The question of road safety for bicycles is as old as the bicycle itself. To some the bike is the ultimate freedom machine. To others it is a terror that should not be allowed on public roads. Today, the bicycle shares the roads with electric powered bikes, elderly mobility scooters, powered skateboards and Bird type scooters.
All of these human mobility devices crowd limited travel and parking spaces, particularly in cities. All of these vehicles, each with different modes of operation and travelling at different speeds mix with cars, commercial trucks and people into a volatile cocktail of road users. Accidents are more frequent, injuries sometimes serious, and tempers are peaking. What is the personal mobility market to do?
New technologies for an old problem
This is not a new problem. When it was invented, the human-powered bicycle in it's various primordial forms created all sorts of disruption, causing enough distress to horsemen, carriage drivers and pedestrians alike that some towns banned them. In Europe there were calls for bicycles to be outlawed. Some town required the rider to blast the horn constantly. There were restrictions on who could cycle, and when and where they could do it.
It all eased up as the public got used to the bicycle, and discovered its virtues. Affordable, easy to use (after a little practice) and capable of propelling people of average fitness vast (by 19th century standards) distances, the humble bicycle won over millions and even came to symbolize progress. By 1890, what the world recognizes as the bicycle had arrived, with pneumatic rubber tires to absorb jolts, metal chain drive and the form familiar to the this day.
As the 20th century brought on motorization, the bicycle was relegated to the status of either a toy for children or a piece of sports equipment. The urbanization of developed countries led to the growth of massive cities with high density road traffic travelling at elevated speeds. As the speed differential between bike and average road user increased, the common wisdom became that bicycles do not belong on them. Throughout the 1970's and 1980's, people would shout at cyclists out of open car windows “Get off the road!”
In continental Europe and in China the bicycle was always an integrated part of the transportation system. Holland was a pioneer in the development of bicycle-only roads and laneways, and a national legal code that placed the responsibility for bicyclist safety squarely on the shoulders of motor vehicle users. Denmark, Germany, and cities like Montréal in Canada embraced bicycles, praising them for their efficiency and positive effects on health and in reducing pollution and road congestion.
By the 2000's the data demonstrated overwhelmingly that cycling as a major component of the transportation system was a net benefit for cities and the people who cycled. Across North America municipalities constructed bike-only infrastructure, while national governments all over the world promoted the cost and energy savings. In auto-centric cities, curbside parking was replaced with bike lanes, and police appeared on bicycles, further normalizing the idea that bicycles do indeed belong on the same roads as cars.
The War on the Car
It wasn't long before a counter-reaction took hold. To many city dwellers dependent on cars, the sight of cyclists passing them while they remained stuck in traffic was infuriating. The loss of conveniences like additional driving lanes or curbside parking was seen as an affront to motorists.
Headlines promoting the installation of cycling infrastructure were increasingly met with hostility, as the focus became the dollars spent on what many suburban commuters saw as frivolous luxuries for a handful of cyclists. Governments and officials, particularly on the progressive side of politics, adopted the promotion of cycling as a social cause, driving a wedge further into the rift between motorists and cyclists.
In Toronto, a city famous for tolerance and progressive ideas, and with a large bicycle trail and shared road network developed since the 1980's, the addition of a bike-only commuter lane along a major north-south thoroughfare broke the proverbial camels back. Outraged that several millions of tax dollars raised through a new motor vehicle license fee were being spent on cyclists who didn't pay them, and that two lanes would be restricted of cars spurred one talk radio host to declare the situation was a “War on the Car”.
Almost overnight the rate of near misses and collisions between bicycles and cars shot up. People cursed one another, coffee cups were thrown at cyclists and into open car windows in retaliation, and bicycle lanes became one of the hottest topics in the 2010 municipal election. The new mayor won, in part on the promise to get rid of bike lanes and cancel future cycling infrastructure. Nine years later, a more bike-friendly council is in place and has resumed expanding the cycling network, but safety problems remain.
Just the Facts
The situation in Toronto is illustrative because of all the data that exists regarding the effects of inconsistent policies and lack of clarity. Despite having developed cycling infrastructure comparable to other major, bike-friendly North American metropolitan areas, it has one of the highest fatal accident rates.
According to one report by the Pembina Institute published in 2015 some of the blame falls on the inconsistency of the bike lane designs. Motorists are not clear about where they can and cannot share lanes because signage and road markings change. Police are unlikely to ticket motorists who drive or park in bike lanes.
University of British Columbia professor Kay Teschke studies urban cycling. “If a city has a consistent treatment of where cyclists ride, everyone understands better what's going on” she says. Her studies have also corroborated what Holland has known for decades, that physically separating bikes and cars with a median or other physical obstacle dramatically reduces bike-car collisions. Since 2017, Toronto has built separated bike lanes and data shows that it only added four minutes of drive time to motorists.
Toronto's struggle is not unique. Bicycles separated from an SUV by a painted line, one that's travelling three times as fast and weighs an order of magnitude more, is a recipe for disaster. Studies the world over show that reductions in road speed result not only in safer city streets but smoother flowing traffic.
Unfortunately fact-based policy making is not as much fun or memorable as shouting and Twitter wars by enraged road users. Cyclists are not free from blame either, with an equally vocal population of rabble-rousers. The sudden arrival into the same travel space of ultra lightweight vehicles like Bird's electric scooter and hoverboards complicate things further. Clearly not safe for crowded sidewalks many get used on bike paths and lanes, where they encounter the same speed and weight differential versus bikes that bikes suffer with cars.
For more than a hundred years bicycles have coexisted with road traffic, to varying degrees of success. In most developed countries bikes have been written into law and had their place defined. In Canada, a bicycle and e-bike are “road vehicles” according to the Highway Traffic Act, which means they belong alongside cars, trucks and motorcycles. As for elderly mobility scooters, hoverboards and the million of in-between forms of personal mobility it remains unclear.
The role of bike manufacturers, electric or otherwise, is to build legally compliant machines and to educate our customers and fans alike about safe biking. The power-assited cycle, as the e-bike is legally named, is here to stay and it can ride faster longer than most people can pedal naturally. This is, in our view, a safety feature lacking in classic bicycles: the ability to escape danger by accelerating away.
Resistance to e-bikes continues, but the way forward is to use facts, and build legally compliant electric bikes and mopeds that give everyone confidence. The non-biking community most of all.