Lead with the helmet

Aug. 11, 2016

Research shows wearing the right equipment is first and foremost when bikesharing

In recent years, economic, environmental and social forces have pushed bikesharing from a fringe innovation pioneered by several innovative Canadian and American cities to a mobility system now found within many major cities across North America.

Today, it continues its expansion to new regions and growth in ridership. As a result, its role in urban mobility has become a frequent point of discussion.

It’s nice to share

Bikesharing systems offer access to a shared network of bicycles deployed on public streets. Present-day systems use information technology to manage user interactions, and to manage the fleet of bicycles. Bikesharing systems can be station-based, in which users access bicycles at kiosks with automatic locks, or free-floating, in which self-locking bicycles are accessed within a geo-fenced area. Bikesharing generally permits point-to-point travel, providing users with flexibility to use the service as a first-mile/last-mile connection or as its own means from origin to destination. Previous research has found that bikesharing both substitutes and complements other forms of transportation. Furthermore, the nature of substitution in part depends on the urban environment in which bikesharing is deployed. In dense, transit-rich urban environments, such as Washington, D.C., Montreal or Toronto, bikesharing tends to serve more as a substitute for public transit than as a complement (though it also fills this role). In many cases, travel by bikesharing is simply faster and cheaper than traveling by bus or metro rail. But in urban regions with less intensive transit, such as in Minneapolis or Salt Lake City (cities with a few light-rail lines), bikesharing serves as more of a complement than a substitute, providing better access and egress to existing public rail and even bus service.

While bikesharing has had a transformative impact on mobility patterns, there are natural reasons why there may be safety concerns associated with it. For one, previous research has found that bikesharing users do not wear helmets as frequently as the general population. Furthermore, a fair share of bikesharing users are considered “casual” in that they are not members of a system, and may be accessing the bicycle for one-time use. Casual users are often tourists, who may be unfamiliar with the area and may not be regular users of a bicycle. These collective risk factors are more unique to bikesharing than regular bicycling.

Yet, despite these risk factors, bikesharing in the U.S., a country perhaps behind the curve on bicycle safety statistics relative to leading European peers, has enjoyed a remarkable safety record. Until recently, bikesharing across the entire U.S. had experienced zero fatalities over eight years of operation, a phenomenal achievement in a country that has recorded between 600 to 800 deaths among bicyclists every year for all of the 21st century thus far. But tragically, this exceptional record came to an end on July 1, 2016, when a young woman in Chicago, wearing a helmet, died on a bikesharing bicycle during a collision with a flatbed truck making a right turn at an urban intersection. The tragic loss of life serves as a stark reminder of the dangers that bicyclists face every day on the open road and that bikesharing has its own risk and exposure.

Research has shown that bikesharing users do not wear helmets as frequently as the general bicycling population.

Making it safe

A study published by San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute in Spring 2016 looked at bikesharing safety through focus groups, expert interviews and an analysis of bicycle and bikesharing-collision data.

In this study, researchers examined bikesharing safety from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives to better understand what influences bikesharing safety and what could be learned from data regarding safety relative to regular bicycling. The study also explored whether bikesharing contributed to any perceptible “safety in numbers” effect. This is a hypothesized impact in which an increased presence of bicyclists reduces bicycle collisions.

The research team conducted data analysis of bicycle and bikesharing activity, as well as bicycle and bikesharing collisions, to evaluate injury rates associated with bikesharing when compared with known benchmarks of personal bicycling. To evaluate these questions, there was a focus on data analysis for three bikesharing regions: Washington, D.C., Minneapolis-St. Paul and the San Francisco Bay Area.

One of the most important metrics in bicycle safety is that of vehicle-involved collisions. These collisions receive special attention in bicycle safety data for some fairly obvious reasons. Collisions with vehicles are generally the most dangerous for bicyclists; they also are more systematically recorded. It is important to recognize that even prior to the recent fatality in Chicago, bikesharing bicycles have been involved in collisions that resulted in serious injuries. The study looked at the rate of those vehicle-involved collisions as compared to similar rates that had been previously computed as benchmarks for personal bicycling in the U.S. and British Columbia. Analysis of this data showed that the rates of vehicle-involved collisions for the bikesharing systems studied were lower than benchmarks computed for personal bicycling.

Put simply, collisions involving bikesharing users within the systems studied seem to occur less frequently than the benchmark rates for personal bicycling in the U.S. and Canada. While this does not imply that bikesharing users are more protected from collisions, it does suggest that, for one or more reasons, the likelihood of being involved in a collision (particularly one with a motor vehicle) has been lower for bikesharing users than for those riding a personally owned bicycle.

The underlying reasons for this result are not entirely clear, but the qualitative efforts of the research offered some insightful clues and possible theories. Focus groups evaluated perceptions of bikesharing safety among bikesharing users and nonusers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Additionally, the study interviewed experts across the U.S. to collect perspectives on bikesharing and safety. Experts and focus group participants separately indicated that bikesharing user behavior and bikesharing bicycle design may contribute to giving bikesharing a better safety record than personal bicycling.

Bicycles used for bikesharing are generally designed in ways that promote stability and limit speeds, mitigating key conditions that have contributed to collisions. In addition, bikesharing bicycles are more visible and recognizable. Many bikesharing bicycles light up at night and are painted in bright colors. Seasoned bicyclists regularly use attached lights for nighttime riding, and for bikesharing this comes standard for all users. It also was noted that bikesharing bicyclists may be inherently more cautious when riding a bicycle with which they are less familiar. The demographics of bikesharing users also could play a role. Surveys of bikesharing users consistently suggest that, relative to the general population, bikesharing users are generally younger and more educated.

Despite these results, bikesharing would continue to benefit from many of the safety measures and infrastructure improvements built for the safety of all bicyclists. Furthermore, bikesharing users would also benefit from greater helmet usage. Previous research shows very clearly that helmets reduce fatalities and serious injuries. Aggregate data supports this conclusion as well. From 2010 through 2014, there were a total of 3,498 recorded bicycle fatalities, among which 2,241 (64%) did not use a helmet; moreover, within those individual years, this proportion ranged from 60% to 69%.

Just like a seatbelt, helmets do not prevent collisions from occurring, nor do they always prevent serious injury or death. But they do increase the odds that severe injuries will be mitigated in the event of a serious collision. Increased use of helmets in this environment would unequivocally improve bikesharing safety.

In the investigation of a possible “safety in numbers” benefit, our research found no statistically significant evidence that the presence of other bikesharing users reduced bicycle collisions in the general population. Bikesharing, with its abundant and precise activity data, offers ample opportunity for the further study of this possibility. It is possible that the scale of bikesharing is not yet large enough to impose an appreciable effect on the safety of other bicyclists, and that future analysis may find such an effect. It also is possible that “safety in numbers” is a theory with reasonable logical underpinnings, but is ultimately not a fundamental contributor to bicycle safety. 

Through its growth across the country, bikesharing has enhanced urban mobility and facilitated travel that is low emission and contributes to a more active lifestyle. These qualities have their own public health benefits that motivate continued interest in bikesharing. At the same time, bikesharing is a mode that directly exposes users to the traditional dangers of bicycling. Our research shows that bikesharing has been able to deliver its benefits with vehicle collision rates that are lower than conventional bicycling. But such rates and statistics are irrelevant to those who experience the loss of a loved one. It is therefore critical that consideration of safety remains a continued focus, both within the operations of bikesharing systems and the broader provision of infrastructure.

About The Author: Martin is an assistant research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, Transportation Sustainability Research Center. Cohen is a research associate.