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August 2, 2022Episode 38. Safety in Numbers? As bicycle use grows more popular, crash numbers carry mixed messages.
FEATURING: Bahar Dadashova, Joan Hudson
Along with the growing popularity of bicycling comes an increased need for safety. But while the number of bicycle crash injuries dropped during 2020, that was not the case for bicycle crash fatalities. TTI researchers Bahar Dadashova and Joan Hudson take a close look at that pattern, and what can be done about it.
About Our Guests
Associate Research Scientist
Dr. Dadashova is an interdisciplinary research scientist and data analyst at TTI. Her research focuses on transportation data analytics, where she uses analytical and statistical tools to evaluate various impacts of transportation on environment, public health and equity. She has been involved in bicycle mobility and safety research related projects for TxDOT, USDOT, FHWA and NCHRP. She is the current co-chair of the Transportation Research Board's Bicycle Research Subcommittee, where she has led and coordinated the development of NCHRP projects on bicycle and pedestrian data collection, mobility and safety.
Joan Hudson is a research engineer at TTI, where she has worked for more than two decades. Her focus areas are in pedestrian, bicycle and transit safety, planning and operation. She is a graduate of both Texas A&M University and The University of Texas, where she earned a bachelor's of science and master's of science in civil engineering. She and her family enjoy being active in the outdoors, and she especially loves walking or bicycling for transportation and recreation.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:18):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. 2020 was an especially deadly year for bicyclists. Although the number of bicycle crash injuries dropped during the pandemic, that was not the case for bicycle crash fatalities. Experts say that’s due to the greater number of speed-related collisions that happened during the same time. In this episode of Thinking Transportation, we’ll focus on that trend and what can be done about it with the help of Bahar Dadashova and Joan Hudson — TTI researchers who specialize, in part, on bicycle safety. I just wanted to start by saying, Joan and Bahar, thank you both for making time to help us make this conversation happen.
Joan Hudson (guest) (01:18):
Bahar Dadashova (guest) (01:19):
Thank you for the invitation.
Bernie Fette (01:21):
I know you both focus much of your research attention on bicycle safety. So maybe we could start with you describing crash trends. Generally speaking, what they’ve looked like in recent years, and if you could, I’m wondering specifically about how things looked before COVID 19, during, and after, and whether there were any notable changes in those periods specifically related to that pandemic period.
Joan Hudson (01:49):
We did look at the statewide crash data just recently. And so I thought I would share some of the findings from that.
Bernie Fette (01:57):
Joan Hudson (01:58):
The overall bicycle injuries during COVID dropped. But the fatalities is where we saw an increase.In this study in 2020, we found a drop in crashes. Overall, these are injury crashes involving bicyclists, but when we looked at fatalities, that is where we saw a new high in 2020. So the number of fatalities increased and we think that’s mostly related to the speed-related crashes that were significantly increased during 2020.
Bernie Fette (02:40):
I’m curious whether that increase in speed-related crashes had anything to do with there being simply more space on the roadways and people felt that they could drive faster, or is that a little too speculative?
Joan Hudson (02:52):
I think some of that is true. Yes. There was less motor vehicles. The VMT, the vehicle miles traveled was reduced during that time and enabled, you know, a faster speed.
Bahar Dadashova (03:03):
I concur generally with what Joan was saying. And, um, like in the past, when we’re working on the Texas, uh, Department of Transportation project on development of bicycle crash modification factors, we were looking at the annual trends and basically we were going back 10 years and we could see that the crashes were increasing overall. And in 2020 there was a little drop, but that drop was significantly smaller than like we were looking at vehicle crashes. So even though there was a drop still, it was not as much as we have expected to see because there were not so many vehicles on the road. So that was sort of an interesting observation that although the crashes or generally had been decreasing, but in 2020, that decrease didn’t really apply to bicyclist crashes. We haven’t really had the chance to explore 2021, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more bicyclists, some pedestrian crashes on the road post 2020.
Bernie Fette (04:08):
But staying on that time period for just a little bit longer, I wanted to ask you both about the street closing programs that were encouraged. Streets were closed off so that there could be more outdoor bike riding, walking during that time. And it seems that it would be wise, I mean, on the surface, those sounded like great ideas and that it might be wise for cities to continue those programs in the future, but you guys are the experts on whether programs like that should be sustained or modified. So what’s your general view on programs like that as countermeasures?
Joan Hudson (04:46):
My view is that it may be appropriate for a location to have part of the roadway set aside for people walking and bicycling. It all depends on the situation, the context of the roadway, you know, how many people are currently walking and bicycling and what the existing facility is like. There was a program in Austin, the Healthy Streets Program, that did do several road closures around the city. And they seemed to be very successful during COVID times. And once the pandemic-related traffic kind of started to return, they reevaluated their program and it seemed some roadways, they put back to the way it was before and others, they made a more permanent situation. And so that’s one city I point to, as you know, going through the process of thinking about, well, is this something that we wanna maintain or is it something that, you know, we need to reconsider and put it back the way it was.
Bernie Fette (05:46):
And so a big part of the answer there on whether or not they should be continued is, it depends.
Joan Hudson (05:52):
Bahar Dadashova (05:54):
And I know in El Paso, they also had a, a similar program where they had made some closures cuz as you know, like during COVID we observed increase in bicyclists and pedestrian, especially in El Paso, they were observing up to 300 percent increase in bicycle usage. So to curb that demand, they started all this roadway closures and adding new lanes for only active transportation use and we’re still working on it. So we start a project trying to specifically address that issue and we try to conduct the survey. I know it cuts a little late <laugh>, but hopefully we’ll have some findings after that survey. I think it’s good to keep those policies in place, but it would also be helpful to design those spaces, following certain guidelines, like bicycle lanes or separated bicycle lanes. We’ve seen that usually without those type of countermeasures do help to reduce traffic crashes.
Bernie Fette (06:54):
Can you both talk a little bit about the relative effectiveness of those countermeasures? Bahar, I know you were talking just now about the infrastructure itself, dedicated lanes and such. How do you evaluate and how do you make decisions or recommend decisions on countermeasures that have to do with changing the infrastructure, uh, instigating dedicated bike lanes and such versus other forms of countermeasures?
Bahar Dadashova (07:25):
So we, we just completed the Texas DOT project on that topic. Actually Joan was one of our team members. And so we were trying to evaluate the safety effectiveness of different types of bike lanes that have been installed on Texas roadways and our data and results clearly showed that there was very significant safety benefits of those facilities. So having a dedicated lane for bicyclists is potentially decrease traffic crashes, especially fatal and injury crashes, by almost 40 percent.
Bernie Fette (07:58):
By almost 40 percent?
Bahar Dadashova (07:59):
Mm-hmm. Yes, that was our finding. Like when we’re looking at different types of designs, of course certain designs are a lot more effective than others, especially the ones that are clearly separating the traffic from bicycles, like separated bike lanes or buffered bike lanes where we have certain space between the bicyclist and the vehicles. So they were reducing crashes a lot more. But when we look at the overall picture, that was our finding.
Joan Hudson (08:30):
And thinking about that gets helpful to talk about the speed, the posted speed limit of the roadway and how the higher the speed limit, the more important the separation is between the motor vehicle operators and the bicyclist to have that buffer area for reasons of safety, but also comfort for users of that shared use path, for example.
Bernie Fette (08:54):
Just so that the users of that path would have a higher confidence level that they really are in a more secure space?
Joan Hudson (09:00):
Bahar Dadashova (09:01):
Yeah. And that’s why we see a lot more usage on those type of facilities. We went out and started collecting data and, and we saw that those types of facilities where we had the clear separation from traffic, there were a lot more bike users on the road, which means they feel safer and they perceive those types of facilities safer and more comfortable. So obviously we see a lot more increase and I think that also reinforces the notion of safety in numbers, which refers to when there are more vulnerable users on the street, then there are less crashes because even drivers, vehicle drivers will be paying attention. They will be lowering their speed. So we’ll see that type of decrease in, uh, in crashes and increase in safety.
Bernie Fette (09:53):
If I understand what you’re saying, there’s a demonstrated connection between the number of say bicyclists in a bicycle lane. If there’s a group riding together, they’re more conspicuous, more noticeable and there’s a corresponding reduction in crashes in situations like that.
Bahar Dadashova (10:14):
Yes, that has been demonstrated in Europe, mostly. So in the U.S., we don’t see as many studies, but when we look at our study, indirectly implies that the more bicyclists we see on the road, less crashes we’re going to observe.
Joan Hudson (10:29):
Yeah, we saw that in Portland too, when we looked at some of their information as well, there crashes compared to the bicycle counts, the crashes went down the higher the counts.
Bernie Fette (10:41):
Classic example of safety in numbers. Right?
Joan Hudson (10:44):
Bahar Dadashova (10:44):
Joan Hudson (10:45):
And one thing about the shared use path that Bahar kind of talked about is what happens at the intersections. When you have those intersections where the shared use path crosses the roadway, either at a 90-degree angle, or maybe as a side path, they’re crossing more of the minor street. It’s important to, I guess, make sure that we’re protecting the bicyclist as much as possible and giving the communities that are designing these, the tools that they need to make the safest design for bicyclists.
Bernie Fette (11:23):
Joan, you mentioned something a little while ago about the speed limits, which raises the question for me about countermeasures in the form of traffic laws.
Joan Hudson (11:34):
So in Texas, the Lisa Tory Smith act was passed in 2021, which focuses on the charges that happen. If a motor vehicle operator strikes a vulnerable road user on a crosswalk. So if that road user, a bicyclist or pedestrian or scooter rider for that matter, is legally in the crosswalk and the motorist hits that person. There are stiffer penalties for that. That just went into effect last September.
Bernie Fette (12:09):
Yeah. So there will be some time before we know about what sort of effect that’s had,
Joan Hudson (12:14):
Right. There is a case in Houston where someone was recently struck and killed. They were on a bicycle and it looks like that law that was currently in place means that that person may be given a felony charge as opposed to a misdemeanor.
Bernie Fette (12:33):
How big would that rate in terms of changes in traffic laws for vulnerable road users in Texas? Has that been one of the bigger changes you’ve seen over the years?
Joan Hudson (12:44):
Yes, that has been one of the bigger changes. Remarkably, there was another law that was passed as well. The law in Texas has always been to yield at the crosswalk. Well, now it requires stop and yield, which is what many states around the U.S. have, a stop and yield law. And now Texas is one of those states. It has a stop and yield. So that was another remarkable change that happened.
Bernie Fette (13:13):
So before that law was changed, a driver of a motor vehicle could simply roll through. It could slow down a bit and look around and be in compliance with the law.
Joan Hudson (13:25):
Bernie Fette (13:26):
Okay. Are there things happening in other states that you have noticed have had a positive effect?
Joan Hudson (13:36):
Although I haven’t looked at the crash data in other states, I have noted that there are a couple of laws that come to mind that might be positively impacting safety. And those are a statewide safe passing law that would require three feet passing distance between a passenger car and a vulnerable road user, such as a bicyclist. The other law is a hands-free law that would, I think, improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. We see that in crashes quite a bit, the contributing factor that we see according to the officer who responds to that crash is driver inattention.
Bernie Fette (14:21):
And when you say you’ve talked to law enforcement people about these crashes, you’re speaking specifically in this case about crashes between motor vehicles and bicyclists, correct?
Joan Hudson (14:30):
Bernie Fette (14:30):
Joan Hudson (14:33):
So driver inattention is one of the top contributing factors, if not the top.
Bernie Fette (14:38):
And they’re tying driver inattention to cell phone use.
Joan Hudson (14:41):
Bernie Fette (14:42):
We’ve talked about infrastructure, we’ve talked about traffic laws. I’m wondering how much of our goals for improvement depend largely on the thinking and behavior of people who are on the road, driving cars and trucks. How do we address things from a cultural standpoint for the benefit of bicyclists and pedestrians?
Bahar Dadashova (15:04):
Yeah. I think drivers relating to bicyclists or pedestrians is probably something that’s not happening enough here in Texas. I remember when I came here and I didn’t have a driving license, so I obviously had to walk or bike. And I think that really has impacted the way I drive whenever I’m driving. I always look for basically so pedestrian, even at night, I think that link is somehow broken. So a lot of people don’t get to experience being a pedestrian or bicyclist on the road. So, and that kind of can affect the driver’s behavior towards vulnerable users.
Joan Hudson (15:42):
Yeah. That’s a great point, Bahar. When you’re out walking and biking, you get to experience what it’s like. If someone is either driving fast or you’re at a traffic signal trying to cross, and they don’t seem to see you and they’re entering the crosswalk turning left or right. And you’re like, wait, look at me. It gives you a new perspective, I guess. And I think then when your role changes and you become the driver, you’re much more aware and take time to look and yield.
Bernie Fette (16:13):
So we can start by putting ourselves in their shoes is what I’m hearing.
Joan Hudson (16:18):
Yeah. That’s a good thing. I know in some cities, there seems to be a culture of you’re gonna get stopped by police. If you exceed the speed limit, for example, and those cities seem to have that culture of, okay, law enforcement is out and they’re gonna enforce the law. And over time, you know, a city may get a reputation of being either strict or enforcing a certain aspect of the law that drivers just like, oh, okay, now I know how I need to behave in this city or on this road. And so that culture starts to develop. It’d be nice if we could get to that point in Texas where we’re either through law enforcement or built environment can also make things basically self-enforcing.
Bahar Dadashova (17:04):
Yeah. And I agree with that point, for example, putting speed bumps on the road, I think that would be a big help, especially on local roads or designing the roadways in a way that the drivers automatically start lowering their speed or even adding bike-friendly or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure can also help the driver to realize that they’re not the only ones on that road that they have to share the road with other roadway users. Cause yeah, I think that there is that sort of entitlement that, you know, if I am the driver, the road is for me because that’s how we have been building the roads, right. It’s been mainly designed for drivers, but when we start adding elements for bicyclists or pedestrians, then the drivers will start realizing that they have to share the road. And they’re not the only users. Yeah. Those built environment elements can also help improve that safety or create that safety culture.
Bernie Fette (18:03):
Let’s talk just a little bit about other trends in biked transportation. What about bike share programs? Those have been around for quite a while too, but have you seen any changes in bike share programs? Whether or not they’re becoming more common or more people using them fewer?
Joan Hudson (18:21):
What I’m seeing at least I could speak to Austin. It seems like the bike share programs are offering electric bikes and that’s one area of research I think may be important is looking into the differences between electric bikes and non-electric bikes. As people purchase bikes, they’re able to go longer distances perhaps, or take more trips because it’s less tiring to use your electric bike to get places. The flip side of that is you can go faster on an electric bike. And so there’s, you know, some concerns with safety when you’re going faster.
Bahar Dadashova (19:03):
Yeah. I think bike share programs. We saw increase in the recent year, but yeah, one of the things we were looking at during COVID, it was also changes in bike share usage and we actually also, they decreased during COVID, but that could have been because of the pandemic in general, people were very careful not to share anything with others. So that might have been the reason or maybe because the tourism reduced because we know like bike share mostly used by temporary user. That’s something we observe during the pandemic, but looked at the data recent data to see how it changed. But I am assuming this year, like, especially with the increase in the gas prices, maybe a lot more people are using bike share program, special electric bikes. That’s what I see in social media that a lot of people starting to switch to electric bikes just to replace their vehicle for shorthand medium distance trips.
Bernie Fette (20:05):
Okay. I’m gonna ask you both to make a prediction here. The World Bank is forecasting that 70 percent of the planet’s population will live in cities in 2050. That’s compared to 55 percent of the population living in cities now. So what do you think that a big change like that would mean for bicycling? And I’m asking both from an operational standpoint as a mode choice, and also from a safety perspective.
Bahar Dadashova (20:38):
I think that will actually increase, uh, active transportation usage, especially bicycle. I mean, if you look at the large cities, let’s say, especially in Asia, we can see how they have a lot more active transportation users on the street. They’re also limiting vehicle usage. For example, in, I know like in China, there is a limit on vehicle use, so you cannot drive your car every day. Cars starting with certain number can drive on Monday and then on Tuesday. So I think that type of limitation may also eventually apply in the future as city populations start to increase. And that of course will affect the both active transport users and transit users. That’s my prediction that we’re going to see a lot more people trying to use classic modes of transport, like walking or biking. And that’s what I assume will happen.
Joan Hudson (21:34):
I think what’s important is the density of these cities I’m assuming will be quite dense and you’re able to get many places by using bus, bike, walking. I’m hoping so. It seems to open up a lot of opportunities for cities as they’re, you know, looking at, okay, what do we want our city to look like? And building infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit that is safe and comfortable, attractive, you know, has shade for hot climates. These are things that are really exciting to think about how — wow, what could our city look like? We have all of these people here and they need to get places and let’s make a place that’s really outstanding and we can be healthy and walk or bicycle with our family or our friends to places and on dates and such. So I think that’s really exciting to kind of think about the opportunities that exist there.
Bernie Fette (22:34):
Right. And in terms of mode choice, whenever you’ve got that kind of population growth in a dense area, like a city, you can only do so much when it comes to building infrastructure for cars and trucks.
Bahar Dadashova (22:49):
Joan Hudson (22:50):
Bernie Fette (22:52):
What, in your opinion, do you think are the highest priority research needs right now to the, to, uh, advance the cause of bike safety bike use?
Bahar Dadashova (23:04):
So I think one thing we discussed earlier, looking at the safety benefit of shared use path or trails is an important topic. Um, I mean both safety and I would say even health benefits because we know that this type of infrastructure in inducing demand. So there is a saying in planning that as we build more shared path or trails, we’ll see more people using those that will subsequent lead to healthy cities. And we wanna look at their safety effectiveness. And so I think that’s an important topic to address when it comes to safety. Also, another thing that’s been coming up in recent years is the equity questions related to vulnerable users because we see that safety concerns are mostly prevalent in low-income communities or minority communities. Those are the people who really depend on this, bicycling or walking, but because of the limitations of the built infrastructure, they are more exposed to traffic or the concerns from the traffic. So that’s one issue that we have to make sure that we address in the future. If we wanna build cities for all. And of course, people also with disability, they have to be able to use this type of infrastructure. So those are some important questions that need to be addressed in the future and look at the active transport and safe effectiveness.
Joan Hudson (24:36):
In addition to what Bahar said, I would also point to looking at how laws that exist in other states are working in terms of addressing safety for people walking and bicycling and consider those opportunities for Texas laws, such as safe passing law, handsfree laws, things like that that may be working in other states. And what can we learn from them? How can we take what they’ve learned and any improvements that they’ve seen in terms of safety for people walking and biking and how can we implement those things that are working in Texas?
Bernie Fette (25:19):
Last question for both of you, what is it that motivates you to do the work that you’re doing? Do I need to flip a coin on who goes first?
Bahar Dadashova (25:30):
I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. I mean, I enjoy the work I’m doing, but then when I select the research topic that I’m gonna work on, it’s usually something that I experience. And I think I’m in a better position to put myself in shoes of people who are experiencing something similar. Then I, I, I really enjoy to address types of research questions. Like for example, as I said, in, on bicycle or pedestrian research, I used to be that person that had to walk or bike all the time. Now, I think being able to do research, that’s addressing the real life situations. It’s very exciting knowing that the work you are doing is going to help someone, you know, improve someone’s life.
Bernie Fette (26:16):
What about you, Joan? What makes you excited to get to work every day?
Joan Hudson (26:20):
I think similar to what Bahar said, being a pedestrian myself, uh, I enjoy bicycling. These things, enable you to see things in a different way and see that there’s such a great need for more work to make walking and bicycling an option that more people consider, you know, kind of the go-to. Well, I need to go run an errand and you don’t automatically think I’m gonna drive there. Maybe you think, okay, maybe I could get there by walking or biking. And that would be attractive and safe and not too much time to take, to get there on my feet or using my bike. I see so many issues in the worldly concerns I have. If we were out using our bodies to get places, I see that addressing health has an impact on environment. Of course, congestion. There’s so many things that I see that are beneficial. If more people chose to walk and bike. And one of the main concerns you hear in surveys that are taken is the safety is one thing that keeps people from choosing that option. And so I think by getting to work and doing as much as I can to try and help in whatever way I can to address safety. I think that is the number one thing for me.
Bernie Fette (27:51):
Bahar Dadashova and Joan Hudson — bicycle safety experts at TTI and also avid bicyclists themselves. Thank you both for sharing your insights with us.
Bahar Dadashova (28:03):
Thank you for having.
Joan Hudson (28:04):
Thank you for having us.
Bernie Fette (28:08):
Some experts say that bicycle use represents the future of urban transportation. Whether it’s for routine mobility or just outdoor activity, bicycle use is growing, and along with that growing use comes an increased need for safety. Laws require motor vehicle drivers to yield to bicyclists when they’re turning and allowing plenty of room when passing them in traffic. At the same time, cyclists are required to obey all traffic signs and signals, including stopping at stop signs and traffic signals. And to use hand signals when turning or stopping. Motor vehicle drivers and bicyclists share the roadways, and they also share responsibility for doing so safely. Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again next time, for a conversation with Greg Winfree, agency director at TTI, and Pete Bigelow, a reporter for Automotive News and the host of Shift, A Podcast about Mobility. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.