Every year, about 37,000 Americans are killed in car crashes. If this were a disease, most of us would be demanding a cure. The fact that we’re not, Canadian-Danish urban mobility expert Mikael Colville-Andersen told me in an interview, is a testament to our addiction to cars. “We’re still designing streets like we thought we should in the 1950s,” he said.
This failure to modernize streets has come to the fore in Toronto, where the deaths of four cyclists and 18 pedestrians in the first half of 2018 have sparked outrage among the city’s bike community, already exasperated from years of fighting over bike lanes, mounting death tolls, and broken promises to reform road safety.
“In the last two years, 93 pedestrians or cyclists have died violently on the streets... [This] reflects a state of emergency,” wrote Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief planner of Toronto, in an op-ed in the Guardian.
Keesmaat, now the CEO of affordable rental home non-profit Creative Housing Society, told me her 25-minute commute requires splitting her ride equally between side streets, bike paths, and the street. “When I cycle to work, I end up doing about a third of my trip on routes that are really hostile to cyclists,” she said. “You need a trip that’s 100 percent [on protected bike paths].”
Getting to 100 percent, however, is a challenge—especially because it necessarily involves pissing off drivers. Still, as cycling becomes more popular as a mode of transportation, more cities are beginning to reimagine the urban landscape. Here’s how:
Protected bike paths
As an easy first step, Keesmaat pointed to protected bike paths. These paths use a barrier—concrete medians, flex-posts, or in Toronto’s case, flower boxes—to separate cars from cyclists, ideally for the entirety of their journey. “Collisions have been very rare where they’ve been put in place,” said Keesmaat.
No right turns at red lights
Even with medians on bike paths, unprotected intersections remain a problem area—particularly when turning cars cut across bike paths. To help solve this, right-on-red could be banned, as it is in New York City and Montreal, and bike-specific traffic lights could be implemented so that cyclists have time to cross the street without fearing they’ll get T-boned.
Dave Bullock, VP of Market Strategy at smart-city company Miovision, said this idea could be taken a step further by synchronizing traffic lights to let cyclists coast through intersections. Using machine learning and computer vision, “we can hold the yellow light to allow [cyclists] safe passage,” said Bullock.
Lower speed limits
Red-light cameras, too, can help enforce traffic rules and speed limits—but they won’t do much good if we continue to allow motorists to zip through city streets at 30 miles (50 kilometers) per hour, said Keesmaat. At 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour, non-drivers have a five percent mortality rate. At 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour, the chance of a pedestrian or cyclist dying jumps to 85 percent. “If you slow down by 10 kilometers an hour, it’s amazing—you see survival rates go up,” Keesmaat said.
Paris is reducing speed limits throughout the city to 18 miles (30 kilometers) per hour; according to the city, this contributed to an eight percent reduction in road fatalities in 2017. New York City, which also introduced lower speed limits as part of its Vision Zero safety program, had a record low number of traffic deaths last year. (But cyclist deaths are trending upwards, so it’s a work in progress.)
The political will to change speed limits varies wildly between cities, and even neighborhoods. Warren Huska, a Toronto-based cycling advocate who straps a pool noodle to the back of his bike to keep cars at a distance, told me in an email that some city councillors refuse to lower speed limits because it would interfere with car traffic.
“It’s kind of shameful that we have a class system that puts vehicle drivers’ high-speed [trips] through neighborhoods above the safety of the people who live, learn, shop, and play in those neighborhoods,” he said.
Transportation technology firms are also working on solutions to try and solve the problem of traffic fatalities. Eric Bjorling of bicycle manufacturer Trek Bikes said that wearable or bike-mounted sensors could light up a display on car dashboards, alerting them to the presence of cyclists and pedestrians. Trek is part of an advisory committee composed of bike and auto manufacturers looking to make “bicycle-to-vehicle” technology a standard before driverless vehicles hit the market.
Fundamental redesign of our streets
As cycling moves from a recreational activity to a popular mode of transport in our dense, congested cities, people are becoming more interested in the idea of reclaiming the space we so freely allocated to cars in the mid- to late-1900s. An integral part of this movement is making driving harder.
In the year since Ghent, Belgium, introduced a new circulation plan that forced drivers off of local streets and onto its inner-ring road, there’s been a 25 percent increase in cyclists, eight percent higher transit ridership, and 58 percent fewer cars on residential streets as well as 25 percent fewer collisions in the city center.
“A street designed for bicycle traffic with bus lanes or tram lines on it can move 10 times the [number] of humans down a street than the old-fashioned car-centric designs that we just inherited from a previous century without even thinking,” said Colville-Andersen.
Reinventing the city for the next century of cyclists doesn’t have to be complicated, he continued. Even with the arrival of new transportation technologies, most bike-friendly solutions are fairly timeless. “We know what to do,” he said. “It’s just simple infrastructure design that’s 100 years old. It’s redesigning our streets to be safer, slowing down the automobiles.”