4 Keys to Improving Safety for Urban Bikers & Pedestrians

by Mar 11, 2019Governance, Mobility

Sara Zimmerman

Sara Zimmerman (she/her) is the Program and Policy Director for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

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If only there were a secret way to lose weight, improve health, save money, and save the planet – all at the same time and without fitting an additional thing into your day. Amazing news!  There is!  It’s called active transportation – in other words, walking and biking. Using this product, city leaders have the ability to create cities and towns that are vibrant, sustainable, healthy, and equitable. But to reap the benefits of active transportation for your community, we need to rethink notions about safety for people biking and walking.

For years, we’ve taken a two-pronged approach to people walking and biking: either (1) ignore people walking and biking and their needs altogether, on the theory that they comprise such a small and wacky percentage of traffic that they do not merit serious attention; or (2) warn, ticket, shame, and blame people if they don’t stay out of the way of cars and trucks as they walk and bike. Meanwhile, our walking and biking rates plummeted, the daring souls who have continued walking and biking have experienced disproportionate injuries and deaths, and an outsized proportion of those injuries and deaths are occurring to children, old people, low-income people, and people of color.

There is a better way. We know how to create streets and communities where people can safely walk and bike to get to their destinations. It costs less than building streets for cars, saves us money on healthcare and lost productivity, and is a crucial way to improve air quality and reduce climate change emissions.

So, what are the key steps in improving safety for people walking and biking in cities and towns? First, we need to implement the core building blocks that we know work for safety. Second, we need to get more people walking and biking. Third, we need to be smart about enforcement. And fourth, we need to ensure that technological changes happening in the transportation arena put walking and biking first.

The core building blocks for safe walking and biking are very simple:

1. We need to slow cars down; create separated places for people walking and biking; and build walking, biking, and transit networks, not just isolated pieces of sidewalk or bike lane.

Why do these building blocks matter?

At least a third of traffic fatalities involve speeding vehicles.

When cars are moving at a reasonable neighborhood speed – say 20 to 25 miles per hour, or slower – drivers have time to react to someone in the street by hitting the brakes, there is time for the car to slow, and there is less likelihood of doing serious damage in the event they make impact. Controlling speed doesn’t mean creeping along with your foot on the brake as you go about your busy day. Instead, it means designing so that the street encourages us to drive at a safe and steady speed. Narrower lanes, trees and bushes on the side, sidewalks, and clearly marked or separated bicycle lanes – all of these work together to encourage us to drive at a safer speed.

Research proves that people are safer when there are sidewalks and bike lanes.

Particularly for those who are less confident, like children or newer bicyclists, people on bikes are far safer and more comfortable when they aren’t sharing the same space with two-ton motor vehicles. We need separated places to walk and bike on our roads. As a mom who regularly bikes around with very competent and yet frequently distracted six-year old, I can tell you that creating safe places for walking and biking requires that we build in safety margins. We can’t expect people to walk or bike by choice if a slight swerve or instant of inattention results in death.

We need to build networks for walking, biking, and public transit, so that people can safely get all the way from their origin to their destination.

For many people, the deciding factor in whether to walk or bike isn’t whether there is one really awesome stretch of bike lane or sidewalk on the trip – instead, it is the least safe link in their journey. If we want families, kids, and normal, death-averse people to bike and walk, we need to think about how to design crossings so that people can safely and conveniently get from any area of town to any other.


2. Get more people walking and biking.

A critical mass of people walking and biking generates cultural changes that increase safety. In many of our cities today, drivers have little awareness that people may be biking or walking on the streets. After collisions, drivers frequently protest, “They came out of nowhere – I didn’t even see them!”  In truth, if your mind is only attuned to vehicles going at roughly your speed, you won’t notice people walking or biking until it is too late. In contrast, if you become accustomed to seeing people walking and biking all the time, you’ll start to anticipate their presence and drive in ways that safely share the road with them. Many drivers dislike pedestrians and bicyclists, viewing them as annoying inconveniences who don’t belong on the road. But as more drivers find themselves with friends, coworkers, or family members who walk and bike, there is a change in attitude. This creates a positive feedback loop that occurs as more people walk and bike – it becomes more normal, people are more likely to give it a try, it becomes safer, that encourages even more people to try.

In addition to the cultural changes and infrastructure improvements described above, programs that encourage biking and walking have been shown to produce measurable results.

Habit is the biggest predictor of how we travel. We don’t independently weigh the pros and cons of different travel modes when we get up in the morning. Instead, we usually just do what we do, unless something breaks us out of our routine. That’s why Bike to Work Day, workplace challenges, Safe Routes to School events, and the like can make a difference, encouraging people to give walking and biking a try. Studies show that Safe Routes to School street improvements are most effective in increasing biking and walking to school when they are combined with encouragement programs. In addition, we need to think about the invisible ways that we currently incentivize people to drive, and swap in incentives for walking, biking, and transit. Free parking at work is a great example of a hidden driving subsidy, and can be replaced with commuter incentives to bike or take transit.

Finally, messaging campaigns can change perspectives and habits – but the messages themselves are important!  We need to show walking, biking, and transit as normal, fun, natural ways to get around, not as dangerous and outlandish activities. That’s why experts recommend showing people walking and biking who are of different races, ages, abilities, and body types, wearing normal clothing, and without an overemphasis on safety gear (fond as we are of our helmets!).


3. Be smart about enforcement.

All too often, people’s knee jerk response to walking and biking injuries and fatalities is to demand more traffic enforcement. But we need to be sure that our enforcement decisions don’t put additional burdens on people of color and low-income people, and don’t discourage the very walking and biking behavior we are trying to support.

People of color are already disproportionately stopped and ticketed by law enforcement, and are at a heightened risk of police violence due to both implicit and explicit bias. It’s not making the streets safer if we increase inequity and danger on the streets. Studies show that, like driving while black, unjustified traffic stops frequently occur to those walking and biking while black. Moreover, because traffic tickets are rarely calibrated for income in the United States, enforcement tends to be devastating for low income people, who may have to choose between rent and a fine, while mounting late fees can lead to the revocation of a drivers’ license and loss of employment; in contrast, tickets may have little deterrent effect on upper income people.

In addition, there’s reason to question whether more emphasis on enforcement by police does any favors for walking and biking. For many, more enforcement is focused on the idea that ticketing jaywalkers or bikes who ease through stop signs is a great way to discourage behavior that contributes to collisions. But all too often, we are penalizing people for responding naturally to our biking and walking unfriendly streets. Jaywalking may avoid an extra quarter mile walk to the nearest crossing and back; bikes often slow without stopping at intersections because bikes can easily and safely yield without coming to a complete stop.

Instead of ticketing people for biking and walking in normal ways that pose little danger to anyone, we need to look carefully at what data show us about which traffic violations are dangerous, rather than technical violations. This is true not just for people walking and biking, but for driving as well. Many kinds of traffic violations pose little danger and are extraordinarily unlikely to result in a collision. By using data, we can focus on dangerous behavior, and discourage stops for violations that aren’t dangerous.


4. Ensure that changes in transportation put walking, biking, and equity first.

As city leaders are increasingly recognizing, we are on the precipice of an utter transformation of our transportation landscape. Our present is increasingly characterized by the stuff of science fiction – autonomous vehicles, the sharing transportation ecosystem, and the internet of things. If we leave these changes to develop at the whim of industry, we may well see sleek, modernistic roads devoid of life, where autonomous vehicles whiz at top speed on specialized infrastructure, low-income people have even fewer transportation options, and our health and our planet suffer. But with leadership from the public sector, we can use strong regulation at the local and state level to establish access, equity, and safety for people walking and biking as guiding principles as the future unfolds.

Taking these steps can yield enormous increases in safety for walking and biking. We need to combine political will with data, policy, and planning. That means that we need to collect and evaluate data on where people are currently biking and walking, where they are getting injured or hurt, what factors are contributing to those collisions, and which groups are affected. We need to use policies to change how we build and renovate our roads – such as equity-focused Complete Streets policies, which require that when we build or rebuild a road, we ensure the safety and comfort of every different way of getting around on the road and help us prioritize the parts of town that are under invested and where serious injuries tend to occur. We need to use Vision Zero plans to figure out how to steadily reduce transportation deaths until they reach zero. We can use comprehensive plans, zoning and subdivision codes, and bicycle and pedestrian plans to figure out how to sequence our investments in a sensible and doable way, starting with cheap and easy steps like repainting the lanes on roads to create space for bikes and slow cars, while we seek money for larger and more comprehensive projects down the road. And we need to keep doing research to figure out what is working well, who is being left out of safety improvements, and where we need to improve our approaches so that everyone’s safety and health benefits.

We know how to make our streets safe for walking and biking – we just need to do it.


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  1. Sara, thank you for this piece. What we see over and over again is a failure of the transit community to acknowledge the critical role bikers, in particular, have in obeying traffic rules and laws and the role of enforcement of those rules and laws to provide a well-functioning system. There is often an immediate assumption that in an accident between a bike and a car that the car was at fault. What about the biker who was traveling the wrong way up a one-way street, running a red light, not signaling, not staying in their lane? It does not seem abundantly clear to anyone what rules bikers are supposed to be obeying and so some choose to obey their own rules. This creates uncertainty in a system and that uncertainty leads to accidents and fatalities.

  2. Sarah, good job highlighting some necessary conditions for safety. However I believe they are not sufficient. Here is my bit:

    The main purpose of transportation planning is the efficient and safe circulation of people and goods. Moreover, urban space is limited; expanding the road width is almost impossible except at a very high cost.

    Widening of sidewalks and creating bike lanes are being done by thinning the traffic lanes thus increasing the possibility of collision among wider vehicles (buses, trucks, etc.). Furthermore, bike lanes are being created on busy and heavy trucking routes. All this is being done under the umbrella of complete streets. When these conditions are added to the unruly behaviour of some drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, safety is very much compromised. This is a major misunderstanding.

    The above described conditions are conducive to less safe circulation conditions, not more. I think planners must give more thought as to: (1) where and where not to build wider sidewalks and bike lanes; (2) how to strengthen enforcement on all players; and (3) how to educate decision makers on this subject who often are the moving force behind such demands.

  3. Sara – thank you for this article.

    Building on from your points about the benefits of ‘Get more people walking and biking’:

    1) ‘Safety in Numbers’ – this report has some good evidence of this:


    i.e. “London has seen a 91% increase in cycling since 2000 and a 33% fall in cycle casualties”

    2) The other benefit of getting more people cycling, in terms of how this improves safety, is that it creates more grassroots demand for better infrastructure and more ‘political will’ to build it. This can then form part of a self-reinforcing cycle – with infrastructure improvements, more people feel comfortable riding, more people ride, more demand and political will, more infrastructure, more people feel comfotable riding, etc, etc.

    The key thing is to make sure that cities have in place effective encouragement programs to encourage more people to use the infrastructure you have already or have just finished building. This is where we help cities the most with our behavior change program – Love to Ride.

  4. Good article, but there is one thing that seems to be missing in the dialogue to improve active transportation and cycling safety…and that is pedestrian safety and ensuring we are not impeding on pedestrian space to accommodate cyclists (exceptions exist of course) and not putting pedestrians of all ages (including UA requirements) at risk.

    This is beginning to erode as Planners and Engineers are SO focused on cyclists, they forget pedestrians..or just assume peds are not part of the problem therefore not part of the solution. The human experience, at a pedestrian scale, is often left aside particulairly in the urban setting.

    I’m specifically concerned about the new trend at intersections, where bikepaths or lanes are being diverted though the pedestrian space at the corner, rather than have the cyclists follow the curb. Often this is done with asphalt flush with the sidewalk which is very confusing for pedestrians, and gives the right of way to cyclists in a space occupied by peds.

    There may be places where this can work, if there is lots of space and segregation of peds and cyclists is well designed, but in city core areas, there is often not enough space.

    I wish this issue would be discussed more, and that the needs of pedestrians be better factored into the whole discussions particularly when standards/guidelines are being established. Engineers use these standards/guidelines anywhere without necessarily assessing appropriateness.

  5. I like that you said that if we want more people to choose walking or biking to work it’s important to create crossings that can help people be safer when traveling that way. My husband and I have always loved biking to work, but we have been driving more and more because we feel like riding on the road is not always very safe. I think that it would be smart to make sure that more lights were near crosswalks and other things like that so that cars could better see bikers and pedestrians and that point of contact could be safer.


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