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Riding A Divvy Is Safer Than Riding A Personal Bike

By Kirsten Onsgard in News on Apr 19, 2016 8:57PM

Divvy bikes (Photo by Phil Roeder via the Chicagoist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

Given the panic when Divvy first launched in 2013, you might have thought the city was taking the training wheels off droves of teetering wannabe bicyclists and unleashing them onto the streets. Videos confirming that clueless bike riders were wandering down Lake Shore Drive or onto the Dan Ryan didn't help.

But here’s a shocking statistic: three years later, zero fatalities have been associated with bike sharing in Chicago. Typically five to eight cyclists a year die in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"So far, bike share is showing itself to be a very safe means of transportation and dispelling those early concerns that it was going to be pandemonium and chaos on the road," Jason Ray Jenkins, education specialist at the Active Transportation Alliance told Chicagoist.

Divvy is in line with trends around the country: so far no one in the U.S. has died in a bike sharing-related incident since bike shares were first rolled out in 2007. Compare that to the overall number of cyclists killed nationally: 21 per 100 million bicycle trips.

A new report concludes that cyclists using bike shares are safer than bikers on their own personal bikes. The study, conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute, concluded that the rate of bike sharers also have a lower injury rate than cyclists on personal bikes.

That seems to hold true in Chicago, as well. There are no apples to apples statistics, since we don't know how many miles cyclists travel when they are not on Divvy bikes, but Divvy injuries make up an incredibly small proportion of reported injuries. The Tribune says there were 18 Divvy crashes out of the 2,803 total bike crashes in Chicago between June 28, 2013 and the end of 2014.

"When people hear that, they're more likely to think of it as a transportation option they can take advantage of," Active Transportation Alliance Communications Director Ted Villiare told Chicagoist.

The idea behind Divvy seems intuitively unsafe: sending hordes of less experienced riders—including tourists new to the city—onto the street, often without helmets. But there are a couple theories, cited by the report and local experts, about why bike shares have ended up being safer than riding on your own bike.

One major factor, the report found, could be the bike’s clunky design. Bike share bicycles tend to be bulky—an average of about 40 pounds—with wide tires and fewer gears, forcing riders to move at a slower pace.

"If I'm on my road bike, I’m kind of hauling through traffic and go quick and take a few more risks,” Filit Soltys, a mechanic at Kozy Cyclery, told Chicagoist. “That thing is pretty heavy and only has three speeds, so that will limit how fast you’re going to go."

Jenkins also pointed out that the upright seating might encourage a more laid back approach to riding.

The bright colored design and LED lights also help to alert drivers to cyclists' presence.

Though bike share cyclists might be inexperienced—and might occasionally make a few embarrassing mistakes—that does not always mean they are reckless. Some experts cited in the study argued that newer cyclists are more likely to be cautious. Being on a Divvy is also a clear sign to drivers that they should be wary of bike share users, according to the study.

“These are people who aren’t riding normally, but when they do ride, they’re going to ride more cautiously,” Soltys said.

One theory that the study couldn't corroborate was the idea that more riders using bike shares were good for everyone. Statistics from the study didn't show that there was a "safety in numbers" effect for cities with bike shares, something was Jenkins was skeptical of.

But the city has been focusing on investing heavily in bike infrastructure over the past few years. Last week, the mayor announced a plan to create 50 additional miles of bike lanes by 2019, as a part of the city's Streets for Cycling 2020 initiative. Many of these will be on the South and West Sides, which have fewer protected lanes and Divvy stations than the North Side.