Not any more

The key to cycling safety? More cyclists

In Canada on August 1, 2010 at 20:20

MONTREAL – The 2010 cycling season was just getting under way when the horrific news hit that three female cyclists had been killed, plowed down by a pickup truck on a dangerous stretch of Highway 112 near Rougemont.

That high-profile collision focused the public eye on the vulnerability of cyclists for the first half of this summer, as for several weeks every collision involving the serious injury or death of a cyclist in or near Montreal got more than the usual share of media attention.

But every year, three or four cyclists are killed on average on the island of Montreal and another 757 are injured, according to Montreal police. And that tally underestimates injuries, since some collisions are not reported to police. Urgences Santé statistics show that over the last decade, 967 cyclists per year on average were injured to the point that they required an ambulance.

As Montreal and other munipalities push ahead with new cycling routes and other measures to encourage cycling as a mode of transportation, will this mean more injuries and fatal crashes as the streets are invaded by commuters on two wheels?

According to the most recent survey by bicycle advocacy group Vélo Québec, cycling is growing in popularity in Montreal. An estimated 241,000 Montrealers, or 18 per cent of Montreal’s population, were using a bicycle as a principal or occasional means of transportation in 2005. But that was before Montreal added 130 kilometres of bike paths and lanes to its network and before the city introduced its hugely popular Bixi short-term bike rental service.

When the “État du Vélo 2010” report is published next spring, Vélo Québec expects the numbers to jump significantly. But even before that jump is tallied, Montreal had a higher per capita rate of cycling commuters than other major cities in Canada and the United States.

According to the 2006 census – and again, this was before the addition of new lanes and Bixi – 27,400 employed Montrealers were commuting to work by bicycle. (That does not include students using their bicycles to get to school, or recreational cyclists.) Compared with the city of Toronto, where 1.4 per cent of the workforce commutes, 1.8 per cent of Montreal’s workers used their bikes to get to work.

Montreal has a way to go before it catches up to the year-round cycling commuter rate of Vancouver, which was at 2.8 per cent in 2006, but cold weather cycling has certainly increased in Montreal since the city started clearing snow from some cycling routes a couple of years ago.

Comparing cycling injury or death rates between Canadian cities is fraught with difficulty, since jurisdictions differ in how they tally collisions, cycling rates and injuries. Also, factors like overall area, weather, cycling infrastructure, traffic density and population density differ greatly from city to city.

In Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million and 1.4 per cent of its workforce cycling to work, cycling deaths averaged 2.5 per year between 2005 and 2009. On the island of Montreal, with a population of 1.8 million and about 1.8 per cent of workers cycling to work, an average of 3.6 cyclists were killed each year over the same period.

Those numbers would seem to imply that the higher the cycling rate in a city, the more deaths and injuries occur. In fact, research shows the opposite; that increased numbers of cyclists on the road actually results in fewer injuries and deaths.

“The studies are showing that the more cyclists there are on the street, the safer they are,” said Dr. Patrick Morency, a public health and safety specialist with Montreal’s public health department.

A 2003 study published in the Injury Prevention Journal by Peter Lyndon Jacobsen concluded: “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking or bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”

Another study, called Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from the Netherlands and Germany, showed that pedestrians and cyclists in the United States were much more likely to be killed or injured than were Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and on a per-kilometre basis, even though the European countries had far more cyclists on their streets.

That study showed that Germany and the Netherlands have implemented a wide range of policies over two decades that simultaneously encouraged walking and cycling while dramatically lowering pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and injuries.

Morency says Montreal is moving in the right direction if it wants to see the numbers of dead and injured cyclists drop over the next few years. But he said safer bicycle infrastructure is badly needed in Montreal’s poorer neighbourhoods, where many children cycle and have to cross some of the busiest arteries in the city to get around. Morency’s work has also shown that injuries to cyclists and pedestrians occur mainly at intersections and that the number of injured increases with traffic volumes at intersections.

He said more traffic-calming and safe bike routes will attract more cyclists, and the greater visibility of cyclists in turn will slow traffic.

“We don’t know whether drivers adapt their driving or whether the cycling infrastructure itself is making cyclists safer, but we do know that concerns about safety is the key factor people give for not cycling, and that improving safety facilities (like bike paths) increases the numbers of people cycling.”

mlalonde@thegazette.canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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