News

Safe city biking: It can happen

6/20/12

Cycling can have enor­mous ben­e­fits both for our own health and the health of the envi­ron­ment. Urban areas are uniquely primed to allow com­muters to dras­ti­cally reduce their carbon foot­print by choosing to bike to work rather than drive or even use public trans­porta­tion. But in the United States, fewer than one per­cent of com­muters actu­ally choose this option.

“The number one reason that keeps people from riding a bike is traffic danger,” said Peter Furth, a Northeastern pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering in the Col­lege of Engi­neering. “There are other rea­sons like weather and having a bunch of kids to drive around, but the one thing we engi­neers can do some­thing about hap­pens to be the main reason.”

Furth, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Mineta Trans­porta­tion Insti­tute of San Jose State Uni­ver­sity, recently released a research report on the bike-​​related traffic safety of that city.

The researcher devel­oped a system for clas­si­fying streets by level of traffic stress and found that the mainstream pop­u­la­tion will only accept a mod­erate level of congestion.

“When you ask, ‘Where can that main­stream pop­u­la­tion ride a bike?’ and map it out, you’ll see you can’t get from here to there” without encoun­tering traffic stress, said Furth.

Maps showing only low-​​stress links reveal a large col­lec­tion of low-​​stress “islands” sep­a­rated from one another by bar­riers that can only be crossed using high-​​stress roads. Bar­riers include free­ways and wide arte­rial streets that lack safe crossings.

Cur­rently, roughly 5 per­cent of level two bike riders — those com­fort­able riding on streets with min­imal car traffic — can ride to work without slip­ping out­side their com­fort zone. “We could raise that to 12.5 percent with a modest set of improve­ments,” said Furth.

U.S. guide­lines for bikeway design place bicy­cles in the same cat­e­gory as motor­cy­cles, which means that bicy­clists could pedal in traffic along­side motorists. But Furth said this setup would make level two riders rather uncomfortable.

In 1997, Furth took a sab­bat­ical to Hol­land and had some­thing of a rev­e­la­tion. “It was like night and day,” he explained. “They went every­where on a bike, because it was safe to ride a bike everywhere.”

More than 25 per­cent of Dutch com­muters ride to work. And Holland’s bike-​​related death rate is eight times lower than that of the U.S. rate.

So what is Hol­land doing right? “Cycle tracks,” said Furth. Unlike tra­di­tional U.S. bike lanes or bike paths, these are phys­i­cally sep­a­rated from car traffic but still run along the road.

Furth hopes to per­form sim­ilar studies for other cities around the country, including Boston. He is part of the move­ment, he said, to “awaken Amer­i­cans — and espe­cially Amer­ican engi­neers — to the pos­si­bility of safe bicycling.”