On-Street Bicycling is Safe
Dr. Brent Hugh
Department of Music
Missouri Western State College

An open letter to members of the Kansas City Council considering the Bike KC proposal, July 2002.

This document was created with the OpenOffice.org Writer. Automatic conversion to HTML format does not always create beautiful formatting--sorry!

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City Council Members:

I hope you will support the Bike KC proposal when it comes before the City Council.

I live in the in Kansas City area, am a Kansas City taxpayer, and have bicycled thousands of miles on area roads over the past few years.

I would like to address one issue that has come to my attention in researching the history of the Bike KC proposal.

I understand that some council members object to creating bicycle facilities on busy, 35 MPH+ streets because they feel that such facilities will be unsafe for the bicyclists. This is a very understandable belief; before I started bicycling frequently I, myself, believed this. I really wanted government to spend money to create "safe off-street paths where I could bicycle. I wanted the city to build more sidewalks so my children and I could have a "safe" place to bicycle off the streets. I couldn't imagine myself bicycling on a busy, "dangerous" street.

But as I started bicycling on streets close to my house because those were the most convenient, and occasionally riding on busier streets, because they took me where I needed to go, I started to wonder just how dangerous it really is to bicycle on the street. I did a good deal of research into the matter, and what I found surprised me greatly. At first I did not fully believe the results, but as I looked further, I saw that study after study came to the same conclusion and essentially no studies contradicted the important results. Precise details are often in question but the main conclusions are not:

The more I bicycled the more I saw for myself that street riding really is safer. I also started to understand the reasons bicycling on-street is actually safer than cycling on sidewalks or off-street bicycle paths. I will try to explain to you some of the data and the reasons below.

The Data

A major 1996 study of about 2000 cyclists by William E. Moritz calculated the he Relative Danger Index of various facilities. The conclusion: When busy streets are re-designed to create a little extra lane width for bicycles, they are surprisingly safe for bicyclists. Here is a list of Danger Index numbers for various bicycle facilities.

The Danger Index shows relative danger per mile traveled; lower numbers are safer:

Relative Danger Index Facility
(Safest) 0.41 major roads with bicycle facilities
. 0.51 signed bike routes (wide lanes and signs, no other special facilities)
. 0.66 major road without bicycle facilities
. 0.94 minor road without bicycle facilities
. 1.39 multi-use trail
(Most dangerous) 16.34 sidewalk

For details about the Danger Index data, see <http://www.bicyclinglife.com/Library/Moritz2.htm>. Please note that while these "Danger Index" numbers are often surprising to non-bicyclists, they are NOT controversial. Moritz's data confirms two earlier major studies (1994 and 1974) and pretty much every other study of bicycling accidents ever done. I have not been able to find any studies that convincingly contradict the general thrust of these results.

Riding on the street with traffic really, really is safer than riding on bicycle trails and MUCH safer than riding on the sidewalk.

There is no question that adding bicycle facilities to roads (wide outside lane, bicycle lane) helps makes the (already safe) roads even safer for bicyclists.

Why do the results of the bicycle accident data so greatly contradict the common sense of most road users that says that "bicyclists who drive in the street are in great danger--they would be so much safer if they were off the road on bicycle paths"?

The reason is actually rather simple: The "rear overtaking" accident, so greatly feared by motor vehicle drivers, novice bicyclists, and policy makers who aren't familiar with the bicycle accident data, actually accounts for only 1.3% of bicycle accidents.

On the other hand, something like 75% of bicycle-car accidents are from motor vehicles approaching from the front or sides. These accidents happen when the bicycle or auto is at an intersection or driveway.

Following this to its logical conclusion means that:

Sidewalk riding is the least safe.


Every driveway crossing the sidewalk becomes a dangerous intersection with poor sight-lines. At interesections, the bicyclist enters the roadway at unexpected places (not where drivers expect a fast-moving vehicle to come from).

Minor roads are much safer.


Fewer intersections and better sight lines.

Major roads are a little safer yet.


Even fewer intersections, intersections are well controlled, sight-lines are better to the front, sides, and rear.

Drivers, even inattentive drivers, simply don't run over objects that are square in front of them, in their central field of vision, even if the object is a "slow-moving" bicyclist.

This brings up a good question: Is bicycling slow?

In the urban setting, bicycles are not as slow as most motor vehicle drivers might think: a national study of bicycle commuters showed that their motor vehicle commute times averaged 20 minutes; bicycling the same commute, they averaged 30 minutes. Driving 11.5 miles to Prairie Village takes me 45 minutes in my car; on bike it takes 60 minutes. This actually saves me time, since I can skip my 90-minute trip to the gym after taking a nice bike ride.

The national average speed for urban motor vehicle driving--driveway to driveway, counting time spent waiting in traffic and at lights--is exactly 12 miles per hour. Normal bicyclists easily average 10-12 MPH on urban trips--that's about my own average speed--while strong bicyclists can be quite a bit faster. So bicycling is a very practical means of transportation in an urban setting. It can be a little slower than traveling by motor vehicle, but not nearly by the margin most motor vehicle drivers imagine.

Why, according to the Danger Index data, is bicycling multi-use trails more dangerous than riding on the street?

Multi-use trails are less safe than street riding because they tend to be narrow with two-way bicycle and foot traffic, they have many unmarked sharp turns, they have dangerous fences, signs, culverts, washed-out areas and other obstacles very close to the edge of the path, they have unusual mid-block intersections with streets, they are often maintained poorly, and they are filled with a wide variety of users going wildly different directions and speeds. Two bicycles passing each other on these paths is already dangerous (15-30 MPH is not an uncommon speed for bicycles; because of the narrowness of the typical bike path, bicyclists must pass within 3 feet of each other, and a speed differential of up to 60 MPH in those close quarters is very dangerous indeed; passing 3 feet from a pedestrian at 20-30MPH isn't very safe, either). Add to this mix pedestrians, dogs on- and off-leash, and a few flailing roller-bladers, and there is no question that multi-use trails are 2 or 3 times more dangerous than on-street riding--just what the data indicate.

Of course, given the obvious dangers, most bicyclists with an iota of common sense don't ride at 20-30MPH on bicycle paths. A more typical speed is 6-10MPH, about half the normal bicycling speed. The slow speeds necessary for safety, as well as the typical “curvy” nature of bicycle paths make them ideal for recreation and sight-seeing but far from ideal for transportation. It's not fun to commute on a path that triples your commute time!

Is bicycling dangerous?

This is not to say that bicycling, even in the "most dangerous" places (sidewalks and multi-use paths) is really very dangerous at all. In fact,

Of course, none of these activities (driving, swimming, playing soccer, etc.) is usually considered terribly dangerous. Yet we tend to classify on-street bicycling, which is safer than all of these, as "dangerous".

There is a serious problem when we "dangerize" bicycling, because, according to the British Medical Association, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20 to 1! When we scare people away from bicycling by "dangerizing" it, we also scare them away from the health benefits, which are sorely needed in our sedentary society. If we spent 20 times the effort extolling the health benefits of bicycling as we do warning and worrying about of the dangers, that proportion would be about right.

All of the bicycle safety statistics above are based on the average risk to all cyclists. But all cyclists are not equal in risk. Several studies have found that club cyclists, who learn and practice "vehicular cycling"--following traffic laws, stopping at lights and stop signs, avoiding wrong-way riding, avoiding sidewalk riding, using lights at night, and so on--are approximately five times safer than the average adult cyclist and 10 times safer than child cyclists (John Forester, Bicycle Transportation, 2nd ed, 1994, p. 41).

Cyclists who follow the law and practice vehicular cycling are very safe indeed.

What Can the City do to Make to Improve Bicycle-related Safety?

Council members who are sincerely concerned about the health and safety of bicyclists should consider these actions:



Actively promote bicycling as a safe and healthy transportation alternative

  • health benefits outweigh risks by a factor of 20 to 17

Support bicycle education and training

  • increases safety 5-10 times5

Support wider outside lanes as a minimum facility on all heavily traveled roads

  • decreases bicycle accidents about 20%5

  • encourages bicycle usage

Support bike lanes on major roads

  • decreases bicycle accidents about 35%5

  • encourages bicycle usage

Support vigorous enforcement of motor vehicle speed limits

  • excess or inappropriate speed is a main or contributory factor in one third of all collisions4

  • for every 1% reduction in mean traffic speed, fatalities reduce by about 7%4

Require front and rear lights for bicycles operating in twilight/night

  • about 56% of fatal bicycle accidents happen at night although only 3% of bicycling is at night4,6; lack of lights is almost always a contributing factor

  • nearly all fatal overtaking-type accidents in urban areas are at night and the bicyclist has no rear light6

Support education and enforcement to reduce intoxicated bicycle operation

  • In fully one-third of fatal bicycle accidents, the bicycle rider was intoxicated at the time of the accident3

Support vigorous education and enforcement against bicyclists who fail to yield at stop signs and traffic signals

  • 17% of bicycle accidents are caused by the bicyclist's riding through stop signs or red lights1

    (Note: traffic signals can and should be set so as to be triggered by bicycles, but most in the Kansas City area are not; awareness of this common equipment malfunction must be part of the enforcement effort, because after stopping at a red light on a lesser-traveled side street, the cyclist must often proceed cautiously through the red light or be prepared to wait indefinitely)

All of these are clearly shown by research and experience in cities, to make bicycling safer. The City Council would be well advised to follow this sort of researched and proven way to improve safety, rather than following their gut reactions, which (like my own gut reactions just a few years ago) may not be supported by the data or stand up to scrutiny.

Do You Oppose Sidewalks and Multi-use Paths?

All this does not mean that I oppose sidewalks or off-road multi-use paths. We simply need to understand what each facility does for us:

Bike KC will help tie these many pre-existing bicycle-friendly streets into a safe, efficient, area-wide bicycle transportation system. It will help make the (relatively few) streets and areas of Kansas City that are difficult, unfriendly, or dangerous for bicycle travel, easier to access, more friendly, and safer.

Furthermore, Bike KC has a natural tie-in with area mass transportation. It has been persuasively argued that "rapid transit systems can operate in the modern distributed urban area only with the support of feeder systems at both ends of the trip," and bicycles make ideal feeder vehicles (John Forester, "The National Bicycling and Walking Studies"). Bike KC will help extend the reach of our current mass transit system, bridging that last mile or two between home or work and the bus stop, and helping our metro system reach more people and work better.

Bike KC is not based on gut reactions or the wild-eyed ideas of a few bicyclists. On the contrary, Bike KC is solidly based on research and experience from many areas of the U.S. and the world, that clearly show what works and what doesn't, what is safe and what isn't.

We can ignore this research and experience, repeating mistakes that have been made in other communities over the past 30-40 years. Other communities have experimented with extensive off-street bike paths as bicycle transportation and discovered that they are

(1) expensive,

(2) more dangerous,

(3) usually ineffective as transportation systems, and

(4) do not get bicyclists off the streets (because streets almost always go where cyclists need to go, and specialized paths almost never do)

Off-street paths are strongly discouraged in current AASHTO guidelines for these very reasons.

On the other hand, on-street accommodation of cyclists has proven to be safe, encourage bicycling, and have positive side effects for motorists and pedestrians, as well. Bike lanes in a city are associated with higher bicycling, while more bike paths correlate with less (!) bicycle commuting.8

I urge you to carefully consider the issues involved and support Bike KC when it comes to a vote in the city council. Bike KC is a carefully researched and balanced proposal that will increase the safety and utility of bicycling as a transportation option in Kansas City.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Brent Hugh
Assistant Professor, Missouri Western State College
KC area bicyclist, taxpayer, and voter
(816) 356-1740

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Sources for Safety Recommendations and Data:

1. Carol Tan, "A Crash-Type Manual for Bicyclists". http://www.tfhrc.gov/safety/pedbike/ctanbike/ctanbike.htm

2. John Forester, Bicycle Transportation, 2nd ed, 1994.

3. Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, "One In Three Fatal Bicycle Accidents Linked To Alcohol", February 23, 2001. http://www.sciencedaily.com/print/2001/02/010223080824.htm

4. Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, "Statistics," 1999. http://www.pacts.org.uk/statistics.htm

5. William E. Moritz, "Adult Bicyclists in the U.S.", Transportation Research Board , 1998. http://www.bicyclinglife.com/Library/Moritz2.htm

6. Mighk Wilson, "Freedom from Fear". http://www.floridabicycle.org/freedomfromfear.html

7. British Medical Association, Cycling towards Health & Safety, 1992, Oxford U. Press.

8. Stewart Goldsmith, "Reasons Why Bicycling and Walking Are Not Being Used", The National Bicycling and Walking Studies, Federal Highway Administration.