Biking in New York City Is 25 Times More Dangerous Than in Vancouver, Study Finds

The study by the International Transport Forum shows some cities have virtually eliminated cyclist deaths. Others, not so much.
Bad Bike Lane
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A cyclist in New York is 25 times more likely to die than a cyclist in Vancouver and is about as likely to die as a cyclist in Auckland or Buenos Aires, according to a new study by the International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental organization. 

“Cities should do more to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycle riders on their streets,” the report found. “Every minute, someone in the world dies in urban traffic. Local governments are at the forefront of efforts to prevent these needless road deaths.”

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The study analyzed road fatality rates in 32 benchmark cities in Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries from 2010 through 2020 to see how many hit the goal of halving their road fatality rates during that time. Only Warsaw hit the target, reducing road fatalities by 56 percent, but Edmonton (49 percent), Barcelona (48 percent), and Oslo (45 percent) came close. New York City reduced road fatalities by 19 percent during that time, which is not nothing—especially since the United States as a whole was one of only two countries, Colombia being the other, in the dataset where road fatalities increased nationwide during the decade—but still fell in the bottom fourth of the cities studied because road fatalities have been generally declining in major cities across the world.

But the most revealing statistics in the report concern bicycle safety. The report generously frames the “large differences between cities” as “room for progress.” A less charitable but equally true framing is that some cities are politically willing and able to take street space away from dangerous private vehicles and design them for safe and comfortable cycling on a massive scale. That strategy works: Some cities have born the fruit of that strategy by having fewer of their residents die while biking. Other cities willfully ignore that strategy or roll it out at a glacial pace.

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In this tale of cities, two are especially noticeable. On the one hand is Vancouver, which according to the study had an average of just five cycling fatalities per billion passenger trips from 2016 to 2020. On the other is New York City, which had 123 fatalities per billion passenger trips over the same period. In between are cities like Copenhagen (19 per billion trips), Paris (34), and Buenos Aires (85). Even worse than New York is Bogotà with 223 fatalities per billion trips, highlighting the city’s mixed reputation for both encouraging a robust cycling culture and having to deal with notoriously aggressive drivers.

As the report notes, the solution to this problem is annoyingly simple. The section immediately following these statistics describes an experiment with flex posts—plastic structures that form a semi-permanent barrier between cyclists and cars—in the Camden district of northwest London. After the flex posts were installed, there was a 70 percent increase in cycling in both directions along with a 50 percent reduction in the number of crashes and the severity of their injuries. Flex posts are not as effective as completely separated bike lanes with hardened barriers but they are cheap and easy to install. Other proven successful measures the report recommends are citywide speed limits of 30 kilometers per hour (18 miles per hour) where cars, pedestrians, and cyclists mix as well as automated speed enforcement. It also recommends “reallocating road space in dense urban areas” to more pedestrian and bike-friendly modes, therefore making cities safer. 

The report also underscores the fallacy of the popular assumption that U.S. road deaths are rapidly increasing because of various effects due to the pandemic. In fact, road deaths continued to fall in most of the cities studied during 2020, according to the report, by an average of four percent.

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