mere inches away when I'm on my own bike.

On Sobi, I've never, not once, had anything even remotely close to a 'close call' or any aggressive behaviour from drivers.

My theory over this last year has been that the visible, city-owned Sobi bikes cause drivers to respect them more, as they would a police officer on a bike (which, by the way proves that drives don't have to be ignorant and dangerous. They just choose to be, when it's not a police bicycle).

I think drivers look at Sobi bikes as part of the city's transportation system.

I don't ride any differently on either bike, yet the treatment I receive on the road is vastly different. It's been 1 year, so I'm curious to continue observing this trend in the months and years ahead, but based on the North American-wide data so far, I suspect I won't suddenly see road rage directed at me while on a Sobi.

Comment edited by JasonL on 2016-04-05 20:59:43

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted April 06, 2016 at 07:40:48 in reply to Comment 117471

I think there really is something to this. I've noticed drivers disrespecting people on all kinds of bikes but the sobi riders do seem to get treated better. The attitude from many drivers seems to be 'you are poor, can't afford a car, an annoying kid, in may way' so it's ok to tail, cut off, lean on horn etc.

But Sobi riders are not poor. They have Visa's and Mastercards, attend university and/or have jobs. We are likely seeing an excellent example of social judgement in action when we see drivers modify their attitudes based on the kind of transportation a person is using.

Comment edited by ergopepsi on 2016-04-06 07:42:15

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted April 06, 2016 at 04:01:37 in reply to Comment 117471

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By JustinJones (registered) - website | Posted April 06, 2016 at 14:06:40 in reply to Comment 117474

You're right, Jim.

Rather than blame the people driving who treat Jason as if he's an inferior life form whose life is somehow worth less than theirs, and whose children deserve to be orphaned simply because of his transportation choice, we should blame Jason for not choosing a SoBi bike all the time, even when the trip he's making doesn't make sense for that style of bike.

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By RyanPlestid (anonymous) | Posted April 06, 2016 at 21:49:36

So I actually broke my wrist on a SOBI bike a year ago. I never reported it for two reasons. The first is I did not want to a sue a service I thought was so valuable, especially a not for profit. The second was a desire not to be charged for any damage to the bicycle.

I find the bikes to be a little hard to control compared to what I am used to riding. Perhaps I should have reported it my wrist has been broken for 13 months now.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 07:55:58 in reply to Comment 117497

If your wrist has been broken for 13 months maybe you died in the crash and you're now walking among us as the living dead!! How many people have you eaten since the accident?

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By What (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 11:10:36 in reply to Comment 117503

Can you read?

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By can you? (anonymous) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 23:37:03 in reply to Comment 117508

The joke is that if a broken bone hasn't healed for 13 months, the body attached to it must not be alive to heal it...

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By yeahyoudope (anonymous) | Posted April 09, 2016 at 13:20:52 in reply to Comment 117554

Ever heard of a non-union fracture

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 06:21:27 in reply to Comment 117497

Was it a collision with a car, or did you just crash the bike?

Motor vehicle collisions resulting in damage or injuries must be reported and this is the statistic that would be analyzed in the study.

Collisions with vehicles are also the major risk for urban cyclists.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 08:27:47 in reply to Comment 117500

Note also that the study can only deal with reported injuries, for both bike share and non-bike share. So the difference is still significant even if some relatively minor injuries are unreported.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2016 at 14:43:53

Interesting point by Mr Leach. I've been riding my Bixi for several years in downtown Toronto and it does appear that it is viewed as part of the official transportation infrastructure. Sort of like waiting for the streetcar doors to close or the School Bus Stop hand to fold back in. I think Bixi bikers are generally more casual and a little less experienced (there are a lot of Bixi bike tourists in the Summer) so they tend to weave more and make sudden movements. Everything about the bike screams - keep back, beware.

One day cyclists will take over the world and it will be the drivers begging for us to give them an extra lane ;)

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 23:29:27 in reply to Comment 117515

I always feel like people must think I'm an inexperienced rider when I'm on a Bixi. But it seems to keep me pretty safe so I guess I'll take it!

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted April 08, 2016 at 19:05:42 in reply to Comment 117515

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Comment edited by DowntownInHamilton on 2016-04-08 19:06:26

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