With warmer, dryer weather here, that means more people will be getting out on their bikes. Whether it’s commuting to work, cycling for fitness, or going for easy-going evening rides with your kids, biking is one of those feel-good, fresh-air physical activities that burns calories, improves health, and contributes to a greener planet.
And depending on where you live, it’s safer in some places than others. While comprehensive, uniform data comparing cycling safety in cities across the country is lacking, a few studies have looked at some of Canada’s best biking spots. Perhaps not surprisingly, West Coast cities consistently come out on top.
The country’s least bike-friendly cities appear to be St. John’s, Moncton, Charlottetown, Montreal, Ottawa, and Edmonton.
St. John’s ranked lowest on the Bike Score, which was created by UBC’s Cycling in Cities Research Program in partnership with the Seattle-based company that developed Walk Score. It’s calculated by taking into account factors such as cycling infrastructure (separated bike lanes and bike paths and painted bike lanes), topography (hilliness), and road connectivity.
In 2011, lane markings in St. John’s were painted at a cost of $3 million, in the first phase of a 20-year bike plan for the city. However, at least two city councillors have just announced that they think the bicycle lanes have been a big mistake.
Moncton and Charlottetown were the next worst-scoring cities. Moncton cyclists have complained in the past of the city bike lanes being littered with garbage, glass, and gravel, making them dangerous to ride on.
Of the 10 cities included in the Bike Score, Victoria and Vancouver had the highest average scores. Montreal came in next, followed by Saskatoon, Calgary, and Halifax.
Toronto ranked right in the middle. Another, earlier study, which was commissioned by the city itself, found that Toronto had the highest number of accidents involving cyclists in 2010 with 1,145 incidents.
According to Share the Road Cycling Coalition, Toronto’s relative lack of bike routes has been cited as one of the reasons the city has accident rates 3.5 times greater than Ottawa. The coalition also notes that other jurisdictions allow far less on-street car parking than Toronto, leaving less room for cyclists to safely share the road with vehicle traffic. “This may in part explain why Toronto has the highest rate of “Door Prizes” (a crash where a motorist in a parked car opens a door in front of an oncoming bike) of any jurisdiction studied,” the coalition says.
Montreal, meanwhile, had the highest number of annual cycling fatalities (3.7) when compared to other communities across Canada between 2007 and 2012, according to the City of Vancouver’s Cycling Safety Study final report issued this past January.
The report looked at Vancouver in comparison to Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Montreal, as well as several U.S. and international cities.
Ottawa had the next highest number of fatalities (2.7) followed by Edmonton (2.0).
Vancouver had the lowest number of annual cycling fatalities, with an average of 0.7. Winnipeg and Calgary had the next lowest (tied at 1.0).
So what are the greatest hazards on the road for cyclists?
The Cycling Safety Study looked at some of the key cycling-safety issues. The top five hazards are:
1. Doorings If you’ve ever parked your car then opened your door without looking, had a cyclist been going by, you could have easily hit him. Doorings were the most common type of reported cycling collision between 2007 and 2012 in the City of Vancouver, representing approximately 15.2 percent of all reported cycling collisions.
2. Conflict zones Mid-block conflict zones such as driveways, parking lots, and alleyways accounted for approximately 10.7 percent of all reported cycling collisions. As cyclists were proceeding straight ahead, motor vehicles were identified as failing to yield when they were pulling in or out of these locations.
3. Right hooks Collisions involving right turning vehicles, also known as right hooks, accounted for approximately 12.6 percent of all reported cycling collisions; most occurred in the downtown core, many at signalized intersections when the cyclist was crossing with the signal.
4. Left crosses These are collisions involving left-turning vehicles at intersections. Seventy-seven percent of left cross collisions occurred while the bicycle user and motorist were travelling in opposing directions on the same street.
5. Sidewalk cycling Sidewalk cycling can create visibility challenges with drivers who may not be expecting them at intersections or conflict zones. Most sidewalk cycling incidents resulted in two types of collisions: mid-block collisions as the motor vehicle was entering or exiting a driveway or alleyway, and intersection collisions where the motor vehicle was turning right.
Other contributing factors to collisions were two-way stops; crashes between cyclists and pedestrians, road infrastructure, or debris; streets without designated bikeways; adverse weather and low light; and “PM peak”. Reported cycling collisions were most common between 4 and 7 p.m.
What can you do to stay safe on your bike?
“Planning your route along the safest route types is the best strategy to maximize safety,” says Kay Teschke, UBC professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.
Safest route types include separated bike lanes alongside major streets, quiet residential streets, off-street bike-only paths, and bike lanes on major streets, according to the Cycling in Cities Research Program’s Safety Evidence for Bicycling report.
The least safe route types, by contrast, are highways, major streets, sidewalks, and multi-use paths.
Personal protective equipment and safety gear are vital. Cyclist visibility is increased with lights, and reflectors. During the day, choose bright colours: yellow, orange, red, and white. Helmets can reduce the severity of head injuries in a crash, according to Safety Evidence for Bicycling.
There is solid evidence to support the “safety in numbers” saying too.
Research suggests that as levels of cycling increase, cycling injury and fatality rates per-trip and per-kilometre travelled decrease substantially, according to the Cycling Safety Study. The phenomenon has been documented in California, Australia, and Europe.
There are a few possible explanations for the “safety in numbers” phenomenon.
“In locations with few bicycle users, drivers will be less accustomed to check for cyclists on the road at common conflict times such as turning, parking, or passing,” the Cycling Safety Study notes. “Another consideration is that where cycling rates are high, it is more likely that drivers also use bicycles for transportation at times, and are better able to predict the movements of bicycle users. Additionally, where there are more bicycle users, there is more justification for increased resources for bicycle facilities and safer design.”