Generally speaking, a U-shaped curve on a graph that tracks fatalities over time is a sign of an emerging public-health issue that warrants serious concern. That’s exactly what you find when looking at the number of cyclists killed by drivers in the U.S. over the past three decades. From 1990 until 2010, fatalities dropped 27 percent, from 859 to 623 per year. From 2010 to 2018, they increased 38 percent, to 857 annually, the highest number since, well, 1990. After nearly 30 years, despite an uptick in helmet use and improvements in bike infrastructure, the grim totals are virtually the same. The same trends hold true for those on foot—for anyone outside a car, our streets and roads look more dangerous than they have in decades. It might not seem that way while cities are locked down and streets remain empty. But during the COVID-19 crisis, more people have been walking and biking than ever in the U.S.—a trend we hope Americans can sustain in the months and years to come. Drivers have continued to kill cyclists during the lockdowns, however, and when traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, the death toll will surely spike again.
Of course, statistics can be misleading. Even before the pandemic, there were more people riding bikes than there were in the late eighties, so a rise in fatalities doesn’t conclusively mean that cycling is more dangerous. But we do know that the recent, nearly decade-long increase in deaths outstrips growth in participation. We know that more of these deaths are taking place in urban areas than in rural areas, compared with three decades ago, including 29 last year in New York City alone. And we know that many European cities, where rates of cycling participation are even higher, haven’t seen upswings in tragic accidents during that same period. In fact, in Oslo and Helsinki, not a single cyclist or pedestrian was killed in a roadway crash last year. That’s no accident—it was the result of a comprehensive policy initiative, called Vision Zero, designed to improve road safety. (New York has its own Vision Zero policy, but it’s failed miserably.)