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Does Traffic Discourage Walking and Bicycling?

Earlier this week on my ride home I stopped at a red light, waiting to make a left turn, when I heard a woman’s voice say, “excuse me.” I ignored it once but she politely persisted, so I finally turned to see a woman in a large four-door sedan with her window all the way rolled down in the lane next to me. I said hello and she asked me if I felt safe on my bike. “Sure,” I said. “Not me. Not enough protection,” she said, gesturing to her car and the traffic around us. Before I had a chance to reply with more than a shrug, the light changed and we were on our way. I believe her. I am sure that woman does not ride because she considers it too dangerous. I’ve been talking to a researcher in New York City who is tired of people asking her why a woman who doesn’t ride her bike around the city would be interested in studying bicycling. Her answer, in large part, is a great desire to ride and a strong discomfort with riding with traffic. These women are alone.

Yesterday, Peter Jacobsen, author of the famous “Safety in numbers” study, Francesca Raccioppi, and Harry Rutter published a paper called “Who owns the roads? How motorized traffic discourages walking and bicycling.” The paper gathers the available evidence  on the impact of traffic on levels of active transportation. They found that the “real and perceived danger and discomfort imposed by traffic discourage walking and bicycling. Accurately or not, pedestrians and bicyclists judge injury risk and respond accordingly. Although it can be difficult to measure these effects, observed behavior provides good evidence for these effects, with the strongest association being an inverse correlation between volumes and speeds of traffic and levels of walking and cycling.”
Here are some findings taken straight from the report:

  • In the USA, 14 percent of people on crosswalks ran rather than walked across the road. In a study of driver behavior at Zebra crossings, only 5 percent of motorists yielded to pedestrians.
  • When the roadways are equipped with sidewalks, nearly four times as many people walk. More than six times as many people walk along two-lane roads as four-lane roads.
  • Men and women bicycle as different levels, possibly reflecting different attitudes to risk. In communities with low levels of cycling, more men than women bicycle, but, as the number of bicyclists increases, the sex differences diminish.
  • For children who live within a mile of school, the share of children walking or bicycling to school dropped from close to 90 percent  in 1969 to 31 percent 30 years later.

Alarming as these findings may be, the authors observe that traffic can be made less dangerous and more pleasant with relative ease, compared to changing land use patterns and population density. Traffic calming measures, lower speed limits, congestions pricing, proper bicycling facilities, and otherwise prioritizing the safety of non-motorized users can all be implemented without major changes to infrastructure. And if we make these low impact, low cost changes we can expect higher rates of cyclists; and then increased safety from those numbers.

Finally, the authors rightly question the use of fear-based advertising in safety efforts, calling for more research into the discouraging impact such campaigns have on walking and bicycling. Our friend Mikael at Copenhagenize would agree. If there is a dampening effect then, overall heath can be hurt by reducing physical activity.

UPDATE: A commenter asks what can be done to get city planners in local communities to address these safety concerns. One way is through positive reinforcement. The League of American Bicyclists’ Bicycle Friendly Community program recognizes cities that make an effort to improve cycling conditions. The criteria include provision of safe facilities.

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