Lessons from the 2013 Minneapolis Bicycle Crash Report

The Minneapolis Department of Public Works released a new report this week, an in depth analysis of the city's bicycle crash reports from the last ten years. The results are interesting and useful, offering some more insight into why and where accidents happen and offering some suggestions on how to begin increasing bicycle safety. In some ways, this is nothing new. Safety has been the #1 concern of bicycle planners and advocates for at least 40 years, and cities are continually struggling with the same kinds of questions. Often they revolve around proper design treatments, and the old 70s debates over on- v. off-street bicycling paths are a good example of what these arguments might look like. But these days, cities have largely moved past those kinds of petty arguments. These days, issue is rarely one of a lack of knowledge about how to build good bicycle infrastructure. Rather, the issue is generating the right kind of political and institutional consensus.

That's where reports like this come in handy. The Minneapolis report is as good a study of crash data as you're ever likely to see in this country, and the city should be commended for doing such a thorough job. Not only did they collect and analyze an entire decade of bicycle accidents, they went 'in depth' with a few years of data, moving beyond the often vague police accident reports to include things like "dooring" (which don't have a proper code). They geo-coded all the information into a few fabulous maps, and they placed the whole study into a larger context of the history of accident statistics. Finally, the report comes with a few key suggestions that don't rely on blaming any particular group of people. It's tremendous work that should be the envy of public works departments across the country.

While a lot of the study seems a bit predictable (e.g. that bicyclists and drivers are both at fault in crashes), there were a few things that jumped out at me as I reading through the 30-page .pdf the other day.

Here are my highlights:

#1 Stats will always be inadequate

A friend of mine was bicycling along Riverside Avenue a year or so ago, and was in a terrible crash with a turning truck that didn't see her. The truck completely destroyed her bicycle, and she narrowly missed having her legs crushed. After the incident, the driver stopped and offered to buy her a new bicycle. She didn't go to the hospital, and got a new bike out of the deal, but was absolutely terrified and easily could have been killed. The key thing about the crash: there wasn't an accident report

The Minneapolis study rightly points out that accurate information on bicycle crashes is impossible to come by. The report links to a few studies that suggest that around half of all bicycle accidents go unreported. In fact, it's really difficult to figure out exactly how many accidents might or might not be unreported. (Would it be one of Rumsfeld's "known unknowns," or would it be an "unknown unknown"?) Often, bicyclists won't go to the hospital, or the driver and bicyclist will settle the matter on the spot, without calling the police.

I'd go so far as to say that many more than half of bicycle accidents or incidents are unreported. For every crash in this study, there is likely one crash that resulted in injuries, and two to four incidents that resulted in terrifying the living crap out of someone on a bicycle.

#2 Hit and runs are common

The study points out that 21% of the crashes in the study were hit-and-runs, where the car driver didn't stop. I'd be willing to extend the logic from Point #1 (above), that many close shave incidents also involve people who didn't stop.

The point here is that bicyclists often have to deal with these dangerous conditions completely on their own, and that they're vulnerable in a few different ways. Which brings me to...

#3 Bicyclists suffer all the injuries

Probably the single most one-sided part of the bicyclist-driver relationship is that bicyclists are the ones that suffer all the injuries. In fact, check out this snippet from the study:
Detailed analysis of 800 crash reports from 2006-2008 found that when an injury was sustained, it was always the bicyclist. Motorists sustained injuries in no crashes.

Often, when talking about urban bicycling, arguments devolve into "bike vs. car" diatribes, with each group pointing out the other's supposed misdeeds.  That might be some validity to this kind of balanced framing, but it's worth remembering that only one side of this equation has any physical vulnerability. Only one side is paying the physical cost. It's the exact opposite of an equal relationship.

#4 There's safety in numbers

It's long been a truism in nonmotorized transportation planning that safety improves dramatically as the overall number of bicyclists and pedestrians rise. Well, this seems to hold true for Minneapolis over the last decade, and is one of the most hope-inspiring pieces of the bicycling puzzle. This report includes a nice chart which outlines the relationship:

What this suggests to me is that bicycle advocates should focus their efforts on increasing the total number of cyclists. In a way, safety issues will take care of themselves once we begin to increase the overall awareness and frequency of bicycling in the Twin Cities.

#5 The city's antiquated one-way street pairings are very dangerous

That said, certain streets are very dangerous and should be addressed immediately. Probably the most useful part of this study is the map of the city's trouble spots. (See the top of this post.) The report shows shows the most dangerous places, and much of the information isn't that surprising. (See below.) The worst places are intersections, and particularly intersections of the 4-lane arterial roads running through the city.

But the city went beyond this simple quantitative analysis, and correlated the accident count with their model of average daily bicycle traffic. (Note: most cities don't even have a model of average daily bicycle traffic, nevermind interesting spatial math.) These results show that certain road designs are far more dangerous than others. Certain designs have low overall bicycle traffic counts, but high rates of accidents.

Here's the chart:

As you can see, the city's old one-way street pairings (26th and 28th Streets in South Minneapolis) have a terrible rate of crashes per cyclist mile traveled. (I'd wager that this information could serve as a proxy for pedestrian accidents, as well.) If the city wanted to increase safety overnight, they'd begin converting these street parings (as well as 35th and 36th, University and SE 4th) into proper two-way streets right away. This is something I've suggested before. High-speed one-way streets simply should not be running through dense residential urban areas.

#6 Franklin Avenue desperately needs traffic calming and bike lanes

The final takeaway is something that shouldn't surprise anyone who's ridden a bicycle in South Minneapolis. Franklin Avenue is the #1 problem street in the city, and needs to be fixed right away. Franklin "wins" four of the top ten spots on the coveted "top crash intersection" list. (I'd like to thank the academy... I couldn't have done it without all the distracted drivers who have been speeding for years through one of our city's poorest neighborhoods...)

Luckily, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition is working on the problem. Hennepin County has plans for doing something, but I still haven't heard what the final decision is likely to be. Hopefully, this report can push them in the right direction.

[Two suggestions for how to more safely re-design Franklin Avenue. Neither one is perfect.]


Anonymous said...

Great report and summary. I can't fully agree with the point about one way paired streets. These keep dense rush hour traffic off of adjacent streets. There are better choices within blocks of these that are much more appropriate. At some point the right to ride any road at any time doesn't make sense; Hennepin Avenue in Uptown, Lake Street etc. just are not great streets to be riding on, and the paired one ways fit the same artery category in my mind. Keep up the great work.

Janne said...

Have you looked at which has worse crash data -- city streets vs. county streets?

Anonymous said...

I have personally witnessed three bicycle-vehicle collisions on one way streets, In each case the cyclist was riding on the sidewalk or in the street in the opposite direction of traffic. The driver, not anticipating a bike from that direction, pulled in front of the cyclist. Three bikes ruined but fortunately each rider survived without major injury. Sometimes it is not the one way street but the cyclist riding in the wrong place.

Bill Lindeke said...

People ride on sidewalks / wrong way on one-way streets in order to get where they're going for short distances, instead of going an extra 3-4 blocks to go around the long way. This seems common sense, but is very dangerous. It's kind of the primary justification for contraflow bike lanes.

Key question: Do you design things based on how you think people should behave, or on how they actually DO behave?

Froggie said...

I would disagree somewhat with the need for the one-way streets to be converted....it's something that needs to be looked at more deeply first. From what I've read of the changes to Portland/Park, it's possible to have traffic calming and improved non-motorized transportation while retaining one-way streets.

Janne: city vs county would be a one-way argument...largely an apples-to-oranges comparison, mainly because the major high-traffic arterials in the city tend to be county routes.

Janne said...

Froggie - I was thinking about the fact that the Co controls many of the bigger streets, although not being an engineer, I'm not sure how to look at all the bigger streets as it's not universal. For example, Hennepin through Uptown is NOT a county street (unless public employees are mistaken) -- of course that's not exactly a great example of the City designing something well. I'm sure there are others, and possible downtown streets would be a good place to look as the usage is consistently high while I suspect control is not universal.

If some fair comparisons can be made, I'd love to see whether there's any outcome difference given my observation that the City tends to give greater respect to non-car-users of the streets.

Bill Lindeke said...

Yeah, I agree w/ you Froggie a bit...

the E-W one-ways should be turned back into two-ways. Unv and 4th by the U of MN could get a similar buffered calming treatment, something that looks a lot like the buffered streets in U-W Madison.

Unknown said...

Our relationship with the bicycle needs to be better to avoid a bicycle accident/. We experience greater peace, joy, and love of riding if we know our bikes.

Unknown said...

I've been wanting to find a great bicycle accident. I think they are awesome to watch. I just don't want it happening to me.

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Paul said...

I'm a Mpls resident, and both bike and drive a lot.

I also can't agree with the one-way street observation. For one thing, the crash map data doesn't support it: 26/28th and 35/36th don't show nearly the crash density of Franklin, Lyndale & Hannepin near downtown, etc.

On 26/28th and 35/36th: the city has given cyclists much better alternatives just a few blocks away — the Greenway and the 40th St. bikeway are better alternatives. Of course bikes have the legal right to ride on, say 28th St., but it's just silly to when the Greenway is right there, a car-free bike throughway that's both safer and faster.

I always wonder why cyclists ride on 28th realize. Perhaps they don't realize they have a better alternative nearby? Maybe more/better signage would help?

The standouts on the map for me are, like the article says, Franklin, Hennepin downtown — and also one the article missing, Lyndale for the half mile south of 94. That's a terrible stretch.

Anonymous said...

Regarding this comment: Of course bikes have the legal right to ride on, say 28th St., but it's just silly to when the Greenway is right there, a car-free bike throughway that's both safer and faster.

TRUE - the greenway is right there. Unfortunately, at night, I would much prefer to stay up top on 28th where I'm less vulnerable to attack. I feel less vulnerable riding up top when it's dark and there are few riders / people out and about. During rush hour? You bet - down low I go. But, there are some issues regarding personal safety that can be difficult when using off-road bike-specific infrastructure. Same goes for LRT bike trail... In contrast, the River Road trails are RIGHT NEXT to the road, which means more visibility and less vulnerability.

Regarding the one way comment - regardless of whether we change those streets - I would LOVE to see a major education campaign to reduce wrong-way riding by students. That's just terrifying! And - sadly - it's a frequent occurrence.

This is a great summary of some fantastic work.

Anonymous said...

License bikes for identification in careless situations (running red lights, left turns against the red lights etc), require attached lights front and back. Lights attached to clothing or body are often forgotten, left at home suspecting that the rider will be home before dark but is not. Require a liability insurance on the bike rider or bike. Absolutely forbid passing on the right where vision by bus drivers, truck drivers and many cars are difficult. Like the rear driver in an accident is automatically guilty, so it should be with a bicyclist. Bicyclists should have the same training and licensing as motorcyclists. If bicyclists enter traffic with vehicles that can crush them, they should have an attitude of upping their skills and dropping casual attitudes regarding traffic. "Speeding" and endangering kids and the elderly on bikes and pedestrians should be ticketed. Some part of citizenship of the road has to become a shared part of the attitude and awareness and skill of bicyclists. It should start with higher expectation of bicyclists, their participation of public roads. Some "bully" vehicle traffic by their vulnerability or lack of care or what seems to be an aggressive political anti motorized vehicle attitude like pedaling up the middle of a lane to force the cars following to move at bike speed. Like the 45 mph minimum on Freeways, there should be a fine on deliberate political or social protests slowing or blocking traffic (France Avenue above 50th in my own experience). I think it is also a very bad idea for cars to make a "courtesy stop" for bikes where they cross roads. It develops possible careless expectations on the part of the bicyclists and the kids who are pedaling with their parents. An especially bad spot is Beltline Blvd where it tangles with the railroad tracks and meets Minnetonka Blvd. The stops are a surprise to motor traffic and have backed drivers up on the tracks and trapped at least one car between the crossing arms in my experience. The drivers that do that have no idea what they have done in many cases. These are big details to clean up... riding four abreast and passing on each side of a car is also something I have witnessed near 44th and France when the vehicle was clearly signaling a right turn. I am guessing that this error has been part of fatal accidents in this city especially between buses and bicyclists. I am guessing that the assertion that half of bicycle accidents are unknown / unreported is correct. I think that bicyclists should be held to the same training, licensing and insurance standards as motorcyclists. There might be slack for those under 14 or so. Kids who are four or six are in as much danger from adult racing bicyclists as they are from motor vehicles on some bike trails.

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