What’s the Key To Making Urban Cycling Safer?

Being a regular cyclist in a large city can be treacherous. Bike lanes help, but how much? And are all bike lanes created equal?


Over the past several years, the number of Canadians who primarily use a bike to commute to and from school or work has increased enormously. In fact, more Canadians now bike or walk to work than take public transit, and bike sales have skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But biking in major cities can be tricky, not to mention dangerous. Thousands of Canadian cyclists are seriously injured each year, and nearly 100 are involved in fatal accidents — the majority of which occur during rush hour in urban settings.

With more and more Canadians turning to biking as a primary means of transportation, what can we do to make sure our roads are safe for everyone?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a new study from City Building Ryerson at Ryerson University has found that bike lanes are critical to preventing bike-related injuries and fatalities. But the key lies in what type of bike lane is used, and whether or not bike lanes are a permanent fixture of our cities.

The study was led by Anne Harris, an associate professor in Ryerson’s School of Occupational and Public Health, and published on the City Building Ryerson website.

Quantifying the risk of injury while biking in Toronto

How many bike-related injuries could be prevented in Toronto each year by improving the city’s cycling infrastructure?

To answer this question, Harris and her collaborators studied a high-traffic area (for both cars and bicycles) in Toronto: the Bloor-Danforth corridor. This is a major road that runs in the east-west direction across the city with various levels of cycling infrastructure present — for example, some portions of this road have painted bike lanes, whereas others have physical barriers between cars and bikes. The city of Toronto has been working on improving cycling infrastructure along this road for many years.

Harris and her collaborators selected several segments of the Bloor-Danforth corridor that did not have any separate cycling infrastructure at the onset of their study. In other words, they were studying portions of the road where cyclists ride side-by-side with cars, without any clear separations or barriers.

To estimate how many injuries were likely to occur along their chosen segments, Harris and her collaborators took into account the volume of cyclists passing through each segment, the number of bike-related injuries reported throughout Toronto each year, and the total number of kilometres cycled on average by Toronto cyclists.

While these latter values were available from previous studies, the authors determined the volume of cyclists passing each segment themselves by manually tracking bike traffic over the course of seven months. Putting all of this together, the authors estimated that nearly 200 serious injuries could occur along these particular stretches of road over the next decade.

How many injuries can bike lanes prevent?

With an estimated baseline number of injuries established, the authors then determined how many injuries could be prevented by different types of cycling infrastructure.

Drawing from previous studies, the authors calculated the impact of “high protection” and “lower protection” infrastructure on their estimated number of injuries. High protection scenarios included grade separations (raised bike lanes, for example) and concrete barriers between cars and bikes, while lower protection scenarios included painted cycle lanes with no parked cars or “semi-permeable” cycle tracks (flexible plastic posts, for example).

At current ridership levels, the authors found that fully separated cycle lanes led to an 89% reduction in injuries. This was more than double the reduction in injuries that was estimated for semi-permeable cycle tracks (38%), and nearly double the estimated reduction for painted cycle lanes (46%).

Interestingly, the authors also noted that improved cycling infrastructure could lead to increased numbers of cyclists on the road, which in turn could lower injuries even further. This so-called “safety in numbers” effect occurs because cars are more likely to be cautious around large numbers of cyclists.

Permanent, fully separated cycle tracks key to cyclist safety

While all types of bike lanes included in the study reduced the number of bike-related injuries likely to occur each year, fully separated lanes were significantly safer than the others. The authors strongly urge that major cities consider implementing fully separated bike lanes on all new routes.

At the end of their study, the authors go on to theorize about whether or not temporary bike lanes may affect injury numbers. They conclude that introducing and then removing temporary cycling infrastructure will likely lead to more injuries that before, as cyclists who regularly travel along these routes will get used to the protection offered by cycling infrastructure and will not be ready to navigate the dangers of the road after the infrastructure is removed.

In cases where constructing a fully separated bike lane may not be feasible (due to a lack of budget, for example), the results of this study also show that permanent painted bike lanes are preferable to temporary semi-permeable barriers, such as flexible plastic posts or planters. There have been numerous examples of these semi-permeable barriers being damaged by cars soon after their installation, further increasing the dangers for cyclists.

With the COVID-19 pandemic leading to increased bike ridership across all major Canadian cities, improving our cycling infrastructure is key to numerous aspects of public health. The implementation of permanent, fully separated cycle tracks will vastly reduce the number of bike-related injuries occurring each year, and will offer Canadians a safe, socially-distant mode of transportation.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.