Market/Octavia Debate: Safety by Numbers or Safety in Numbers?

2792852796_3914807463.jpgA blue bike lane in Copenhagen.

Though Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch ruled the MTA will not get an immediate exemption to the bike injunction to remove the eastbound segment of the bike lane at Market and Octavia because he didn’t think an “adequate case has been made that there’s a public safety crisis,” when the hold on the bike plan is lifted as early as this spring, the agency will likely try to remove the lane anyway.  

So will the changes improve safety for bicyclists?  That answer depends on how you look at it and highlights a recurring international debate among transportation engineers and cycling advocacy groups: Are segregated bicycle lanes safer for cyclists than shared lanes?

The MTA argues its plan will increase safety, citing among other examples a report from Copenhagen, Denmark, which details equivalent lane markings to the current Market/Octavia design and the proposed design (PDF, pg 30):

One type continues all the way up to the intersection, the other type stops at a distance from the intersection. Experience shows that the shortened type of cycle track results in the fewest casualties, whereas cyclists feel more secure on the type that continues all the way up to the intersection. Both types may be supplemented with a blue marked crossing, which significantly improves safety.

While acknowledging that the MTA’s efforts to improve safety at the intersection have reduced illegal right turns from more than thirty-per-hour in 2005, when the Central Freeway first touched down at Market Street, to less than one per hour currently (PDF, pg 335), traffic engineer Jack Fleck is convinced that it can be better:

I can’t accept a situation where we have one intersection with 15 collisions In 3 years, all of the same type, and no other intersection with more than 4 collisions in that same time (actually Masonic and Fell had 8, but we took steps to fix that).

Andy Thornley, the program director at the SFBC, concedes there is an inherent conflict at intersections that is difficult to mitigate, but believes the MTA’s reasoning is myopically focused on a single intervention that ultimately punishes cyclists for the illegal actions of motorists.  Thornley argues that by making cycling feel safer and more enjoyable, the number of bicyclists will increase, which has a proven effect on overall cyclist safety, commonly referred to as the “safety-in-numbers” effect.  

Citing the same report from Copenhagen (pg 15-16):

If the number of trips cycled per day on major roads is compared to police registered changes in serious [injuries] and deaths, it will be seen that over the past 10 years there has been a decrease of 40-percent in the number of serious cyclist [injuries] while at the same time the number of trips cycled has increased by 25-percent. Thus risk has been reduced with 50%. This effect is partially attributable to improvements in the cyclists’ traffic environment during the course of this period.

The MTA may try to go ahead and remove a portion of the bike lane at Market/Octavia once the injunction is lifted but the political attitude leans against it. Supervisor Bevan Defty has called for a hearing on the issue before the San Francisco Transportation Authority and other elected officials, including Supervisors David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi, and State Senator Mark Leno and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano are opposed.

Flickr photo: blafond

  • CBrinkman

    I wish I felt that Jack Fleck was looking at a bigger picture before deciding on the shared lane. I wish I felt the tools the MTA is willing to use to make cycling a better transportation option were modern and up to date. He is picking one part of the Copenhagen road design and saying “See, it works.” It works because of the HUGE numbers of cyclists, and that drivers are also cyclists and understand the cyclists rights to the road. It works because cyclists are treated with dignity and have a place in the transportation network. And it works because cycling becomes a BETTER option then driving when the streets are well designed.

  • Josh

    The problem is that the absolute “number of collisions” should not be what we’re focussed on solving for. That’s ludicrous! The simplest and most proven way to decrease the number of injured pedestrians is to get fewer people walking. The attitude has always been – well, if we can prevent people from crossing the street they won’t get hit. Well, if you make it uncomfortable and unattractive for people to cycle, you’ll get fewer cyclists and fewer collisions in an absolute sense. With more cyclists, you’ll have more accidents overall, but fewer per capita and per trip. The surest way to discourage people from cycling is to revert back to an unpleasant and uncomfortable situation — forcing cyclists to jockey for position in heavy traffic on a major street. No one enjoys doing that. There’s a reason why cycling increases when you provide bicycle lanes — because it makes people feel more comfortable and feel like they don’t have to be a gladiator, even if it doesn’t improve their safety in an academic sense.

  • “Both types may be supplemented with a blue marked crossing, which significantly improves safety.”

    It seems this is a better argument for adding the blue marked crossing than for removing the bike lane.

  • As the Chair of the BAC, Bert Hill, pointed out to Jack Fleck last night, the Copenhagen Study is based on a 30% mode-share of cyclists.

    SF is nowhere near that– and the only way to get there is to build for the ‘next 1,000 cyclists’– those who don’t currently ride, but say they would if they felt safer (Gil Penalosa’s terms…).

    It’s a chicken and egg argument. Removing a lane at Market & Octavia is a step backwards to increasing mode share- as MTA’s goals state. And until we get to a higher mode share, citing the Copenhagen Study might as well be like citing space shuttle data. (Or, as Mr. Fleck did last night, car/car merge patterns to justify car/bike merge patterns…)

    Anecdotal citations and loose facts doesn’t cut it- this is about people’s life and limbs.

  • Donovan b

    Wait, has anyone from the MTA been to Copenhagen?! If they had, they would never site a Copenhagen design as the inspiration for removing a bike lane. They have completely misinterpreted what it means to “pull the lane back” at the intersection. The Danes don’t remove the lane, they simply bring the cycle track down to grade about 20m from the intersection, and paint it bright blue through the intersection. The cyclist continues to have an exclusive lane, but at the same grade as the car. At no point do they ever force a cyclist into the same lane as a car. In cases when right turns are prohibited, the Danes often carry the grade-separated cycle track all the way to the intersection, then bring it down to grade and paint it blue.

  • “The simplest and most proven way to decrease the number of injured pedestrians is to get fewer people walking.”

    Yes, the MTA seems to be using Marxist thinking, Groucho tendency. In “Room Service,” Groucho, as the manager of a shady hotel, is beseiged by his workers — desk clerks, bell hops, and so on — who haven’t been paid in weeks. He whirls on them and asks, “You don’t want to be wage slaves, do you?” “No, of course not,” they answer. “Well,” Groucho responds, “what makes a wage slave? Wages! That’s why I’m not paying you.”

    MTA: “What makes cyclist injuries? Cyclists!”


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