To “promote and increase bicycling as an energy-efficient, nonpolluting and healthful transportation alternative” has been statutory policy of the state of Minnesota for more than 30 years.
So it’s especially troubling to count the deaths of four bicyclists in collisions with motor vehicles in the Twin Cities area over just the past three weeks. Two of them were the victims of hit-and-run drivers whom police are still seeking.
These fatalities brought to nine the number of Minnesotans killed on bicycles this year, more than double the toll of four in 2007 and slightly more than the 10-year average of eight. This of course, pales in comparison with the hundreds of motorists killed on Minnesota roads each year. But it may be a grim reminder that pedal power is taking its place as a mainstream transportation option in our state.
A 2005 U.S. Census survey found that Minneapolis was second only to Portland, Ore., among U.S. cities in the percentage of workers commuting by bicycle – 2.4 percent. In 2003, more than 2,300 bicyclists were counted both entering and leaving downtown Minneapolis during a 12-hour weekday. The 2000 Census found that 7.7 percent of Minnesota households had no motor vehicle.
Now, at a time of shaky economic underpinnings and gasoline prices far above historic averages, it’s more than likely that bicycling to work, play or shopping is even more prevalent. And the trend will probably have to accelerate if Minnesota is to attain its 2007 statutory goal of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
That means it’s important for both bicyclists and motorists to put new emphasis on safety if Minnesota is to avoid a tragic continuing spike in bicycle deaths. Public authorities are doing their part, making bicycle-safe infrastructure improvements such as Minneapolis’ pioneering left-side bike lanes on one-way streets downtown (which improve bikers’ visibility to drivers and reduce car-door crashes and traffic conflicts with parked delivery trucks).
Drivers need to start seeing bicycles and give them the three-foot minimum clearance required by law when passing. And when accidents happen – 1,020 by official count in Minnesota last year, involving 979 injuries – drivers should stay at the scene. This year alone, Minneapolis police have recorded 47 car-bike hit-and-runs.
Bikers need to obey the rules of the road, which apply to them just as to motorists. They should wear helmets, which greatly reduce the risk of death or life-altering injury in a crash. They should make sure brakes, lights and wheels are in good working order before hopping on the saddle.
Bicyclists have a right to our streets and roads. They pay an equal portion with motorists of property taxes that fund local thoroughfares, which is where most cycling occurs. And because bicycles take less space on the road than cars, cause less wear-and-tear on pavement and impose relatively small external costs, cyclists tend to pay more than their fair share of roadway costs.
Bikes will play an increasingly important role in a 21st century transportation system. Let’s encourage cycling and ensure it’s safe and easy.