How the Government Is Improving Bicycling Safety

GAO Reports Progress and Challenges

Group of cyclists pose as accident victims in bike safety protest
Cycling Group Holds Safety Protest. Getty Images News

While the total number of U.S. traffic deaths declined from 2004 through 2013, the number of bicycling and walking deaths actually went up. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the federal government, the states, and cities are working to make bicycling and walking safer.

Biking and walking are becoming increasingly more popular modes of daily transportation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), nearly one million more people regularly biked or walked to work in 2013 than in 2004. Unfortunately, biking and walking also became more dangerous.

According to a 2015 GAO report, cyclists represented 1.7% of all United States traffic deaths in 2004, but 2.3% in 2013. Combined bicycling and walking fatalities comprised 10.9% of all traffic deaths in 2004, but 14.5% in 2013.

Most of the cycling deaths involved men riding in urban areas during clear weather between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Several factors may have contributed to the deaths and injuries, including increased walking and cycling trips; alcohol use; distracted road users; or road design practices.

Safety Improvement Efforts and Challenges

But the future is not all gloom-and-doom for cyclists and walkers. The GAO reports that while they face some challenges, federal, state, and local government officials are undertaking a number of programs to improve cyclist and pedestrian safety.

In its investigation, the GAO interviewed transportation officials from the states of California, Florida, New York, and the District of Columbia, and from the following cities: Austin, Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York City, New York; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco, California.

Data Collection and Analysis Efforts

All of the states and cities are analyzing data on cycling and walking trends and accidents to develop their safety efforts. The data is being used to design and build more facilities, such as sidewalks and bike lanes that keep cyclists and walkers separate from vehicular traffic. In addition, the states and cities are implementing new and expanded education and enforcement initiatives.

For example, in 2013, the city of Minneapolis used an analysis of data from nearly 3,000 accidents that occurred between 2000 and 2010 to create education, engineering, and enforcement efforts that are helping the city reduce motorist vs. cyclist accidents by 10% a year.

Facilities Engineering Improvements

In designing safer facilities for cyclists and walkers, state and city planning and transportation agencies utilize engineering standards from a variety of highway design guidelines, such as AASHTO’s Pedestrian and Bike Guides, the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Bikeway Design Guide, and the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares.

Several states and cities have adopted “Complete Streets” policies and standards that require transportation planners to consider designing roadway improvements to be used safely by all users including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit vehicles, truckers, and motorists – and to enhance economic development opportunities to help fund safety improvements.

In addition, most of the states and cities interviewed by the GAO reported having installed pedestrian and cyclist facilities, such as marked crosswalks, pedestrian crossing islands, and separated bike lanes.

Transportation officials told the GAO that these new facilities and improvements have helped improve traffic safety.

The New York City Department of Transportation, for example, reported that just 7 miles of new protected bike lanes installed on six avenues between 2007 and 2011 had resulted in 20% reduction in injuries overall even though bicycle traffic increased greatly over the period.

Education Programs

State and city outreach and education programs are also helping reduce cycling and walking accidents by raising public awareness. California and Florida reported holding joint public health campaigns with universities and other agencies to educate the public about walking and cycling safety. Several state and cities reported distributing pamphlets; developing media advertising campaigns or conducting outreach to some limited English-speaking populations with information on traffic laws and safety.​

Many other states and cities are holding regular “bike rodeos” to teach biking and walking safety practices and to distribute helmets and other safety equipment to participants. Most police agencies reported giving their officers special training on cyclist and pedestrian safety and laws. In addition, many police departments are now deploying “bike patrols” using bike-riding officers to patrol downtown areas and heavily trafficked cycling and pedestrian routes.

Enforcement Efforts

Through their accident data collection efforts, state and local police identify high-frequency cycling and pedestrian crash areas and apply heightened enforcement in those locations. For example, New York City recently increased a “failure to yield” offense from a minor traffic violation punishable by a fine to a more serious penalty. Drivers who cause an injury or death of a cyclist or pedestrian by failing to yield the right of way may be charged with a misdemeanor and could be sentenced to jail.

Several cities nationwide have now adopted “Vision Zero” or “Toward Zero Deaths” policies under which the jurisdictions commits to eliminating all fatalities within its traffic system, including cyclist, pedestrian, and motorist fatalities.

To implement Vision Zero or Toward Zero Deaths policies, police utilize a combination of the data collection, engineering improvements, education, and enforcement efforts outlined above.

Since instituting its Vision Zero program in February 2014, New York City reported a 7% reduction in all traffic fatalities and a 13% reduction in cycling and pedestrian fatalities.

How the DOT is Helping

As part of its efforts to help improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched its Safer People, Safer Streets initiative in 2015. The initiative’s Mayors' Challenge is intended to encourage local officials to make cyclist and pedestrian safety priority task.

The DOT is also leading a pilot project on trip-counting technologies and updating guidance for states on data to include in crash reports.

To help states and cities develop and implement cyclist and pedestrian safety programs and facilities, the DOT currently oversees 13 federal grant programs that awarded a total of $676.1 million in 2013.

Challenges Remain

While progress is being made, the state and local officials interviewed by the GAO all reported facing challenges with prioritization, data, engineering, and funding in addressing cyclist and pedestrian safety.

Among the challenges reported by the officials were:

  • Differences in state and city perspectives on the importance and costs of transportation investments;
  • Limited or no walking and cycling trip data or incomplete and unreliable crash data;
  • Problems with existing roadways, such as wide lanes that may encourage drivers to speed and limited pedestrian and cyclist facilities; and
  • Funding issues that limit the ability to properly address cyclist and pedestrian safety.

The GAO concluded that with the number of people taking part in cycling and walking activities – including daily commuting – certain to increase, it is vital that federal, state and local officials fully commit to solving these challenges and supporting traffic safety improvement programs.