“I’d like to bike, but…” says the woman in front of me, a Toronto Councilwoman, at a recent forum.
This is a phrase I hear all the time in my work creating bicycle-friendly communities. “But I’m afraid to…”
“My friend’s 25-year old kid got killed last year,” she explains, adding that it was his fault because he didn’t stop at a signal.
What can I say in response? I hear you, but don’t be afraid? Fear is the cornerstone of the negaholic media, invading every corner of our lives. Telling her to not be afraid is like telling her not to breathe.
What if I told her that cities like Copenhagen, Vancouver, Portland, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have all found that as bicycling and walking trips rise, crash rates fall dramatically? Or that bicycle transportation is actually quite safe relative to other activities? A recent Oregon study found that if we commute by bike to work six miles (approx. 10 km) a day, we’ll experience a minor mishap once every four years. Not bad, especially when compared to other injury inducing activities, like sports, cooking (burns, sliced fingers), and encountering dangerous dogs. In other words, people living physically active lives suffer injuries, with bicycle commuting no worse an activity than anything else. And, of course, the health benefits far outweigh the risks.
“But the roads are unsafe,” says the Councilwoman.
Sure, if your main method of transportation is the car, then naturally you envision that bicycling means sharing space on the roads on which you currently drive. Doubtful that these have bike lanes. Even if they do, those bike lanes might look pretty scary if you haven’t regularly used them. This is why we are working to create networks of low-stress bikeways, either by separating cyclists from motorists on major roads, developing off-road paths, or reducing the speed differential between motorists and cyclists on shared spaces. Watch this 7-minute Streetsfilm video about Portland’s new neighborhood greenways, and feel your safety concerns dissipate like the sun beaming on the school-bound bike “train.”
But the fear, oh the fear, poured and pounded into us, so hard to overcome. When that Oregon bike commute study was released, the media seized on it as proof that cycling is dangerous, in part because the medical researchers naively used the emotion-laden word ‘trauma’ to describe all the injuries, from scraped knees to broken bones. Adding to the fun, a legislator took a nonsensical leap of logic by trying to ban the transportation of small children by bicycle. (Apparently, the fact that a leading cause of death in children is car crashes did not enter into his thinking.)
We all experience scary stuff when we drive or bike. The question is, do we share these stories with our friends and colleagues? “You cannot believe what I saw today! A motorist cut me off!” Or “I almost hit this bicyclist. No helmet! No lights!” Each of these little missives spreads the fear and anxiety. Try this instead: take a deep breath and let it go.
Somehow, we have to overcome the fear about bicycling as a dangerous activity, because that fear suppresses bike use. Yes, there will be causalities. Some will get injured, and it will be tragic and unfair. We can never bring back the lives that are lost, nor can we heal the pain of those injured. But we simply cannot let fear prevent us from taking advantage of the suite of health, environmental, livability, safety, and economic benefits available to us when we use our hearts, legs, and lungs for transportation.