By Ryan McGreal
Published June 09, 2010
Tragedy struck yesterday at the corner of Upper James St and Stone Church Rd when a cyclist riding north crashed into the side of an SUV turning left into the Tim Horton's on the northeast corner of the intersection.
The cyclist was riding on the sidewalk. This is understandable, given the appalling lack of cycling infrastructure on the mountain; but it needs to be said over and over again until people get the message:
This seems astoundingly counter-intuitive, but the evidence bears it out. In a major study on cyclist/motor vehicle collisions in Toronto, cyclists on the sidewalk were significantly over-represented in the results. From the Key Findings:
In almost thirty percent of all collisions, the cyclists were riding on the sidewalk immediately prior to the collision. Young cyclists were much more likely to have been riding on the sidewalk than were adults (Figure 3.10). In fact, over half (53%) of the collision-involved cyclists under age 18 were riding on the sidewalk, whereas only 21% of those 18 and over were.
The study also confirms that people cycling in more suburban environments are more likely to ride on the sidewalk:
Forty-six percent of collisions in the outer areas of the city involved sidewalk cycling (522 cases), compared to only thirteen percent of the central area collisions (188 cases). This suggests that, in outer areas, either sidewalk cycling is much more prevalent or it is much more likely to lead to a collision than it is in the central area.
Again, this makes sense. Suburban arteries generally have more and wider lanes and traffic moves more quickly, leading cyclists to feel unsafe on the road.
Unfortunately, the perception of greater safety on the sidewalk is false. Motorists are less likely to expect - and hence be on the lookout for - a fast-moving entity on the sidewalk.
This sets the scene for collisions when motorists turn across the sidewalk or crosswalk while cyclists are proceeding along it. Again, the Toronto study observes:
Cyclists riding towards an intersection on the sidewalk, even at a moderate speed, can seem to appear quite suddenly and unexpectedly from outside the driver's field of view.
Ultimately, riding on the sidewalk to avoid motorists confers a false and dangerous sense of safety. The most important factors in safe cycling are to be visible and predictable by riding on the street and following the rules of the road.
This maximizes the chance that motorists will see the cyclist, while at the same time training motorists to expect to share the road with cyclists. Don't understimate the significance of this latter point: a surprised driver is a more dangerous driver.
As the Toronto study concludes:
Drivers who expect to encounter cyclists are able to detect and recognise them more readily, so increasing driversí awareness of cyclists has great potential to reduce collisions.
Bike lanes can help significantly. They provide a dedicated space on the road for cyclists so there is less incentive to 'hide' on the sidewalk; and by encouraging more people to ride bikes, they 'train' drivers to expect cyclists and to take them into account when driving.
Again, the Toronto study:
Bicycle lanes can provide a consistent and predictable space for cyclists, making them somewhat easier to detect. Some cities use special markings and/or coloured pavement to highlight conflict zones and to remind drivers to look out for cyclists.
The impact of bicycle lanes and paths on overall safety is the subject of debate, but it is clear that the cities with the highest levels of bicycle use and the lowest injury rates are those that have provided plenty of "bicycle-friendly" infrastructure.
[T]he presence of bicycle lanes can serve to remind motorists to be alert for cyclists, and they can also channel cyclists into a more predictable and visible position on the road. For cyclists not comfortable mixing with traffic, they provide a better alternative than the sidewalk, and thus may reduce the incidence of sidewalk cycling and its associated problems.
This is why cities that build bike lane networks experience significant increases in the number of cyclists, coupled with significant decreases in the number of casualties.
Given tragedies like yesterday's collisions, we should be making the construction of a network of safe cycling routes a much higher priority than it is currently.