The recent death of Jill Tarlov, a pedestrian killed by a bicyclist in New York’s Central Park —the second such incident in two months—engendered a flurry of commentary and analysis of the dangers of cyclists determined to train for speed in one of the city’s most crowded recreational havens.
Many prominent biking advocates and bloggers condemned the incident; some also pointed out that reckless drivers pose an exponentially greater threat to pedestrians than bikes, yet individual car-related deaths rarely cause such outrage.
Meanwhile the New York Post, in character, frothed at the mouth; the New York Times deployed a reporter wielding a speed gun to clock two-wheeled racers (they weren’t actually going so fast); even the New Yorker’s online edition got in on the act. It was all a perfect storm of bikelash, fueled more by emotion than by facts.
So the appearance this week of a study in the Journal of Safety Research about the actual incidence of injuries in bicycle-pedestrian collisions provides a balancing dose of data. The study, authored by Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski of Hunter College-City University of New York and Richard Maisel of New York University, looks at injuries caused by cyclists hitting pedestrians in California between 2005 and 2011 and in New York between 2004 and 2011. Their analysis of hospital records shows that, despite the steep increase of bicycle traffic over the same period, the rate of people getting hit and hurt by bicycle riders is actually now on its way down.
In both New York City and New York State, which the researchers considered separately, the current decline began after several years of a steady upward trend. Between 2004 and 2008, the rate of cyclist-caused pedestrian injuries in New York State went from 3.29 per 100,000-person population to 5.45, then dropped to 3.78 by 2011. In New York City, the rate climbed from 4.26 in 2004 to 7.54 in 2008, but then fell again, to 6.06 by 2011. In California, the differences were less dramatic: after lowering from 2.68 to 2.63 between 2005 and 2007, the rate dipped as low as 2.12 in 2010 before ticking back up a bit to 2.24 in 2011.
This wasn’t the result that the researchers had expected. Previously, they had looked at only the earlier years of the study period in New York, when the rates were going up, and they were struck by the decline once the later years were analyzed. “I would say we were very surprised, pleasantly,” says Milczarski.
As the paper states, the sheer number of cyclists in New York City soared during the years in question: The number of people biking into lower Manhattan, for instance, doubled between 2007 and 2011, according to the New York City Department of Transportation.
Overall, 7,904 pedestrians in New York State (including New York City) were treated in a hospital for injuries caused by a person on a bicycle between 2004 and 2011. In California, the number was 6,177 between 2005 and 2011. Most of the injuries in all locations, about a third, were to the head and neck—the same type of injury that killed Jill Tarlov in Central Park last month. But the vast majority of those hurt were treated as outpatients—92 percent in New York and 91 percent in California.
Milczarski and Tuckel previously collaborated on a study about bicyclist behavior that showed people on bikes in New York City are more law-abiding since the launch of the Citi Bike bike-share program—running red lights less frequently, for instance, and riding more consistently in the direction of traffic. They attributed that change to educational efforts and the mainstreaming of cycling through the construction of better infrastructure and also through the addition of the bike-share program.
In their latest paper, they offer two hypotheses for the recent decline in injuries. The first is that children 14 and under, the group with the highest incidence of injuries from being struck by bicyclists, are less exposed to the potential for such injury because they are increasingly driven to school rather than walking or biking, and stay indoors to play video games rather than going out.
Those trends, however, have been going on for a long time.
The other, more compelling explanation advanced by the researchers is that improvements in bike infrastructure have led to streets that are safer for all users. They cite NYC DOT reports that show, for instance, a decline of 58 percent in injuries to all users on Ninth Avenue, where a protected bike lane was part of a significant street redesign.
They also suggest that perhaps bicyclists and pedestrians have become more used to sharing space because of the increase in cycling, and they cite multiple educational efforts from the NYC DOT, advocacy groups such as Transportation Alternatives, and others. “Allocating specially designated street space for the use of cyclists, placing greater emphasis on complying with existing traffic laws by cyclists, and educational campaigns which promote safe cycling practices have also afforded pedestrians a greater measure of protection,” they write. “At the same time, it is likely that pedestrians have become more habituated to the presence of cyclists and have adjusted their behavior accordingly.”
Milczkarski says more research needs to be done to determine what underlying factors can further reduce bicyclist-pedestrian conflicts and collisions. He also suggests some simple human kindness might help make streets safer. “People often talk about ‘The three E’s’,” says Milczarski. “Engineering, education, and enforcement. I say maybe we should add a fourth ‘E’: empathy. When we’re drivers, we forget that we’re also pedestrians. When we’re walking, we forget what it’s like to drive. The same thing goes for bikes. We always forget that we have these other ways that we get around.”
Remembering that would go a long way toward reducing all kinds of traffic injuries.