Expert Commentary

Covering bicycling and bike infrastructure: New data and angles

2014 review of research on cycling and 10 ideas for reporting on your community, whether it has a well-established cycling culture or there’s a long road ahead.

Cycling has long been a part of everyday urban mobility in many European and Asian countries, but until recently in the United States, only a tiny fraction of commuters biked to work. However, as the U.S. Census Bureau noted in a May 2014 report, there has been substantial growth in bike commuting over the past decade: While about 488,000 persons commuted by bicycle in 2000, over the period 2008-2012 an estimated 786,000 persons commuted this way each year. This 60% increase over that period represents a “larger percentage increase than that of any other commuting mode,” the Census Bureau report notes.

The source of the shift lies in an interwoven series of societal and environmental issues: While cars were once seen as the future, they’re now often perceived as a problem, particularly for urban areas — they’re a significant contributor to climate change, the number-one source of traffic congestion and the direct and indirect cause of tens of thousands of deaths every year. At the same time, as the United States has shifted to a knowledge-based economy, cities have become centers of growth and having walkable, bikeable neighborhoods is now seen as an essential way to compete for talent. New technology has also made large-scale bike-share systems a reality for towns large and small, even as driving rates among young Americans fall.

Reporting on cycling and cycling-related issues in your community requires knowledge on a range of subjects, including health, safety, infrastructure and mobility in general. It’s essential for journalists to be able to balance anecdote and long-held beliefs with facts from nonpartisan, academic research.

Below are 10 issues and related studies that can help facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town, whether it has a well-established cycling culture or if there’s a long road ahead. This selection is just a starting point. If you have questions that aren’t answered or the story you’re investigating has a different angle, sources such as Google Scholar and PubMed offer a wealth of research.


1. Cycling trends

Local biking supporters and opponents can be quick with opinions on how many people bicycle in your area, how safe it is or isn’t and whether bike infrastructure should or shouldn’t be a municipal priority. But what does the research say? Two studies, one on large cities and the other on smaller municipalities, are worth reading in depth: “Analysis of Bicycling Trends and Policies in Large North American Cities: Lessons for New York” and “Factors Correlated with Bicycle Commuting: A Study in Six Small U.S. Cities.” Both give real numbers that can provide a solid foundation for reporting. Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists. This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.

2. Helmets and safety

U.S. authorities and advocacy organizations strongly encourage bike helmet use, yet they’re considerably rarer in Europe. They have been shown to reduce injury rates in accidents, but can there be unintended effects of laws that require their use? A 2013 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Effects of Bicycle Helmet Laws on Children’s Injuries,” looked at states with and without bicycle-helmet laws to better understand their consequences. The researchers found that laws requiring children to wear helmets when biking reduced injury rates, but also increased the rate for other wheeled sports, indicating a possible “substitution effect.” A 2012 study, “The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws,” indicates that helmet laws for adults can have unintended consequences: “In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact. In jurisdictions where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safe.” What are the laws in your community? What are residents’ attitudes about such regulations?

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling

The benefits of building regular exercise into your day are irrefutable: Increased vitality, reduced chance of major diseases and even longer life. But all physical activity, biking included, carries with it risks. So what are the trade-offs? A 2011 study in the British Medical Journal, “Health Risks and Benefits of Cycling in Urban Environments Compared with Car Use,” looked at the impacts of a major bike-share program in Barcelona, Spain. Compared with residents who drove, there was an annual increase of 0.16 deaths among those using the bike-sharing system, resulting from traffic accidents and air pollution. However, as a result of increased physical activity, 12.46 deaths were avoided annually, meaning that on average, the program helped prevent more than 12 deaths a year. Talk to policymakers and community members: Are they aware of the real numbers and the tradeoffs? How do they see the health-risk balance?

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists

While there are a number of completely separated bike paths in the United States, the majority of U.S. cyclists ride in street, and that means direct exposure to automotive pollution. What are the potential consequences of such exposure? A 2011 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, “Traffic-Related Air Pollution and Acute Changes in Heart Rate Variability and Respiratory Function in Urban Cyclists,” sought to examine the health effects experienced while cycling in traffic. It found that cyclists exhibited decreased heart-rate variability — associated with a higher risk of heart attacks — for up to three hours after extended exposure to automotive exhaust. When considering such questions, note that a 2011 study detected a dizzying range of hazardous chemicals in car interiors, including volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons and particulate matter. The researcher’s advice for drivers? “Window opening is an effective method for decreasing pollutant exposures on most urban roadways.”

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws

Cycling advocates argue that dedicated infrastructure is required to increase the rate and safety of cycling, even as opponents assert that the cost is too high and the benefits limited — particularly if it means adjusting the urban space dedicated to cars. A 2010 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, “Risk of Injury for Bicycling on Cycle Tracks Versus in the Street,” found that cycle tracks were used 2.5 times as much as shared lanes and that injury rates were 28% lower. A San Francisco Chronicle article indicates that even in cities with a strong cycling culture, bike-specific infrastructure can be patchy. These resources could be used when talking to residents in your city about bike infrastructure: How many miles of bike lanes do you have and what kind are they? What are people’s concerns? What are the ways to improve your town’s streets for all residents, in particular those who are most vulnerable?

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars

Because bicycles and automobiles share most roads, problems can arise, and some result in collisions. A 2010 study, “Identifying Risk Factors for On-road Commuter Cyclists,” equipped cyclists with helmet-mounted cameras to better understand car-bicycle interaction over a four-week period. The researches found that prior to any conflict, nearly 90% of the cyclists were traveling in a safe and legal manner. The most frequent event was caused by drivers suddenly changing lanes, and overall, drivers were at fault 87% of the time. Even when regulations are made to protect cyclists, enforcement can be lacking: A 2012 Johns Hopkins study determined that Baltimore’s law requiring cars to give cyclists three feet of space when passing is “routinely” ignored. The police and transportation departments in your city should keep statistics on collisions between cyclists and cars. How does their data square with the research? Have organizations in your community compiled their own statistics? As this 2013 Boston Globe article suggests, drivers are sometimes perceived to be immune from legal consequences. Is this an issue in your community?

7. Car-free events

Following on the lead of major cities around the U.S. and internationally, many towns have begun to implement car-free recreational events, sometimes called “ciclovias” after the pioneering program in Bogota, Columbia: Streets are closed off to cars for a day, and residents are free to walk, ride bikes or participate in exercise activities. But such events cost money to implement, and what are the real benefits? A 2011 study published in the Journal of Urban Health, “Do Health Benefits Outweigh the Costs of Mass Recreational Programs? An Economic Analysis of Four Ciclovía Programs,” looked at how such events stack up with the alternatives. Overall, the researchers found that the more often such events took place, the higher the health benefits and the lower the cost per capita.

8. Immigrants and cycling

New immigrants are a part of many U.S. communities, and the research has shown that they bring with them attitudes and habits from their home countries. A 2010 study in Transport Policy,“U.S. Immigrants and Bicycling: Two-wheeled in Autopia,” found evidence of a bicycling “immigrant effect”: New arrivals were 41 times more likely to choose cycling over driving compared with native-born Americans, but the likelihood was reduced by half in the first four years. Another study, “Exploring the Impacts of Safety Culture on Immigrants’ Vulnerability in Non-motorized Crashes,” determined that the percentage of recent immigrants in a neighborhood was related to rates of car-bicycle collisions: For each 1% increase in those born outside the United States, crashes increased nearly 6%. This effect decreased over time as immigrants picked up the local “safety culture.” What immigrant communities are present in your town? How much do they cycle, and what is their perception of how to do so safely?

9. Commuting by bike

While U.S. residents who commute to work by bicycle are in the minority, the numbers are growing. A 2009 study in Transport Reviews, “Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature,” investigates what factors influence how people commute to work. The researchers found that the built environment had a significant effect: While distance between home and work was the dominant factor, so were bike-specific infrastructure and the availability of parking and shower facilities at offices. What businesses in your city offer such amenities? Do they find that it contributes to increased rates of cycling to work? The previously mentioned 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report on commuting patterns also has useful data.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes

The vast majority of Americans who commute to work do so in an automobile, but aren’t always aware of the economic and societal costs. A 2010 report by the American Public Health Association, “Hidden Health Costs of Transportation,” finds that every year in the United States, traffic crashes cost $180 billion, while road congestion imposes $50 billion to $80 billion in costs. A roundup of recent research, “U.S. Residents, How They Commute and What It Costs,” provides additional insight. Talk to commuters about their paths to work. What would make them change to a healthier, cleaner and less expensive mode of transportation? What barriers do they perceive to change?

Another useful source for data when covering these issues is “Bicycling and Walking in the U.S.: 2012 Benchmarking Report,” a publication of the Alliance for Biking and Walking. The biennial report contains data on bicycling and walking in all 50 U.S. states and 51 of the largest cities. Among its most recent findings: Cyclists and pedestrians make up 12% of all trips in the U.S., yet they account for 14% of traffic fatalities and receive just 1.6% of federal transportation dollars.

Tags: bicycling, research roundup, infrastructure, bikeshare

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