The Two-Wheel Safety Illusion

More women are cycling, and more are dying. It reflects an urban failure.
September 2019
As of mid-July, a record 15 cyclists had died on New York's streets. (AP)
By Nicole Gelinas  |  Columnist
An analyst and writer on urban issues

Among urban cycling infrastructure experts, conventional wisdom holds that when more women are biking, a city has built a successful cycling network. In too many American cities, though, a gruesome corollary to this rule is becoming apparent: When a city builds infrastructure that creates the illusion but not the reality of cycling safety, more women will die.

Urban cycling has long been mostly a male activity. As Evan Friss writes in a new history of cycling in New York City, the bike messengers who helped define the city’s 1980s streets were virtually all men. Today’s food delivery cyclists are predominantly male. And the bicycle commuting population skews heavily toward one gender. Citi Bike, New York’s municipal bike-sharing service, reported in June that of the 36,096 riders that month who listed their gender, 25 percent were women.

But as skewed as those Citi Bike numbers may be, they reflect growth of about 3 percentage points for women over four years. In New York and elsewhere, more and more women are taking to two wheels. It may seem counterintuitive, but in large part that increase reflects the reality that women, on average, are more cautious on the road, as is borne out in automobile crash statistics. So when cities build bike lanes and make cycling more hospitable to everyone, it follows that more women will do it; they perceive it as less risky.

That’s why an emerging phenomenon should worry urban transportation officials. As of mid-July, a record 15 cyclists had died on New York’s streets, five more than in all of last year. Each death is a tragedy, of course, but four of those deaths stand out against historical statistics: Devra Freelander, Robyn Hightman, Aurilla Lawrence and Susan Moses were women. It’s not just a New York phenomenon. In Boston in February, 69-year-old Paula Sharaga was killed; in San Francisco in March, 30-year-old Tess Rothstein died. Both were hit by trucks.

These three cities have something in common: They’ve done extensive marketing to get more people to commute by bicycle, despite not having done enough of the more difficult work of building safe cycling networks.

It’s likely that that failure was a factor in the death in July of Freelander, a 28-year-old artist who was emerging into an intersection from the sidewalk when she was run over by a truck driver who, by city ordinance, was not supposed to have such a large vehicle on a residential Brooklyn street. Adult cyclists are prohibited from sidewalks, but Freelander may have chosen to ride there because, with no bike lane available, she perceived it as safer than the street.

Even where cycling infrastructure exists, it’s not necessarily adequate to provide genuine safety. Last year, 23-year-old Australian tourist Madison Jane Lyden died on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, hit by a truck after a vehicle parked in a painted bike lane forced her into traffic.

Cities have done all cyclists a disservice in encouraging cycling without creating the physical and civil infrastructure cyclists need to be safe. “Women across the city can be an indicator species for the health of the city and the safety of our streets,” says Ellen McDermott, co-deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York street safety advocacy group. “But our infrastructure needs to catch up to the latent demand for biking in this city—fast.”

Bike lanes should be separated from other traffic by a physical barrier, and car and truck speed limits should be lowered. The growing gender parity in the cycling body count points to a persistent urban failure: More people perceive it to be safe when it is nowhere near safe enough.