Geoff Meggs still isn’t exactly sure what happened on March 9 when he was out for a bike ride. Travelling along a bike route on Angus Drive near West 43rd Avenue, the Vancouver city councillor and avid cyclist apparently missed a stop sign. He was hit by a car and sent flying. He suffered multiple fractures in his lower back and spent four days in hospital.
“There was a lot of damage to my helmet,” Meggs says in a phone interview. “It was quite a shock.”
Meggs is getting better, but he’s still not ready to ride his bike all over the place like he used to. He sees a physiotherapist regularly to address his resulting aches and pains.
Despite his unanticipated break from cycling, Meggs continues to advocate for the sport and is working to improve safety not just for experienced cyclists like him but for people of all skill levels throughout the province.
At a June 22 council meeting, Meggs introduced a motion calling for the creation of a B.C. Bicycling Development Program. The motion asks the province to undertake a coordinated effort to ensure cyclists’ safety through such measures as education programs for cyclists and motorists, safe cycling connections between municipalities, and sound, well-designed infrastructure.
The health benefits of cycling are tremendous. A low-impact, aerobic activity, it reduces cholesterol levels and blood pressure and decreases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Riding a bike regularly also improves cardiovascular endurance and circulation, increases energy, boosts mood, and helps maintain a healthy weight. An hour of cycling at a moderate pace burns about 500 calories in someone weighing 150 pounds.
Besides its health benefits, cycling is good for the planet, being an environmentally friendly method of transportation.
Nevertheless, plenty of people opt not to travel by bike. One of the main reasons is they’re afraid they’re going to end up like Meggs.
“The perceived risk of injury is a key factor that prevents many people from cycling,” explains Kay Teschke, a professor in UBC’s school of population and public health.
Therein lies a problem facing urban planners and cycling advocates alike: the fewer people there are on bikes, the less people are inclined to ride.
“There’s safety in numbers,” says Teschke, who’s also the coordinator of the school’s Cycling in Cities research program. “Higher mode share will certainly increase safety. In observational studies, that’s highly consistent.”
Teschke is heading a study called Bicyclists’ Injuries and the Cycling Environment (BICE), with research being conducted in Vancouver and Toronto. It will examine which types of cycling routes are associated with higher and lower injury rates.
Results won’t be finalized until next year, but here’s what researchers like Teschke do know.
According to Transport Canada, about 7,500 cyclists are hurt seriously enough to be admitted to hospital in this country each year, with another 40 to 70 dying. In Ontario and British Columbia alone, about 20,000 people visit emergency departments for injuries resulting from bicycling each year, according to the Cycling in Cities program.
Furthermore, cycling is more dangerous in North America than it is in some parts of Europe. People here are twice as likely to be killed and eight times more likely to have serious injuries than cyclists in Germany and three times more likely to be killed and 30 times more likely to have serious injuries than cyclists in the Netherlands.
One factor that could explain the differences in injury risk between continents, Teschke explains, is the transportation infrastructure for cycling.
People who commute by bike in North America generally ride on the road beside moving and parked cars. In northern Europe, on the other hand, dedicated cycling zones, separated from motorized traffic by medians, curbs, or other barriers, are more common.
Existing data support the notion that “purpose-built bicycle-only facilities” such as bike routes, bike lanes, bike paths, and cycle tracks at roundabouts reduce the risk of crashes and injuries compared to cycling on-road with traffic or off-road with pedestrians. (A separate, two-way bike-only lane recently opened on Dunsmuir Street. Separated bike lanes also exist on the Burrard Bridge and the Dunsmuir Viaduct.)
Street lighting, paved surfaces, and low-angled grades are other factors that appear to improve cyclist safety.
However, it isn’t clear which route designs are safest—hence the impetus for the BICE study. Teschke hopes the findings will be used by transportation planners, with the end result being better cycling infrastructure across Canada.
According to a Cycling in Cities opinion survey conducted in Metro Vancouver, the top three route types to encourage cycling are paved off-street paths, cycle paths next to major streets separated by a barrier, and residential streets marked as bike routes with traffic calming.
Avid cyclist Victor Cuevas, who owns Rain City Bikes, says there are many steps cyclists can take to stay safe.
“Cyclists need to make sure that they get eye contact from drivers when crossing intersections or riding next to a car,” Cuevas tells the Georgia Straight. “Never ride in someone’s blind spot. If you can’t see their face in their side-view mirror, they can’t see you, period.
“Ride a bike that allows you to have good visibility,” he adds. “Riding a road bike in the city around a lot of traffic can be tricky if you’re just getting used to riding in a dense urban environment. Riding a bike that is more upright may make it easier for you to shoulder-check.”
When it comes to finding the right size of helmet, Cuevas says it should fit snugly but not be too tight. If the helmet stays on when the straps are undone, it’s a good fit.
Other tips? Don’t wear headphones or talk on your cellphone while riding. Be extra careful near parked cars: stay a few feet away from doors and check side-view mirrors for faces.
Then there are lights. “This I do not see enough of,” Cuevas says. “People must have blinking lights on their bikes.”
And if you do end up in a situation where you fall, he recommends trying to tuck in your arms and your chin and not throwing your hands straight out in front of you.
“Trust me, I know from experience that landing on your side if possible is much better,” Cuevas says. “And tucking your chin in can save your teeth and face.”