Ride Your Bike In Traffic and Live Longer

Summary: Your life expectancy is higher if you get in traffic on a bike instead of in a car.  Biking alongside cars might seem dangerous – and this misconception may deter potential cyclists or lead them to risky behavior like riding on the sidewalk – but the health benefits greatly exceed the dangers of crashes and other risks.

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Last week, The Ann (an Ann Arbor magazine) showcased a story by a local NPR station about bikes and cars co-existing on the road.  The Ann added their own more-provocative title: “Who owns the road: drivers or cyclists?”

Their framing succeeded in drumming up conflict-oriented comments from readers.  Reading the comments, I was struck by two things:

  1. Many readers perceive biking to be more dangerous than driving.
  2. Several suggested that bikes are safer on the sidewalks.

These are common misconceptions that have been disproven.  If anything, these myths themselves are the danger, as they keep people off their bikes, shortening their lives.  After reviewing scientific studies and expert guidance, I replied to The Ann, summarizing my reaction to these fearful comments:

​The reader responses regarding cycling safety reveal a troubling ignorance of the facts (a hallmark of comment sections everywhere). While riding on the sidewalk may feel safer, it is in fact much more dangerous than riding a bicycle on the road. And while driving may feel safer than biking alongside cars, the health benefits of commuting by bicycle outweigh the health risks (read through to the “Discussion” section to see that the findings apply even outside of bike-oriented countries).

There are many reasons to bike – reducing pollution, eliminating traffic, the sheer joy of it – but reader comments focused mostly on safety. Fear of cycling is real, even if the risk is not, and this perception matters. To get more bikes on the road, Ann Arbor must make its infrastructure welcoming to cyclists of all stripes (this would help close the biking gender gap). But even now, it’s safer to bike than to drive. Individuals should look at the facts and then decide if they are willing to accept the risk to their health … of leaving their bike at home.

I was reminded to publish my letter by an article in this morning’s New York Times about the possible risks to cyclists of fine particulate air pollution.  The second-to-last sentence reminds American cyclists not to fixate on these perceived risks, because:
Studies conducted in European cities like Barcelona and London with roughly comparable pollution levels [to New York City] have shown that, even factoring in the risk from traffic accidents, people who bicycle statistically improve their health over all and extend their lives.
My plea to you:
  1. Ride your bike.
  2. Ride it where you’re safest: the road.
  3. Explain to others why biking is less risky than driving and why it’s dangerous to ride on the sidewalk.
  4. Demand better bike infrastructure to coax more people out of cars and onto bikes.

I’ll close with a selection of reader comments published by The Ann:

I don’t bike anymore around Ann Arbor, it’s too dangerous. I only use bike trails now. Very disappointing because I hate driving my car to town, parking, paying for parking.

This is one reason I use a combination of roads and sidewalks [when biking]; roads where there is a clear bike lane and the road isn’t very busy, and sidewalks otherwise… At least to me, the idea of treating non-motorized vehicles as though they are regular traffic is ineffective and dangerous.

I and my middle-aged son find cyclists next to us in the road a serious worry. It looks dangerous to both of us. … I don’t ride a bike at present; if I did, I would feel a lot safer on the sidewalks than in our crowded streets.

Co-locating bikes and cars has always seemed like a bad idea to me for many practical and physical reasons. … Co-locating bikes and pedestrians would produce a safer and probably more efficient outcome for all.

The first one is particularly sad.  Someone hates to drive, and wants to bike, but they drive their car because they mistakenly think it’s safer.  When it comes to normalizing cycling and educating people about actual risks, Ann Arbor has work to do.

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