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May 2019

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

Liisa Ecola at desk, photo by RAND Corporation

Liisa Ecola, photo by Carol Earnest/RAND Corporation

In recent years, more and more people have been choosing to bicycle to work, to run errands, and to have fun. Our neighbors in the Gulf States are a significant part of this upward trend. For example, an analysis of census data by the League of American Bicyclists shows that, of the 70 largest U.S. cities, New Orleans ranked fifth in shares of bike commuters in 2017.

That the number of bicyclists is growing is great news. Cycling is good for our health, as well as for the environment.

Yet the dominant mode of travel in the country is still the single-occupant vehicle, and sharing the road can still be dangerous for bicyclists. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, hundreds of bicyclists die in traffic crashes involving motor vehicles each year, and thousands more are injured.

New Orleans bore witness to this cruel fact on the evening of March 2, at the end of one of the city’s largest Mardi Gras parades. An intoxicated driver careened into nine people in a bike lane on Esplanade Avenue, many of whom were on bikes. Two of those people were killed and the other seven injured. Since then, the city has taken action, adding more barriers and better lane lines in an to attempt to immediately improve safety.

What more can neighborhoods and cities do to improve bike safety?

To address this, I spoke with Liisa Ecola, a senior policy expert at the RAND Corporation who focuses on transportation and traffic safety, impacts, and trends. Here, Liisa offers additional options and puts the tragic crash into a national context that shows the necessity of improved policies to help drivers and bicyclists share the road safely.

Please travel carefully in whatever mode you choose and, as always, feel free to reach out to us.

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Liisa Ecola

Below is my discussion with Liisa Ecola about the March 2 crash in New Orleans and what can be done to improve safety for cyclists through infrastructure and policy. Liisa Ecola is a senior policy expert at RAND.

Joie D. Acosta

She provides managerial, research, evaluation, and technical expertise on projects related to transportation funding, traffic safety, environmental and land-use impacts, and long-term mobility trends. She recently led a national study, The Road to Zero, which brings together a wide variety of experts involved in traffic safety to develop a broad stratey to eliminate traffic crash fatalities in the United States by 2050.

1. The Esplanade Avenue crash in March was especially tragic. Is this kind of big accident a once-in-a-lifetime ordeal, or is this part of a bigger trend?

Most car crashes don’t kill or injure anyone. In the United States alone, we have more than 6 million vehicle crashes every year, and only a tiny fraction are fatal. But crash deaths have been steadily increasing since 2015, and the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed has been going up faster than the number of drivers and passengers killed.

So unfortunately, New Orleans is part of a national trend in that regard. We aren’t entirely sure what’s led to this increase; it’s hard to say whether it’s because more people are walking and bicycling or whether walking and bicycling are getting more dangerous. And despite all the progress in preventing drunk driving—lowering the blood alcohol limit, raising the drinking age, and imposing stiffer penalties—between 25 and 30 percent of people killed in crashes are killed in crashes caused by drunk drivers.

2. How effective are bicycle lanes in terms of safety? What kinds of bicycle lanes are most effective?

Adding bikes lanes tends to increase cycling because bicyclists feel safer. In turn, as bicyclists become more numerous, drivers tend to be more aware of bicyclists.

But not all bike lanes are created equal: Different types work in different situations, depending on the speed of cars and the number of bicyclists. If bike lanes are provided on busy city streets, protected bike lanes (meaning that there is some type of vertical separation between bicyclists and cars) are considered the safest. For example, one study interviewed bicyclists who had been injured while riding on 14 different types of bike lanes or streets. The researchers concluded that “cycle tracks” (specific bicycle-only lanes that are separated from both car lanes and sidewalks) were associated with the lowest risk of injury.

3. New Orleans is a big city with a lot of different transportation options. What are some best practices we can implement quickly to keep everyone safe? What should we be thinking about long term?

One of the most important things cities can do is discourage speeding. Nine out of ten pedestrians will live if hit by a car going 20 miles per hour, but nine of ten will die if the car is going 40 miles per hour. Speeds can be reduced through lowering and enforcing speed limits. Many cities also use enhanced police patrols to crack down on drunk driving during times when people are more likely to be drinking, such as holiday weekends. In the long term, city engineers can create roads that make it both harder to speed and easier to cross the street on foot by using “road diets.” These can include creating fewer or narrower lanes, creating separated bike lanes, and giving pedestrians an island in the middle of wide streets. We can also teach schoolkids about bicycle safety.

4. What might we learn from the New Orleans situation that can better influence policy in other cities? How much of an investment should be made for bicycle and pedestrian safety?

Overall, we’d like to encourage more people to walk and bicycle, both for the health benefits and to reduce traffic congestion and pollution from cars. Owning a bike is also cheaper than owning a car. So that suggests that improvements that make walking and bicycling safer are helpful. They are also generally not that expensive compared to other types of road investments. People often associate bicycling with smaller cities and towns, but some very big cities—New York and Berlin come to mind—have built a lot of bike lanes and seen use go up. New York started a Vision Zero program that brings together city officials, from the police department to public health to city engineers, and the number of deaths from crashes in the city went down by one-third within five years.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

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