I keep reading and hearing about bike riders getting hit and killed. Is it still safe to ride in this town?
—Prudence in Portland
—Prudence in Portland
Dear Prudence (see Siouxsie and the Banshees),
My short answer is yes. The number of cyclists is way up over the last few years, but the number of bike accidents is about the same. That suggests it's actually gotten safer.
Compared to other cities and metro areas where I've ridden—Chicago, Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno—this is cycling Nirvana. There are so many good routes and amenities and so much accommodation by motorists.
So why are we all feeling uneasy?
Eight riders have been killed this season, instead of the usual two for the whole year. More than four times as many, right? But those numbers are still too small to have statistical significance. That is, they could indicate just plain old "bad luck" rather than a trend.
But eight riders killed is more than significant in generating a lot of media exposure, whether the media are news stories, letters to the editor, blogs, roadside memorials, memorial rides, etc. Portland has a vibrant bike culture, and the culture is all over this one.
That's good but not all good, IMHO. One potential effect of any vibrant culture is to galvanize people into tribes, and make them see the larger whole as "us" vs "them." This balkanization fosters suspicion and hatred of "them" by a few crackpots—both those within the tribe and those outside. The crackpots get aggressive and militant, and that behavior gets echoed in the mainstream. (For echoes of suspicion, hatred, aggression and militancy by both cyclists and motorists, just skim the close-call reports on Bike Portland.)
So what does that mean for you on the road? There are never very many true crackpots (the rest are just posturing), so your chances of encountering one who's behind a wheel are slim. You still might get accidentally squashed—but again, that risk seems to have actually decreased. Besides, it's a risk we knowingly accept each time we saddle up and dance with dinosaurs. And that moderate but bracing risk—let's face it—is part of the appeal.
Nevertheless, how about some tips for reducing your risk?
• If you need to take the whole lane because of hazards such as getting doored, go ahead and do it if you can go at or near the speed of traffic. If you've got hazards on the right and traffic is way faster than you, that street sucks; find a different route. This is supposed to be fun and there's no need to martyr yourself.
• Always stop for stop signs, traffic lights, occupied crosswalks, and school buses; no exceptions unless it's noon and you're at a stop sign deep in the 'burbs where traffic is nonexistent between commute times.
• One of the great things about cycling is the ability to morph from vehicle to pedestrian and back as conditions dictate. But be careful, predictable, even methodical about how you do it: Ride on sidewalks only as a last resort. Before you use a crosswalk, stop, get off and walk.
• Wear a helmet. Duh.