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Counterpoint: Bike share will help make Philadelphia better, just give it time (guest column)

Cities with the highest bicycling rates had the lowest traffic fatality rates. It’s just that simple.

Have you heard the one about the failed bike share program? It goes something like this: Bike share comes to city. Everything gets ruined.

It’s a common trope and appears on blogs and in newspapers around the launch of local bike share programs around the U.S. And the same is true here in Philadelphia. Before (and shortly after) Indego, Philadelphia’s new bike share system, debuted last week, some commentators had already declared it a failure. They said the bikes were too expensive, biking takes longer than walking (yes, seriously), Philly’s streets are too small, and what about helmets?

But then there’s the reality. Bike share actually means one thing: More bikes. And that means more cyclists, safer commuters and better streets.

More Bikes = More Safety

Before New York City’s program came about in 2013, critics fear-mongered about everything from cyclists not being required to wear helmets to the crashes, deaths, and inevitable crippling lawsuits that’d bankrupt the city. Rutgers urban planning professor John Pucher offered a much-publicized drunken-barfight-swing of a prediction, noting the number of bicycle deaths in that city could triple, and the New York Post followed it up with the headline: “Citi Bike ‘heading’ for a fall.

The results after a year? A New York Post writer’s worst nightmare: Nothing happened. There were zero Citi Bike deaths and just 100 reported crashes after 8.7 million rides. Pucher later publicly regretted his prediction.

Thing is, for all the middle fingers cyclists get and “Get off the road”s cyclists hear, they are doing motorists a favor. People on bicycles make streets safer. Case in point: After the buffered bike lanes were installed on Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City Philadelphia, traffic crashes on those streets took a 26 percent dive.  Researchers have published findings that for streets where bicycle usage doubled, the crash risk for each individual declined by one-third.

When more people use street-visible alternatives to motor vehicles, drivers are forced to adapt and inevitably slow down. This, in turn, makes sure that there are less crashes and, when crashes do occur, the slower motor vehicle speed means the cyclist or pedestrian on the receiving end of a steel hood and glass windshield is less likely to die.

But don’t take my word for it. The Alliance for Biking and Walking analyzed data from the 52 largest U.S. cities in 2014, combining original research with government data sources to come to some fascinating truths about biking and walking in the 21st Century. Among the conclusions: “Bike and walk fatalities tend to happen in crashes with vehicles, and drivers are more likely to operate carefully and safely around walkers and bikers when they’re used to seeing people walking and biking.”

Cities with the highest bicycling rates, like Portland, Oregon, had the lowest traffic fatality rates. It’s just that simple.

More Bikes = More Bike Infrastructure

Typically, cities have given more attention to bicycle infrastructure after bike share, likely because they’re worried about more bicyclists—perhaps tourists especially—hitting the streets on two wheels.

Now, correlation doesn’t always imply causation. But sometimes it does. As the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reported in its Safer Streets report last fall, Philadelphia added 36.2 miles of bike lanes between 2008 and 2013. Meanwhile, Boston (a bike share city since 2011) added 81. Chicago (a bike share city since 2013) added 72, including 17.7 miles of protected lanes. And New York (a bike share city since 2013) laid down 175.4 miles.

Boston, a city with small streets, similar to Philadelphia’s, is now in the process of adding 75 miles of new bike lanes, and expanding bike share. Since London’s Santander bike share was unveiled, the number of bike lanes there has skyrocketed, and ridership is at an all-time high. That city even recently approved a cyclist superhighway plan for its increasing ridership. And while there are many factors at play here, including bike share, we’re already seeing a similar push in Philly.

Mayor Michael Nutter recently proposed nearly $5 million in additional funds for the Streets Department for the next fiscal year. When Streets gets funded, they have a better opportunity to cut into the current 900-mile backlog of streets needing to be repaved. When roads get repaved, they’re safer, less prone to pot holes and, perhaps most importantly, new bike lanes can get installed.

During City Council public testimony last week, at which the Bicycle Coalition handed over more than 220 signatures and citizens’ stories asking for more Streets funds, several council members expressed their interest in both giving more cash to the Streets Department and eventually installing physically-protected bike lanes in Philadelphia. “Protected bike lanes are a great way to go for the future,” Councilman Mark Squilla said in response to the Bicycle Coalition’s testimony.

These are ideas that Philadelphia’s government has not been open to in the past. Activism has created a situation where more bike infrastructure is inevitable. But bike share may be the factor that brings Philadelphia to the next level as it pertains to street infrastructure. Which is important, because…

More Bike Infrastructure = More Bicyclists

When you have lots of bicyclists and the means to accommodate them, it inevitably leads to even more bicyclists. According to a new study released by Breakaway Research Group for People For Bikes, a majority of Americans who want to bike more are afraid of getting hit by a car or truck.

That’s understandable. But Breakaway’s study also found that 46 percent of adults would be more likely to ride bicycles if they were physically protected from cars—and more than half of those surveyed consider bicycling a convenient mode of transportation.

Another study, conducted by students at Hunter College in New York City, found that 70 percent of Citi Bike riders use New York’s new physically protected bike lanes on its wide crosstown avenues, compared to 50 percent of all bicyclists. And if Philadelphia manages to follow its peer cities over its bike share evolution and expand its system to all neighborhoods, we can expect more than just tired tropes. Rather, prepare for more bikes, bicyclists, pavement, and a better Philadelphia.

Randy LoBasso is the communications director for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

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