The Myth of the Demon Biker

When cyclists crash into pedestrians, the media coverage is extensive. I looked into how common the problem really is.

(Photo by Scott Heins)

By Peter Tuckel

Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists which suggests that collisions between cyclists and pedestrians are a common occurrence. The media is filled with stories about pedestrians being hit or nearly hit by cyclists. Headlines from the New York Post — “NYC bicyclists are killing pedestrians and the city won’t stop it” — or ABC — “Number of pedestrians hurt, killed by cyclists going up” — typify this type of story. And these stories elicit widespread attention. As former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan aptly put it, “A pedestrian killed by a cyclist is guaranteed front-page news status for days on end, while a pedestrian killed by a car rarely registers.”

It’s certainly true that there are many cyclists who run afoul of the law. My own students at Hunter College, City University of New York, have studied law-breaking cyclists who run red lights, ride the wrong way, ride on sidewalks, or use electronic devices which distract them while riding. Their numbers are not insignificant.

Yet despite all this media attention and rule-breaking based on observational analysis, little systematic study has been carried out on the actual incidence of pedestrian injuries caused by collisions with cyclists. How serious a problem is this? Has the rate of pedestrians injured by collisions with cyclists gone up or down as cycling has grown more popular in recent years? Who is the most vulnerable group of pedestrians to be injured in these types of collisions? These are the questions I sought to answer by examining emergency room hospital records of pedestrians injured in collisions with cyclists in the United States as a whole, and in New York City and State.

The Decline in Pedestrian Injuries Due to Collisions with Cyclists

Cycling has been growing in popularity particularly in large urban areas. In New York City, for example, the number of daily cycling trips jumped 134 percent between 2007 to 2017. As a result, we might expect that the number of pedestrians who suffered an injury due to a collision with a cyclist would also trend upwards. Yet the data at the national level and for New York State and City do not coincide with this expectation. For the country as a whole, the rate of emergency room visits (per 100,000) first increased between 2006 to 2007 but then underwent a noticeable decline from 2008 to 2016. Between 2008 to 2014, the rate decreased from 2.6 to 2.0. The rate dropped even further to 0.85 in 2016 but this could be partly attributed to a change in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) coding from version 9 to version 10.

Importantly, the corresponding rates for New York State and New York City also exhibited a sharp decline in recent years. For New York State the rate fell from 4.27 to 3.36 between 2008 to 2014 (before the change in the coding scheme) and then continued to spiral downwards in the period from 2015 to 2018 from 2.31 to 0.77. For New York City, the rate declined from 7.57 to 7.14 in the years from 2008 to 2014 and then from 6.29 to 5.29 in the time span from 2015 to 2018.

Noteworthy too is the change over time in the incidence of pedestrian injuries related to collisions with cyclists by age group. For pedestrians aged 1–17, the percentage share of the rate of injuries drops markedly during the time frame from 2005 to 2016. Oppositely, for pedestrians aged 45 and over the rate veers increasingly upwards during this same interval of time.

A man walks across a New York City crosswalk, having to cut between multiple cars blocking his path.
While the rates of cyclist-pedestrian collisions have declined, vehicle-cyclist and vehicle-pedestrian collision rates have shot up. (Photo by Scott Heins)

Reasons for the Decline in Cyclist-Pedestrian Collision Injuries

There are several explanations why, despite the upsurge in bike ridership, pedestrian injuries owing to collisions with cyclists have been declining. One explanation centers on the changing lifestyle of children. Historically, children (particularly those aged six to 14) have been the most likely individuals to suffer an injury by colliding with a cyclist. Yet, as noted above, their injury rate has plummeted in the last decade or so. This is probably because children today are much less physically active and are leading more sedentary lives than in prior years. Instead of playing outdoors, they are staying indoors — using the internet, playing video games, spending time on social media. This decrease represents the continuation of a long-term trend. In 1969, almost one-half of children in the age group 5–14 (48 percent) walked or biked to school. By 2009, the comparable figure was 13 percent.

Besides a reduction in the level of physical activity by school-aged children, improvements in the biking infrastructure provide another explanation for the diminishing number of injuries caused by pedestrian-cyclist collisions. These improvements include the installation of both protected and unprotected bike lanes and bikeways in many cities throughout the United States. New York City offers a prominent example of these improvements. It now boasts a network of approximately 1,200 miles of bike lanes, more than double the figure from 2006. What is important to note is that improvements in infrastructure not only promote safer cycling but also enhance the safety of pedestrians. Research carried out in several major cities has found that protected bike lanes increase the safety of all road users — including pedestrians.

Why the Media Pays So Much Attention to Pedestrian-Cyclist Collisions

Despite the substantial decline in the number of pedestrians injured in collisions with cyclists in recent years and the fact that these are only a small fraction of all on-street collisions, pedestrian-cyclist collisions attract a great deal of media attention. This is especially odd since the number of pedestrians killed or injured by motorized vehicles far outstrips the number injured by cyclists. According to a 2018 article in the New York Times, the number of pedestrians killed or injured by cyclists in New York City was “dwarfed by the 107 pedestrians who were killed in motor vehicle crashes last year [2017] and the more than 10,500 other pedestrians who were injured.”

First, it should be stated that these injuries constitute a legitimate public safety concern. While the total number of these injuries pales in comparison to the total caused by motor vehicles, the number is still significant. In New York City alone in 2018 (the latest year for which data are available), there were 443 pedestrians treated in an ER for an injury stemming from a collision with a cyclist. This number cannot be dismissed as trivial.

One possible reason the media showers attention on pedestrian-cyclist collisions may reside in the nature of the interactions between pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians, particularly those who share multi-use pathways with cyclists, may have an exaggerated fear of cyclists because they are more “stealthy” than cars or trucks. Because they make little or no noise, cyclists are often undetected by pedestrians before they suddenly appear and alarm pedestrians. From an everyday, experiential point of view, then, the pedestrian-cyclist interaction is a more intimate one (and potentially a more frightening one) than the pedestrian-motorist interaction.

Another reason why so much media attention is given to pedestrian-cyclist collisions may lie in the conflict between cyclists and motorists. Cyclists are thought of as posing a serious challenge to the dominant position of motorists in the urban landscape. Lanes are now being taken away from cars and trucks and being converted into bike lanes; so too are hard-to-find parking spaces. Needless to say, this has provoked a bitter response on the part of some drivers, who up until recently have viewed themselves as the sole and rightful proprietors of street space. In the battle between cars and bikes, those who champion the position of motorists thus have highlighted the reckless behavior of cyclists as imperiling the safety of pedestrians. The injuries suffered by pedestrians via collisions with cyclists have given motorists a weapon to counteract the growing influence of cyclists.

Whatever the reason for the extensive media coverage, the good news is that the number of pedestrians injured in collisions with cyclists has been and continues to decline. Hopefully, with the continuing expansion of protected bike lanes and the increasing awareness on the part of cyclists of the importance of adhering to traffic rules, this number will decline even further.

Peter Tuckel is a Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York. His research centers on issues affecting pedestrian safety.

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