As cities across the United States roll out bike sharing programs more people are getting on two wheels, but is it creating a conflict with those in four wheel vehicles? According to a news story from USA Today earlier this month, bike sharing programs are "stoking conflict" between cyclists and motorists.
"The motorists want to be able to drive down the road, the bicyclists want to be safe, and the pedestrians want to be able to cross the street,” Lt. Nicholas Breul of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. told USA Today. “Everyone's complaining about the behavior of everyone else.”
While bike sharing is getting more riders on the road, is it really creating conflict?
“The simple answer is no,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, told BikeRadar. “There are a few North American cities with bike sharing programs of an appreciable size and to my knowledge there is no data coming from any of those cities that bike-related crashes are on the rise or that bike share bikes are in any way increasing the number of crashes or over-represented in crashes.”
Clarke added that there are a few reasons this may be true, especially as bike shares used bicycles that are generally pretty slow, sturdy, noticeable, and generally raise the visibility of bicycling to drivers – not to mention pedestrians.
“All the evidence from cities all over the world suggests that increasing bike use generally improves the crash rate and relative safety of cyclists,” said Clarke. “There is safety in numbers.”
However, while there is safety in numbers there is also the law of averages. More riders will mean more accidents.
USA Today noted that Washington’s Capital Bikeshare, which began in September 2010, has now grown to include more than 1,500 bicycles and recently recorded its 2 millionth ride. At the same time, bicycle-related accidents have increased on city D.C. roads, according to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, up from 312 in 2009 to 601 in 2011.
But there is more at play than just bike share programs. In the case of D.C., the city added about 50 miles of bike lanes in the past 10 years; made commuting easier with bike racks at metro stations and generally has encouraged people to ride. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of Washington area residents who now ride to work increased from 1.2 percent of the total population in 2002 to 3.1 percent in 2010.
Clarke can attest to the benefits these efforts have brought to the nation’s capital, including the bike share.
“I love using the D.C. system,” Clarke said. “I usually ride in and out of work on my own bike, but the convenience and parking/security benefits of Capital Bikeshare are quite compelling for trips around the city during the day!”
Unfortunately, conflict between riders and drivers is nothing new and likely won’t be solved anytime soon.
“Both parties - drivers and individuals on bikes - need to respect the other,” said Bruno Maier, vice president of the advocacy group Bikes Belong. “Sharing the road isn’t always easy because you have individuals on bikes mixing it up with 2,000+ pound vehicles, so there is a built-in tension. Both parties are trying to get to their destination quickly, but the person on the bike doesn’t want to get hit by a car, and the person in the vehicle doesn't want to hit the individual.”
At the end of the day it is also about avoiding conflict but more importantly getting to the destination safely, whether on a personal bike or a bike share ride.
“Through our education programs we encourage cyclists to follow the rules of the road and pay attention to their surroundings regardless of the bike they are riding,” said Clarke. “Just because a bike share bike is easy to ride and you are probably just making a quick trip doesn’t mean you can be sending texts while listening to your mp3 player and blowing through red lights.”
There is also another aspect that should be considered, namely that bike share programs use bikes that are ridden by multiple people and these aren’t likely treated as well as one might treat their expensive road bike.
“Just the same things you would do when you get in a rental car for the first time: take a minute to make sure the bike fits and you know how the brakes and gears work,” said Clarke. “Fortunately, bike share bikes are made to be very easy to ride, very flexible, and they have covers over a lot of the moving parts so you don’t get your clothes caught.”
Trying to ride a bit before plunging into busy traffic is also a good idea he added.
But in the end bike share programs should actually reduce conflict between riders and drivers, simply because it could take cars off the road.
“We won’t be able to stop all conflict, but each party doing the most to respect the other will definitely reduce tension,” said Maier. “More and more individuals are using bicycles for transportation and recreation on our roads each year. These growing numbers open the door for more interactions, but these increases should also reduce congestion for drivers and therefore smooth out some of the conflict. Cities are working hard to address this issue.”