Cities around the United States are seeking ways to make their streets more inviting and safer for bicyclists. With more people choosing this alternate form of transportation in crowded cities, these initiatives are welcomed by many cyclists. San Jose, which began its ambitious Better Bike Plan 2025 in late 2018, is one of the urban centers in California leading the efforts to prevent bike accidents.
But in a twist of fate, and a reminder of the work that remains to be done, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo was one of the first cyclists to be injured in a traffic accident in 2019. While riding on New Year’s Day, Mayor Liccardo was struck by a car, suffering multiple broken bones.
The mayor recovered from his accident, but others have been less fortunate. By July 2019, several more bicyclists had been killed in collisions in San Jose.
Many cities are struggling to reduce bicycle deaths, and the problem is not limited to California. New York City made headlines nationwide with a series of fatal bicycle accidents, including three in one week, that prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to call it an “emergency” situation. Within the first six months of 2019, the city saw a total of 15 fatal bike accidents, 50 percent more than were killed in all of 2018.
Mayor de Blasio has been aggressively combating bicycle accidents and other traffic-related deaths with his Vision Zero policy, a model which has influenced cities across the country. But despite the widespread effort in many metropolitan areas to become more bike friendly, critics worry that it isn’t enough.
New York City has installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes, and other more high-tech measures, all of which have failed to stem the tide of bike deaths.
New York’s Vision Zero policy has embraced technology, street revamps, and aggressive changes to existing laws in hopes of reducing, and ultimately eliminating traffic accidents and deaths. It considers traffic deaths not just as accidents, but as incidents that can be prevented by making changes to how the city functions.
By 2018, 1,240 miles of bike lanes have been installed throughout the city, including 480 miles of protected bike lines. City streets are being retrofitted to account for more bicyclists. Automated law enforcement measures, particularly speed cameras and other forms of traffic surveillance, have been greatly expanded. Where the law had previously limited the hours during which cameras operated, Mayor de Blasio signed legal revisions which significantly expanded the hours and numbers of speed cameras, particularly around school zones.
Similar programs have sprung up in major cities nationwide, but these efforts appear to have met with mixed success.
Five of the top twenty most dangerous cities to bicycle in are in California.
In 2016, the City of Sacramento approved a Bicycle Master Plan that would include a range of retrofits and new bike lane construction. This accompanies initiatives to encourage more people to take up this alternate mode of transportation, mirroring San Jose’s Better Bike Plan 2025 and Los Angeles’ Bicycle Program.
But despite such initiatives, a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration named Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose as five of America’s deadliest cities for bicyclists. California was second in the nation for all traffic fatalities in 2017, with 3,602 deaths. Of those deaths, 124, or 3.4 percent, were cyclists.
A key issue undermining efforts to make roads safer for bicyclists is that many of California’s roads are in poor condition. A 2018 report by non-profit transportation research group TRIP named multiple California cities as having some of the worst roads in the nation:
- #1: San Francisco-Oakland
- #2: San Jose
- #3: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
- #12: Sacramento
- #13 Riverside-San Bernardino
- #16 Fresno
The same report named 8 California cities in its top 20 list of mid-sized urban areas with the poorest road conditions in the country. Cities that made this list included Antioch, Concord, Oxnard, Santa Rosa, and Stockton. The report highlights a growing infrastructure issue that cities all over the United States are struggling to deal with.
Efforts to prevent bike accidents and improve general road safety have met with significant resistance and even protests in cities throughout the country.
When Los Angeles unveiled its Bicycle Program in 2010, and subsequently adopted its own Vision Zero Action Plan in 2017, it was met with anger from motorists. A city council member faced a threat for recall, and a wave of hostile social media campaigns attacked Vision Zero efforts around the country. The threatened political backlash caused the city to silently walk back on much of its plans. In some instances, planned retrofits and repairs to bike lanes and city streets has been stalled indefinitely.
The hostility in Los Angeles turned violent when a woman drove through a crowd of protesting cyclists at a memorial for bicyclist killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver was later arrested and charged with attempted murder, but she was representative of a larger group of motorists who felt that the measures being taken to accommodate bicycle lanes were disruptive at best.
New York bicyclists faced similar backlash in 2010, after Mayor Michael Bloomberg began efforts to expand bike lanes throughout the city. This culminated in a six-year-long legal battle over the contentious Prospect Park West bike lanes project, which ended only after a citizens group elected to drop their lawsuit against the state’s Department of Transportation.
In addition to legal and occasionally violent pushback against policies intended to protect them, cyclists must contend with negative cultural attitudes towards them on the road, a problem that has been shown in studies across the world.
Critics say that damage claims for bike accidents have potentially sapped funding away from necessary roadwork
To combat growing infrastructure woes, California’s Senate Bill 1 placed a 12-cent per gallon tax of gas, as well as a 20-cent per gallon tax on diesel fuel. The intent of these taxes was to fund critical repairs to roads, bridges, and freeways statewide. Also included in this funding were “road diets,” projects to narrow streets to accommodate protected bike lanes, one of many points of contention that led to Proposition 6’s failed bid to repeal SB1 in 2018.
But in recent years, cities across California have been the target of multi-million dollar lawsuits for accidents caused by faulty infrastructure.
- CalTrans, and the City of Los Angeles were ordered to pay $9.1 million in 2018 to a man who suffered brain damage in a bike accident. Swerving to avoid debris, the victim’s head was struck by a passing truck’s side mirror.
- Another Los Angeles cyclist won $6.5 million in 2017 for a bicycle accident that happened two years prior. The victim struck a pothole they could not see and was ejected off the bike. They suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple broken bones.
- In 2019, a San Diego cyclist won a $20 million dollar settlement from the city, KTA Construction, and engineering firm Harris & Associates, for their alleged role in his accident. In this incident, the construction workers had closed the bike lane for work. But the victim continued to ride through the lane and encountered a 2-foot wide ditch across the lane. They were ejected head first into a pile of rocks and dirt, suffering severe injuries that left them wheelchair-bound.
Critics of these high-dollar settlements have claimed that the exorbitant awards won by victims are diverting funds away from infrastructure repairs that could have prevented such accidents in the first place. But bicycling advocates are quick to point out that current efforts to fix infrastructure and provide bike lanes are a start at best, and potential causes of future bicycle accidents at their worst.