This year has been marked by a series of tragic cyclist deaths in the Triangle Area caused by motorists texting, talking on cell phones, intoxicated or driving aggressively to intimidate cyclists or even forc e them off the road. Even if they are not driving illegally, most motorists are not trained to carefully pass cyclists and yield to them (and pedestrians) when turning at intersections. Cyclists riding on the road are at the mercy of motorists, whose lack of attention for even a second can cost cyclists their lives. The mounting toll of cyclist fatalities and serious injuries here in the Triangle should be a wake-up call to county and town planners about the urgent need to improve cycling safety.
In over 20 years of academic research on the topic of cycling safety, I have documented the extraordinarily hazardous cycling conditions here in the United States compared to Europe. As I wrote in the the lead editorial of this December’s issue of the American Journal of Public Health, rates of cyclist fatalities (per mile cycled) are 4 to 5 times higher in the U.S. than in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. Similarly, rates of serious cyclist injuries (again, per mile cycled) are much higher in the U.S. than in Western Europe.
Why is cycling in the U.S. so dangerous, while it is so safe in Western Europe? The answer is contained in the title of my AJPH editorial: “Safer Cycling through Improved Infrastructure.” Dutch, Danish, and German cities have extensive, well-connected networks of separate cycling facilities. Some bike paths are completely off-road, such as Raleigh’s greenways, or off-road but directly parallel to major roads. In addition, these European cities have on-road facilities such as the bike lanes on a few of Raleigh’s streets, but protected from motor vehicles by diagonally striped buffer zones or by dividers such as raised curbs, posts, planters, or concrete barriers. At intersections there are special provisions to protect cyclists from turning motor vehicles: advance stop lines (in front of cars) and advance green lights for cyclists, combined with turn restrictions for motor vehicles.
Over 95 percent of cyclist fatalities in the U.S., and over half of all serious injuries result from collisions with motor vehicles. Thus, it is crucial to provide cyclists with separation from cars, trucks, and buses, especially on busy roads such as Six Forks, Falls of Neuse, Glenwood, New Bern, Hillsborough and Western Boulevard in Raleigh.
There are some good examples here in the U.S. for Raleigh to follow. Indeed, my AJPH editorial lists ten10 large American cities (including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington) that tripled or quadrupled the mileage of their separate cycling facilities between 2000 and 2015, leading to 50 to 80 percent reductions in rates of cyclist fatalities and serious injuries and huge increases in cycling levels, more than tripling in most of the cities. Unfortunately, the 10 cities I list in my AJPH editorial are exceptions – explaining why cycling in most American cities, including the Triangle, remains so dangerous.
What should Raleigh and other towns in the Triangle Area be doing to improve cycling safety and raise cycling levels? The Triangle’s current greenway system is excellent and should be expanded, but it is used mostly for recreation, sports, or exercise and not to reach daily destinations.
For the past few years, the city has begun installing bike lanes on the sides of roads: e .g. on Spring Forest Road, Hillsborough Street, Gorman Street, Lassiter Mill Road, and North Hills Drive. Yet, I rarely see anyone cycling on them, and those I do see are mainly young men – no children, no seniors, and very few women. The reason is that a stripe on the road offers no protection from motor vehicles, not even physical separation by a buffer zone, let alone raised curbs or concrete barriers. With the worsening epidemic of distracted driving, cyclists become more and more vulnerable to mistakes made by motorists not paying attention.
Even large cities here in the South – such as Richmond, Charlotte, Charleston, Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, Miami and New Orleans – have recently started building the very sorts of protected cycling facilities needed here in Raleigh. No need for Raleigh planners to travel to Europe to see how to make cycling safer.
With cities throughout the country now installing protected bike facilities, Raleigh needs to follow their good example. Indeed, the Raleigh transportation department’s draft Six Forks Corridor Plan presented to City Council in February 2016 proposed precisely the kind of protected cycling facilities necessary. That was 11 months ago, and the council still has not adopted this superb plan for Six Forks, which desperately needs an overhaul to accommodate the booming growth of the North Hills/midtown area. Complete redesign of this crucial corridor is necessary for all users: motorists, new bus rapid transit service, pedestrians, and cyclists as well.
Raleigh’s mayor and city council need to take action now. Six Forks Road is already gridlocked in congestion during most of the day, and it will only get worse as further development occurs in midtown.
It will take years to build the needed network of protected on-road cycling facilities. Meanwhile, the Triangle Area should continue to expand and improve the best cycling, walking, and running facilities it has: its state-of-the-art, nationally-renowned greenways, which would serve as the ideal backbone to connect the new on-road facilities.
John Pucher is Professor Emeritus in the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, currently retired and living in Raleigh.