Facilities for walking and biking can increase safety, but intersections still lag

Parking protected bike lane at night

By Michael Brenneis

The circumstances that it takes to change the direction of a transportation agency can sometimes be extraordinary. The death of a well-known cyclist in Phoenix, Arizona, persuaded the city DOT to scrap changes it had proposed for an essential local street, in favor of protected bike lanes.

As one local news outlet reported, the death of a cyclist and downtown ambassador in central Phoenix galvanized supporters to call for protected bike lanes in the area of the crash. The Phoenix Street Transportation Department moved away from installing lanes shared by drivers and bicyclists, to painted, buffered bicycle lanes, and, on some blocks, fully protected bike lanes.

As the advocates in this situation recognized, infrastructure designed to facilitate safe biking can have important effects on safety (and, therefore, on people’s willingness to use it). The same goes for walking. A new study conducted in Florida finds that the absence of sidewalks leads to an increase in the number of pedestrians hit while walking along the roadway. On roads with no sidewalk, drivers are around 1.7 times more likely to hit pedestrians. Crashes per mile are three times more likely when there is no sidewalk. Other important factors include traffic volume, the number of people living within a half-mile radius of a crash site, and certain road characteristics. Not surprisingly four- to six-lane divided arterials increase the risk.

Neither the protected bike lane example from Phoenix, nor the pedestrian crash study referenced above addresses safety in intersections—another critical gap on many roads. The Florida study focuses expressly on road segments, leaving intersections for later study. The cyclist whose death prompted the protected bike lane was hit in an intersection, according to the news report, illustrating the importance of including intersections in a holistic safety approach.

In 2019 the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) published a toolkit for designing protected intersections in its “Don’t Give Up at the Intersection” guide. Some U.S. cities—Davis, CASalt Lake City, UT, and Austin, TX, among them—have built a small number of protected intersections, with others tracked by People for Bikes in this spreadsheet. Even with increasing advocacy and the NACTO guidance, protected intersections have been slow to catch on in the U.S.

Photo credit: Erica Fischer on Flickr, unmodified. License.