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Study says bike-shares are safer than private bikes

FARGO — Since Great Rides Bike Share started renting out bicycles a year and a half ago, users have made more than 200,000 trips without an injury accident.

There was a collision with a car about a year ago, but the speed was low because the rider and driver were trying to yield to each other and ended up going at once, said Operations Director Sara Watson Curry. She said the rider was not injured.

The low accident rate is no fluke.

A study this year of several large bike-share systems, including Nice Ride Minnesota in the Twin Cities, found that their users were involved in fewer injury or fatal accidents than those riding private bikes, according to the authors at California's Mineta Transportation Institute. In fact, the first-ever fatal accident involving a bike-share user happened this July in Chicago despite their growing popularity in the past decade.

Users and experts surveyed by the study believe that's partly because bike-share bicycles offer many safety features and because they're not designed to go very fast.

"They're not built for speed, for sure," Curry said, noting that the bikes are sturdy on purpose to resist wear and tear.

Safe rides

When bike-shares began popping up in cities across the country starting in 2007 in Tulsa, Okla., critics worried bike injuries would skyrocket because helmets usually weren't rented out and because primary users were expected to be inexperienced riders

But the injury rate never matched the fears.

The Mineta study appears to be the first to compare the accident rate between bike-share users and riders of private bicycles.

Between 1999 and 2003, the injury rate among all U.S. bicyclists was estimated at 1,461 per 100 million trips and the fatality rate was 21 per 100 million trips, the study shows.

Because there is no national bike-share data, the institute looked at three systems: Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C.; the Bay Area Bike Share in California; and Nice Ride Minnesota. Taken together, their hospital-injury rate works out to 399 per 100 million trips during the study period, which varied by system. There were no deaths, but if there had been one, the fatality rate would have been 14 per 100 million trips.

The institute was careful to note the two sets of data were not directly comparable. For example, national numbers include children, but bike-sharing is only for adults.

There isn't enough data to offer a clear comparison in Fargo, though it does appear Great Rides users have a better safety record than most bicyclists. The Police Department says there have been 67 bicycle accidents since 2015, including accidents that do not cause injury. It doesn't have an estimate of the number of trips. To match Great Rides' rate of one accident per 200,000 trips — 500 per 100 million trips — all Fargo bicyclists would have to take 13.4 million trips. On a per capita basis, that wouldd be eight times as many trips as the national average.

Slow riders

The reason why bike-shares achieved such a low accident rate has not been studied, but bike-share users and safety and transportation experts interviewed by Mineta believe the design is key.

While some features, such as LED lights and reflectors, are deliberately aimed at safety, many others appear to increase safety as a byproduct.

Unlike privately owned bicycles, bicycles used by bike-shares must serve riders of varying physical abilities and handle the stress of thousands of trips. The 200,000-plus trips clocked by Great Rides' users over 12 months — the season starts in April and ends in November — was achieved with about 100 bicycles.

That's why the frame is heavy and sturdy. The average mountain bike weighs 30 pounds; Great Rides' bicycles weigh 55 pounds. There's no crossbar, making it easier for users to mount and lowering the center of gravity. The seat configuration allows users to sit in a comfortable upright position, but is not as aerodynamic as having them lean over the handlebars.

The bike's gears, enclosed in the hub, don't need much cleaning and maintenance. Three gear ratios are offered, compared to the Derailleur gears found in most private bikes that allow more than two-dozen gears.

"In other words, differences in bicycle design tend to encourage a slower, more conservative riding behavior among bikesharing users," the Mineta study says.

The study and Curry also recognized that safety is also shaped by other factors.

Users tend to be cautious because they don't want to pay for damage or because they're not as familiar with the bicycles. Stations where bicycles are rented also tend to be located in areas where traffic is slow and bike lanes are available. Great Rides' stations are clustered downtown or the North Dakota State University campus.

There is one feature of bike-shares that is not considered very safe: the lack of helmets for rent. While some systems, such as in the Twin Cities, share helmets, most, including Great Rides, do not, in part because users are grossed out by the idea.

"We certainly encourage people if they have their own helmet to wear them," Curry said, but her team hasn't figured out "a very hygienic way" to provide them.

On the Web: To see the Mineta study, go to " target="_blank">transweb.sjsu.edu/project/1204.html.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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