Anne Harris: Studying the effects of infrastructure on bike safety in Toronto and Vancouver
Text and photos by Kaitlyn Kochany
When I ask Anne Harris if she feels safe riding her bike on Toronto streets, she hesitates for a split second before diplomatically replying, “I would like to feel a lot safer.”
Harris is an assistant professor at the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University, and one of the authors of a new study examining cyclist safety, published in Injury Prevention journal. As an epidemiologist working in public health, Harris is drawn to this type of “picky, detailed work,” and the study was motivated by trying to figure out the difference between cycling in North America and in Northern Europe, where cycling rates are higher but injury rates are lower.
The study’s authors looked at routes of 690 cyclists in Toronto and Vancouver who had been injured while riding their bikes and received treatment in a hospital emergency department. Harris’s team sent out volunteers to compare two points on the rider’s journey: the point where the injury occurred, and one where the cyclist passed safely through. The volunteers weren’t told which site was which.
The study found that there are several significant factors that influence cyclist's safety while riding. Obstacles like construction or streetcar tracks are more likely to be present at a site where an injury occurs, while infrastructure like physically separated bike lanes is more likely to be associated with safe passage. In Vancouver, the team studied areas where bikes were separated from traffic by concrete barriers or flower planters, providing visible and protected bike lanes. Their conclusion? The more removed the lanes, the bigger the benefit.
While Harris and her team can point to evidence that separated bike lanes are safer for cyclists, she also suggests other options. For example, the study found that streetcar tracks were a notable obstacle for cyclists, so installing bike lanes on streets without them makes sense. She also suggests that construction sites that affect roadways should provide the same kind of clearly delineated lanes for bikes that they provide for cars, and that bike lanes are painted green and carried through intersections to remind drivers that “they are passing through a cycling space.”
Toronto’s topography gives the city a natural advantage, since the study also found that grade changes indicated risk. “There are opportunities for flat cities to make safe and attractive cycling that’s accessible to people of all fitness levels,” says Harris. “It doesn’t have to be expensive or extensive.” She recommends that cyclists choose routes without obstacles (construction, streetcars) and travel along paths that have bike-specific, physically separated lanes.
The study’s authors engaged with different stakeholder groups - policy workers, academics, city engineers - and while Harris commutes to campus by bike, she’ll leave the crusading to others. “We made a lot of effort to ensure this study would be a relevant product to the community,” she says. “My job is to provide evidence. Once you have the evidence, how do you implement change?”
Related on the dandyBLOG: