bike infrastructure

Who or What is "The Average Cyclist" and why are we designing only for them?

At the last public meeting for cycling, I asked Dan Egan, head of the City of Toronto's Cycling Department a rather purposeful question, specifically:

"Who is the intended design user of our cycling infrastructure?"

And his response was the rather bland:

"The average cyclist"

Well, that got me thinking, who (or what) is the "average" cyclist?

Is it me? Probably not. I'm a CAN-BIKE II graduate and a former certified CAN-BIKE instructor. CAN-BIKE II graduates are rare, and instructors are even more so.

Would my daughters qualify? Again, nope. They have taken the Kids CAN-BIKE course and also the CAN-BIKE Camp. To compare: they are the only ones at their school to have done either, let alone both.

My wife? She's never taken CAN-BIKE, rides much less frequently than either myself or our daughters. Her rides tend to be shorter in distance and duration than the rest of our family. She's never commuted by bike. She'll only ride when most of her trip can be done over cycling infrastructure and the rest of the route she feels comfortable on. So she's more likely to ride to downtown than within our community.

My neighbor who rides quite a bit? He rides quite a bit around the neighborhood both as part of his multi-modal commute (to the GO train station) and for other activities such as shopping. However, the routes he uses either don't have any bike infrastructure at all, or else have infrastructure only on tiny segments of his routes. Can't be him.

My other neighbor who rides a couple of times a week during the better weather for fitness? He rides on the Humber Bay Shores and Martin-Goodman trails, and sometimes on part of the Humber River trail. Could be him.

My other neighbors who ride just a few times a year? They also tend to use the Humber Bay Shores and less frequently the Martin-Goodman trails and part of the Humber River trail. I've also seen them pack their bikes up on their cars to drive them to other trails where they will ride. Could be them, too.

Does this mean that the many of us who ride bikes a lot are not the intended, or design, user of cycling infrastructure? Yet we are generally the advocates. Are we asking the city to build cycling infrastructure that we can't, don't, or won't use? In some cases, yes we are.

In my own neighborhood of Mimico, we've done a good job providing multi-use trails which people on bike can use, but we've also seen quite a lot of contention along those same trails between different user groups with most of the animosity being directed against "fast" cyclists; and it's been said that these trails were not designed nor intended for the faster commuter cyclists. Does this mean that commuter cyclists are not the average cyclist, and that we aren't designing for them?

Well, let's have a quick look at the vision from our bike plan's Executive Summary, and see what is says:

The vision for the Toronto Bike Plan is to create a safe, comfortable and bicycle friendly environment in Toronto, which encourages people of all ages to use bicycles for everyday transportation and enjoyment.

I would interpret "everyday transportation" as commuting and "enjoyment" as fitness and/or occasional "Sunday" rides. And "people of all ages" are not going to share the same average in either skill, ability, nor speed.

To me this means that city staff are making a big mistake in designing cycling infrastructure for the "average cyclist" and that this very idea of an "average cyclist" is contrary to the stated vision of the bike plan.

What do you think?

Should the city be designing our cycling infrastructure for some real or imagined "average cyclist?"

Or should be be following the vision of our older bike plan, and be designing our cycling infrastructure for people people of all ages, uses, and abilities?

Yonge Street can easily accommodate protected bike lanes if we want

Previously on this blog I had panned a redesign of Yonge Street by young landscape architect Richard Valenzona, but which was given the prestigious NXT City Prize by a panel of judges which includes our Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmat.

As Schrödinger's Cat had pointed out, Valenzona's design was suspiciously similar to the Exhibition Place, London design which looks now like this:

Not exactly pedestrian and cyclist friendly. Pedestrians are still afraid of crossing the roadway and cyclists have no space of their own.

But to stray from just being negative I'd like to describe an alternative vision, which would balance the needs of cyclists with those of pedestrians and drivers. I believe there is enough space to protect cyclists while also providing more space to pedestrians.

My design is approximate since the roadway width varies along Yonge's extent. But if we follow Valenzona's cue that we can reduce car lanes by half that would mean we could dedicate about one car lane to a bidirectional protected bike lane and the other to expanding the sidewalks.

Since we're putting in a bidirectional bike lane we should probably also make the other lanes one way for cars, which makes intersections safer for everyone. Urbanists, don't get your underwear in a knot about one-way roads. Netherlands, one of the world's safest country for transportation is full of them; so is NYC. If done in combination of reducing speeds and lane widths and providing bike lanes and wider sidewalks it is a safe and friendly solution.

Maybe I'll enter my design into next year's NXT City Prize. But first I have to choose some nice looking brick if I want a chance of winning.

Amazing Sherbourne cycling numbers should convince Buckley that painted lines are not enough

Stephen Buckley, Toronto's transportation chief, has been very reluctant thus far to install protection on the separated bike lanes approved by City Council. Numbers coming from his own City Cycling Department (@TO_Cycling) should convince him to give up that reluctance if he has any desire to increase the number and diversity of people cycling in Toronto. This tweet presented the bike counts on Sherbourne, before and after the installation of cycle tracks:

Bicycle traffic averages on Sherbourne were 955/day in 2011 bike lane, they are now 2,827/day in Cycle Track #biketo

That's almost a 300% increase!!

Even with all its warts (not enough protection from car incursion, bike lanes not wide enough), Sherbourne cycle tracks are demonstrably popular.

On Facebook, Christine Bouchard of the City compared this to the expectations around motor vehicle traffic and road capacity:

In order for a street to be classified as a "local" street by the City of Toronto, it must carry less than 2,500 motor vehicles/day.

Since the Sherbourne Cycle Tracks are carrying an average 2,827 cyclists a day, this means that in the summer months these lanes are actually carrying more traffic than the 3,291km of local roads, in Toronto's 5,359 km road network.

Bouchard demonstrates well how cycling infrastructure is way, way more efficient in moving people for local trips than moving big metal boxes on wide roads.

Some of the increase in bike traffic can be attributed to Jarvis no longer having bike lanes. But even during the brief period when there were bike lanes, the number of cyclists was relatively low compared to Sherbourne; in the range of 890 per day and 290 before the bike lanes (some of the increase was attributed to the bike share launch). Even if all the people (technically, trips) who started biking on Jarvis because of bike lanes (around 600 per day) started biking on Sherbourne (unlikely that they all would) it would still only account for 1/3 of the Sherbourne increase.

Another reason to be confident that the cycle tracks are working (even though the City still needs to improve the separation on the bottom section) is that this bicycle count nicely correlates with a recent study of protected bike lanes in US major cities which found that bicycle traffic jumped quite a bit in the first year after installation. Bike Portland summarizes the main points:

  • Over a quarter of riders indicated they are riding more in general because of the protected bike lanes.
  • In its first year alone, a protected bike lane increases bike traffic on a street by an average of 72%
  • 96% of people riding in protected bike lanes felt safer on the street because of the lanes
  • 76% of people living near protected bike lanes support the facilities in additional locations, whether they use them or not
  • Drivers thought traffic became more predictable after protected lanes were installed. Most drivers said congestion and drive time didn’t change.
  • Parking is a key issue when street space is reassigned and cities. The impact to parking was the most negative perception, with about 30-55% of residents indicating the impacts to parking were negative, even in cases where a minimal amount of parking was removed, or parking was increased.
  • In the 144 hours of video analyzed for safety, studying nearly 12,900 bicycles through the intersections, no collisions or near collisions were observed. This included both intersections with turn lanes and those with signals for bicycles.
  • Over half the residents surveyed (56%) felt that the street works better for “all people” due to the protected bike lanes, while only 26% felt the street works less well.
  • Nearly three times as many residents felt that the protected bike lanes had led to an increase in the desirability of living in their neighborhood, as opposed to a decrease in desirability (43% vs 14%).

Protected bike lanes are demonstrably popular and safer. This should be enough to convince Buckley that painted lines—including the double painted lines they like to pretend are "buffers"—are not enough. But will it be enough?

(In other news, while Toronto's cycle tracks project on Richmond and Adelaide drags on for years and years in an EA and can't even get proper protection during the pilot phase, Hamilton amazingly has almost completed the installation of a two-way protected bike lane on Cannon Street after approving it just this year! And they didn't even do an EA or a pilot, which isn't required by provincial law despite what Toronto might claim.)

Has Buckley brought over his "relaxed parking" bike lane philosophy over from Philadelphia?

Someone asked me last week why our Transportation Services chief, Stephen Buckley, doesn't want—or seems very reluctant—to install barriers on the Richmond and Adelaide "cycle tracks" (despite council voting for them 39-0 and despite Buckley signing up to NACTO's bike guide which defines cycle tracks as being physically separated). I replied that I don't know but I poked around and I think I have some clues.

I present Stephen Buckley, General Manager of Transportation Services.

Buckley comes from Philadelphia, a city which has done the bare minimum for their sizable, passionate cycling population. Philadelphia has done little to address the problems with painted bike lanes and Buckley appears to be doing the same here.

Philadelphia is a large city with a city-wide average 2% bike mode share (compared to Toronto's city-wide average of 1.7%). This is high for a large American city, though it's more useful to compare the downtowns: Toronto's mode share jumps to around 10% while Philly's is a more modest 5%.

Under Buckley's watch Philadelphia installed pilot bike lanes on Spruce and Pine streets which were seen as major additions to the cycling network (and a major victory of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia). Yes, bike lanes are great news, but Buckley and the City took a very loose view to motor vehicles stopping in the bike lanes.

Going to church or synagogue? God's on your side if you park in the bike lane. Need to stop for a latte? Stop with Buckley's blessing:

Buckley said the city would make sure there is a "relaxed parking situation" for churches, since the bicycle lane will take up parking spaces.

Under the plan, strict no-parking regulations will be enforced on the bike lanes. But taxis and residents' vehicles will be allowed to stand briefly on the curb sides of Spruce and Pine. Horse-drawn carriages will be allowed to use the bike lanes, Buckley said.

And this is the result:

Pine Street bike lane used for godly parking (Source: this old city). Note that the actual bike lane is under the line of parked cars; what you see is just the buffer.

And it gets even worse. The bike lane is too inviting for jerks as a quick way to pass a long line of traffic.

Source: this old city

And under Buckley's watch we've seen much the same with our completely permeable "cycle tracks":

Source: Ben Spur of Now Toronto who, in 45 minutes of walking the length of the Adelaide cycle track counted 27 vehicles in the cycle track, including 9 being driven in it.

(Ironic note: the Philly blogger posted a picture of a "bike lane" protected with planters in Toronto which turns out to be just the clusterfuck that is John Street.)

It's not surprising then that Buckley has carried this view over to Toronto. Buckley perhaps doesn't mind if cars end up stopped in the bike lane despite the fact that Toronto specifically created a new stricter by-law for cycle tracks that forbid all vehicles but emergency vehicles and utility trucks from stopping there.

You don't need barriers if you have no intention of preventing all vehicles from stopping in the bike lane. Buckley is working on improving enforcement, to his credit, but despite his naive quotes to the media he must surely know that it is quite impossible to promise a 100% car free bike lane with just a parking enforcement officer going back and forth.

The whole idea of a bike lane becomes untenable on really busy streets like Richmond and Adelaide where it doesn't matter if drivers are just stopped for a short time; multiply that by ten, twenty or thirty and the bike lane starts becoming completely useless as a safe commuter route.

And that's not even addressing the issue of couriers, cabs and tow trucks using the lanes constantly throughout the day. Enforcement won't work with them because these companies treat fines as just the cost of doing business. As Councillor Layton mentioned on Twitter: "earlier this term we doubled the cost of the ticket and made them so they could not be challenged in court. It still didn't deter."

Much the same happens in Philadelphia. A cyclist named Lucas described how a "stand briefly" policy becomes a solid line of parked cars:

I live on Pine, and when coming home tonight, I was forced out of the bike lane by a solid line of parked cars occupying it between about 19th and 16th (and not for the first time...). There are very clear signs posted saying "no parking at any time."

Enforcement didn't work in Phily, it's unclear how Buckley thinks it'll work in a city with a much busier downtown.

Buckley should be reminded that there is ample evidence that protected bike lanes (aka cycle tracks) make for safer cycling. And he should be reminded that it's not just about writing tickets to cars that stop in the bike lanes; the barriers on cycle tracks encourage more people to take up cycling. It's not just about abstract numbers that people are relatively safe, but that they feel safe enough that they'll leave their car at home and take up cycling. The vast majority of people will only take up cycling if they can bike on quiet side streets, bike trails or cycle tracks with barriers that separate them from motor traffic. Anything less is a failure in trying to bring more people to cycling.

It seems that Toronto was trying to slowly catch up to cities like Montreal and NYC with their expanding networks of protected bike lanes, but our Transportation chief seems content with emulating Philadelphia; a city with no protected bike lanes (this example is technically a river-side trail). That's not what I'd call having high ambitions of growing the cycling mode share here.

Toronto's failed shared space experiments exclude the vulnerable

Some influential Toronto planners and politicians have been dabbling in "shared space" and "cultural corridors" for the last few years. They like to talk about "destinations" rather than "through-traffic". These are innocuous terms but the results are far from harmless and might end up infecting our approach to "Complete Streets".

When planners and politicians in Toronto talk about "destinations" and "cultural corridors", this is the kind of mistake that results:

Bikes were purposefully excluded from Bloor Street at Yorkville during the major, BIA-funded remake of the street. In 2008 former Councillor Kyle Rae told City Council that he didn't think bike lanes were appropriate for Bloor Street at Yorkville because that area is a "destination" with lots of retail. That looks a lot like four lanes of "through traffic" to me.

Or this mistake:

John Street with some planters to keep out the cyclists and cars. (Planners had infamously produced a cyclist count that made it appear cycling numbers were negligible. Meanwhile cycling activists did a separate bike count with numbers up to 50% at peak commuter times.)

Note to planners: it's not "shared space" if cyclists are forced to dismount. A person walking a bike is just a pedestrian.

Former Councillor Vaughan claimed in an email to me that the delineated space was required for pedestrians:

Its part of a pilot project to implement the john st corridor. The pedestrian flow is spilling into the street further down the street. Chock-a-block side walk induce safety issues. We are trying to find a balance and determine the right lanes widths for different modes.

It's hard to align this claim that pedestrians are spilling off the sidewalk with a plan that allows the BIA to then block the pedestrian space with tables. Tables that seem to be an extension of the restaurants next to them.

Just how do tables help pedestrian flow?

Coordinated with the redevelopment of Union Station, the planners in charge of the Front Street EA marginalized vulnerable cyclists as well by dismissing bike lanes. Planner Harold Madi made it clear to the National Post that bike lanes wouldn't be part of the plan: “this isn’t about through-traffic; it’s about a destination." Yet here too "destination" seems to be more an excuse to ignore bike lanes than to be a way to stop through-traffic. (Madi is now in charge of Toronto's Complete Streets guidelines. More on that below).

This is how the planners imagine Front Street will function. The cyclist ends up riding the meridian because taxis are weaving in and out of the taxi bay. I'm surprised how realistic the artist was in how chaotic an environment it will actually be. Vulnerable-feeling cyclists won't bother to take this route.

Blinders to traffic

Toronto is weird and likes to do things in its own messed-up way. But the results of shared space have been little better elsewhere. The Shared Space movement aims to bring about harmony between road users by seeking "to minimise demarcations between vehicle traffic and pedestrians, often by removing features such as curbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and regulations."

Even other celebrated examples such as in Poynton, UK, designed by the preeminent shared use pioneer Ben Hamilton-Baillie have improved a demarcated pedestrian space but has utterly failed to deal with the heavy traffic volume and forces cyclists to intermingle with large trucks and fumes.

Blogger Mark Treasure, who documented his attempts at cycling in Poynton, notes:

The biggest (unresolved) problem - and one which is perhaps unfair to tie together with the redesign, since no redesign can deal with this problem – is the extraordinary volume of motor traffic passing through the town.

With all the extra space given over to sidewalks, cyclists, if they wish to follow the rules, are forced to wait in the fumes of backed-up traffic (Photo: Treasure).

That empty sidewalk is very inviting and feels a lot safer than the road (Photo: Treasure).

I will more forcefully argue that the planners could have dealt with the heavy traffic by more clearly demarcating space for cyclists and pedestrians and by putting restrictions on motor vehicles. This is the successful approach taken by cities such as Groningen, Netherlands where cyclists can make direct, fast trips between points in town and motor vehicles are forced to take slower, indirect routes. This helped to make Groningen number one in terms of cycling mode share in the world.

Photo: The Urban Country

Yet it doesn't appear that this is being considered by shared space advocates. Instead they cling to naive notions that these spaces will somehow work by throwing all the road users into an anarchic stew that will result in some sort of utopia that springs sui generis without any fussy, burdensome government interference. This isn't even a caricature. Shared space proponent, Martin Cassini, in his comment on the Poynton post betrays a philosophical approach borrowed heavily from a naive libertarian viewpoint:

Yes, shared space is a form of anarchy – peaceful anarchy – showing the great advantages of self-regulation over state control, and no, it instils a sense that might is wrong.

The greatest sin of Cassini's and other shared space proponents is—in my mind—that they prefer to plan based on a vague utopian agenda rather than choose tried and true real-world examples from such places as Denmark and Netherlands.

Ignoring the vulnerable

A shared street does "not serve the vulnerable. Rather, it prioritises the powerful". Even in the Netherlands there are a handful of shared space experiments. In footage taken by blogger David Hembrow, Hembrow points out how the vulnerable--the elderly, mothers, children--end up intimidated by the heavy car traffic (in 2008 and 2014, ending up just giving up their right of way in return for a greater sense of security.

The elderly often end up walking their bikes because they're too intimidated to take their right of way across car traffic. The Fietsberaad experts noticed the same issue in their investigation of the shared space intersection of De Kaden in Drachten, NL:

"[p]art of the cyclists does not dare demand the right of way. They dismount and wait for the right of way to be clearly given. Then they walk or ride to the other side. A problem may be that halfway across cyclists are met by cars from the other direction having to be kind enough to yield informally. Due to low speeds and the defensive behaviour of these cyclists this crossing strategy need not be unsafe by itself, but it most certainly is not convenient."

Photo: Fietsberaad

A majority of the cyclists, Fietsberaad noted, end up using the pedestrian crosswalk for understandable reasons: "[c]yclists probably prefer this to the chaos in the middle of the square (with cars queueing from three different directions). In addition they are given (or demand) the right of way on the pedestrian crossing, although formally they are not entitled to this."

Complete Streets should not ignore these concerns of "Subjective Safety" if they truly want to encourage more people to abandon the car for their daily trips.

"Incomplete Streets"?

Coincidentally or not, the new Directory of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, Harold Madi, was a major planner in each of the failed "shared space" projects (including the still under-construction Front Street) and is a big supporter of shared space. Madi is now well placed to influence the new Complete Streets guidelines.

Madi, I've got a message for you: a "shared" street is not "complete" street if it ignores the safety and vulnerability of our young, elderly and disabled who ride bicycles on our choked, busy streets. If you need to know how to plan for true complete streets, just imagine your own mother (or grandmother or child) cycling on these routes. Then build them so your mother will happily choose cycle on these streets. If you have to "convince" her that it's actually safer than she feels, you've failed. (Plus you end up being just a Vehicular Cyclist dogmatist of a different flavour).

Update: Duncan H pointed out this post by Mark Treasure where he invents the brilliantly pithy term, "placefaking". This is exactly what I'm talking about:

in the UK we seem to developed a curious alternative strategy that, as in the title of this post, I’m going to dub ‘placefaking’. It involves dressing up streets that have continue to have a serious movement function as a ‘place’, and attempting to persuade us that these roads and streets are now ‘places’, despite the fact that they continue to carry significant volumes of motor traffic.

If you bike, conservative or not, John Tory does not want your vote

John Tory on the pilot project bike lanes for Adelaide and Richmond:

“My priority from day one as mayor is going to be to … keep traffic moving in this city, and I am in favour of making opportunities available for cyclists to get around the city too, because that will help, in its own way, to get traffic moving, too. But I want to look at the results of discussions that are going on today and other days and make sure that whatever we do, we are not putting additional obstructions in the way of people getting around in this city … “

In other words, "I am in favour of helping people getting around the city except when it gets in the way of people getting around the city".

Tory had also promised to cancel Eglinton Connects—a community-backed plan that even the BIA supports—that would have improved the streetscape and put in bike lanes in the space vacated from the removal of the bus-only lane. Tory has since retreated slightly. He claims that it was a press release error (though he was caught saying the same on video, thanks to a parody account) He now says he's for it if the funding is found. Somehow, I bet, that funding will never be found under Tory's watch.

It's funny that Tory has come out strong against bike lanes because of funding and congestion but has yet to take a stance on the island airport.

People seem to ignore that both the Eglinton bike lanes and Richmond/Adelaide were approved under a conservative mayor and a public works committee dominated by conservatives. While it has been hardly rainbows and unicorns under Mayor Ford, what with the removal of the Jarvis bike lanes, under Minnan-Wong's watch we've gotten a lot closer to building a cross-town protected bike lane route than we would have gotten under Miller. (In fact, Miller has specifically said that he preferred two-way R/A over bike lanes.)

There are other conservatives who actually knew that there was popular support for bike lanes and either promised or have been building them: Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, rides a bicycle everywhere and has expanded bicycle lanes and "Boris Bikes" the nickname for the bikesharing program throughout London (although the previous London mayor started the planning for bikesharing). Michael Bloomberg, billionaire founder of Bloomberg, the financial data services company, and former Mayor of New York, created in four short years a large network of separated bike lanes that is now the envy of many North American cities.

So John Tory, get with the program. People used to think of you as a "Red Tory" but on bikes you've decided to lead a loud—yet milquetoast—charge against bike lanes. What, were you worried that the bike haters would have otherwise jumped to Chow's camp?

With new mega-condo projects cycling is still just an afterthought

Antony Hilliard, on behalf of the Ward 19 Cycle Toronto group, attended the public consultation meeting for the large condo project happening at Strachan and Ordance, Garrison Point; just across the street from the other mini-city we like to call Liberty "Village". Again the City is willing to cram people into a small space and have failed to provide any coherent plan for how people will move around, except by car. There is so much opportunity here, noted Hilliard, for excellent cycling connections to the Waterfront, West Toronto Railpath, Richmond/Adelaide protected bike lanes. But it can all be easily squandered.

And it looks like the traffic planners are doing just that by not insisting that the developers treat cycling as a real transportation mode and not just a recreation activity. In the image above we see the Fort York bridge which will provide cycling and pedestrian access across the railway tracks. But the only access to the condos seems to be a sidewalk. So are the developers and traffic engineers expecting cyclists to just ride on the sidewalk?

No, actually they don't expect cyclists at all.

Since I attended the last public consultation for this development I know that the developers and the City are aware of this issue (having raised it with them), but it looks like the City isn't making any further demands and the developers decided to ignore the issue.

The developer will still be installing 1300 car parking spaces for the 1700 new units, "following Liberty Village minimums". And the crappy painted bike lanes on Strachan will continue to be unimproved in every way.

The Ward 19 group had made a number of recommendations to the City planners a few years ago on how to improve the Strachan bike lanes. So far the only thing the City is slowly moving on is putting in a bike light at the base of Strachan at Lakeshore. There's been no recognition from staff that on a street like Strachan most people think it's crazy to bike with just a painted line separating them from a speeding dump truck.

A painted bike lane is no longer good enough. Most cities have moved on.

This is really maddening given that this area that is already holding thousands of people will be holding yet thousands more; all with next-to-nothing for safe, protected cycling infrastructure (let alone good access to transit).

If we can't get the new projects right, how do you think we'll make progress on retrofitting our old streets?

Serious flaws in Copenhagen study that claims to show bike lanes are unsafe

We build bike lanes to make us safer and more comfortable while riding our bikes. Cities all over the world are building painted bike lanes and separated bike lanes. Knowing whether bike lanes are actually safer is important, to say the least. The science of the safety of bike lanes, however, is a bit behind.

The science doesn't have to be perfect in order for us to take some action, but it needs to be helpful. We need to understand how research was done and how the researcher came to their conclusions. When it comes to a Danish study by Danish researcher S. U. Jensen titled "Bicycle Tracks and Lanes: a Before-After Study" we probably should not trust its conclusions that bike lanes and separated bike lanes are unsafe. Or so argues Dr. Kay Teschke, with whom I corresponded by email last winter. (Photo of woman and girl cycling on Copenhagen street by Ian)

I'm looking at this study in particular because there are competing claims to what it actually proves. There are those who have argued that Jensen's study is proof that separated bike lanes (more commonly known as cycle tracks in Europe) are dangerous. But there are also those who have argued that when read properly the study actually shows that separated bike lanes are safe (see postscript below).

I decided to get to the bottom of this and contacted Dr. Kay Teschke of the University of British Columbia to find what an expert in epidemiological research--who also conducted a large research study on cycling safety--has to say about this study. I'm reaching out to Jensen as well and will post his response if I get one.

Jensen, in his Copenhagen study, came to the controversial conclusion that cycling on cycle tracks* is less safe than cycling on streets without any cycling infrastructure. Jensen concluded:

The safety effects of bicycle tracks in urban areas are an increase of about 10 percent in both crashes and injuries. The safety effects of bicycle lanes in urban areas are an increase of 5 percent in crashes and 15 percent in injuries. Bicyclists’ safety has worsened on roads, where bicycle facilities have been implemented.

Safety is worse with bike lanes? Jensen's conclusions are counter-intuitive and don't fit well with the results of a number of other studies, as was shown in a recent meta study of scientific studies of cycling and injuries. (Doing meta-analysis is common in epidemiology, where researchers compare different studies and look for patterns.) Given that Jensen's study comes to this irregular conclusion it would be easier to trust if we had a clear idea of how he arrived there. That, however, is one of the main problems with Jensen's paper: a lack of transparency.

Black box

The main issue with Jensen's study is that it's a black box; an algorithm that he never reveals. Jensen shows us the initial numbers that he measured, then puts them into his black box and out the other end comes the inverse.

Says Dr. Teschke:

Jensen did a very elaborate analysis with lots of adjustments. It is good to take into account factors that might bias unadjusted results, but usually the first analysis is the simple unadjusted one. Jensen does not present the unadjusted results, so I calculated them based on the data presented in his paper. On page 4, he indicates that the before and after periods studied were equally long. In Table 3 on page 9, he presents the observed before and after data on crashes and injuries. He also presents expected after data, based on all the adjustments. But let’s first look at the observed, before and after. In every row, except two (Crashes Property damage only and Intersections All crashes) the observed injuries or crashes after are lower than the observed before. On page 12, he indicates that there was a 20% increase in bicycle and moped traffic in the after period. So a calculation of crude relative risks (RR) for after vs. before:

  • Bicyclists and moped riders, all injuries total:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (406/1.2)/(574/1) = 0.59
  • Bicyclists and moped riders, intersection injuries:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (285/1.2)/(353/1) = 0.67
  • Bicyclists and moped riders, on links injuries:
    RR = (injuries after/traffic after)/(injuries before/traffic before) = (121/1.2)/(221/1) = 0.46

All three of the unadjusted results in the after vs. before comparison for bicyclists and moped riders show a reduction in risk (RR=1 means the same risk after and before, RR < 1 means lower risk after, RR > 1 means higher risk after). It is very strange not to report these results in the paper. They mean that over the period studied, the risk for cyclists and moped riders went down in the period after installation of the cycle tracks.

The question that should be answered with the adjustments is whether this reduction in risk is because of the cycle tracks or whether it is just a time trend - perhaps risk also went down on routes without new cycle tracks. If the comparison streets used for the adjustments were really comparable and if all the adjustment assumptions are unflawed, then the answer to that question would be “the reduction in risk is not from the cycle tracks”. But to take the conclusion further than that and say, after all these adjustments, cycle tracks are less safe (i.e., completely reversing the crude results)? This requires a level of trust in the adjustments that is very hard to justify in my view - especially given the difficult-to-follow description of the methodology and the many assumptions involved.

So can we trust Jensen's numbers? I don't think we can. Dr. Teschke's preliminary calculation of risk based on Jensen's numbers came to a Relative Risk of 0.59 compared to a higher risk of 1 for a street without bicycle facilities. In other words, Jensen's raw numbers support the conclusion that bicycle facilities reduce risk of injury. But it would be quite odd, Dr. Teschke explains, that the final, adjusted result would show the opposite of this. Yet when the final result comes out of Jensen's black box they are just that.

Science needs to be transparent and reproducible and this study falls short of that standard.

No one study can be the final word one way or the other. In the much more studied world of health and medicine, epidemiologists are looking for consensus among studies before coming to conclusions. The Copenhagen study has too many problems to serve as the final word on bike lane safety for policy makers.

Postscript

I wasn't the first blogger to question this study, I had also asked Dr. Teschke other questions about this study and how it related to what another statistician, Dr. Lon Roberts, had said about the study.

Another blogger from Texas, Jason Roberts, was also interested in understanding this controversial study better and had asked Dr. Lon Roberts for his opinion on the study. Jason linked to a simplified version of Jensen's study (called “Road safety and perceived risk of cycle facilities in Copenhagen”) that had even less information about Jensen's methodology and thus may have mislead Dr. Roberts. At least, that's my theory.

Dr. Roberts told Jason that "the Copenhagen study shows that the "likelihood an individual bicyclist will experience an accident goes down as the number of bicycle riders go up".

Furthermore Roberts says:

Using Soren’s percentages, here’s an example starting with the assumption that 10 bicyclists out of 10,000 will experience an accident over a certain period of time if there are no bike tracks:

On an individual basis, there’s a 10 out of 10,000 (or 0.1%) chance that an individual biker will experience an accident if there are no bike tracks
When the bike tracks were added, the accident rate increased by 9%. In other words, if there are 10 accidents without the tracks, the number of accidents increases 10.9 (or approximately 11). On the other hand, the number of bike riders increased by 18%, from 10,000 to 11,800. Therefore, on an individual basis the likelihood of an accident with the tracks added is now 11 out of 11,800, or 0.09%, as opposed to 0.1% without the lanes/tracks.

So Dr. Roberts is basically saying that Jensen had accounted for bicycle traffic volume when reporting the numbers (greater numbers of cyclists will always have some effect on increasing crashes/accidents). But Dr. Teschke seemed to be saying that Jensen had accounted for bike traffic. So I asked for more explanation.

I asked:

In your discussion paper you listed RR = 1.10 versus Jensen's estimates of expected injury rates. Does this mean that Jensen had taken into account bicycle traffic volume when he provides an estimate of injuries +10% (Table 3)? I'm assuming you added .10 to 1?

And if Jensen has already accounted for bicycle traffic in his estimate I'm confused about Roberts' calculation. Is Roberts' accounting for the denominator a second time?

Dr. Teschke responded:

Jensen’s formulas indicate that he did take bicycle and moped traffic into account - in more than one direction. He also took motor vehicle traffic into account. The reasoning for the latter is not clear to me. Perhaps he is saying that if MV traffic volumes went down after cycle tracks were installed, you would expect fewer crashes. But if lower MV traffic is one of the pathways to lower bike and moped crashes on cycle track routes, that is a good thing, not something to be adjusted out of the analysis.

You are right, I added .10 to 1.

Robert’s calculation is not very clear to me. It does seem to assume that Jensen did not take bicycle and moped traffic into account. The formulas in Jensen’s paper suggest he did.

But it is easy to be confused about what Jensen did. It is not clear what alpha and beta are, or how he chose the values for those parameters. He mentions “Danish crash prediction models” but does not provide a citation. Although he laid out the formulas for the traffic adjustments, he did not do the same for either the trend or regression-to-the-mean adjustments. When an adjustment method reverses the unadjusted result, it is important that the method be clear and highly defensible.

I also asked Dr. Teschke why Jensen's study wasn't included in their literature review.

Herb:

  1. Why was this one missed from the lit review? Did it not meet the criteria?

Dr. Teschke:

You are right, we didn’t include the Jensen study in our literature review, because it did not meet our criterion of being published in the peer-reviewed literature. It was published in conference proceedings not a peer-reviewed journal. After the review was published, many people noted that we did not include this study and, when we gave the reason, they argued that the reviews of the Transportation Research Board are more rigorous than those of many conferences, so it should be considered truly peer-reviewed.

We have referenced the Jensen study in subsequent publications, for example in the Discussion of our injury study.

I hope this is useful for some of you interested in connecting the dots between bike lanes, protected bike lanes and safety. It's not easy to dive into the data, but luckily scientists are taking subject matter more seriously.

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