It’s been a bad week for transportation firsts. Just after news emerged of the first death of a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot, the Chicago Tribune reported the death of a 25 year old cyclist who appears to be the first ever killed in the U.S. while using a bike-sharing service. The crash occurred Friday morning, when the cyclist and a flatbed truck collided during a turn while headed the same direction in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, just west of Wrigley Field.
Bike sharing has become a huge success in the so-called sharing economy, though it’s rarely discussed in those terms. Pioneered in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the concept truly exploded worldwide once electronic payment and tracking systems made it easier to prevent bike theft and vandalism. The first program arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2007, and both city programs and servicing companies have proliferated across the U.S. since. Since 2007, systems from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. have provided millions of trips.
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But, as of an April 2016 report by the Mineta Transportation Institute, none of those trips had resulted in a fatality. In fact, the study reached the surprising broader conclusion that share bikes were involved in non-fatal crashes at a lower rate than privately-owned bicycles.
The Mineta report argued share bikes are safer because they’re more likely to have safety features including bright lights, and are generally heavier and slower than privately owned bikes. A 2003 study also argued that cities with higher levels of bicycling, which is encouraged by bike sharing, become more bike friendly, increasing overall cyclist safety—the so-called ‘safety in numbers’ thesis.
Still, bike sharing is no guarantee of safety. At the time of the Mineta study, there had already been two fatalities involving shared bikes in Canada, and one in Mexico. And cycling is still more dangerous than it should be in most U.S. cities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just released preliminary data about traffic fatalities in 2015—and a disproportionate number of those fatalities involve pedestrians and cyclists.
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Most advocates for so-called multimodal transportation—the mix of cars, bikes, and public transit needed to make growing cities efficient—say that the key to keeping cyclists safe is smarter street design. Based on the limited available information about this sad Chicago crash, it sounds like it might have been prevented by a protected bike lane, one of cycling advocates’ favorite ideas.