The Case For More Off-Road Bicycle Trails

The pandemic has certainly taught people lessons they’d never have expected. It also shined a new light on the way we do things, and the consequences, good and bad of that. One thing that Covid made clear was that off-road bicycle trails have a dramatic impact on bicycle safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that when cyclists move to off-road bicycle trails, they’re much safer. 

A woman rides a bicycle in the woods.
A woman on a bicycle | John Gibson via Getty Images

The IIHS found that bicycle accidents were way down during the pandemic

When so many businesses and indoor spaces were shutting down due to the pandemic, bicycling began heating up. People spent as much time as they could outdoors. Those without bicycles were clamoring to get their hands on the few that were available. And those with bicycles took to the trails and roads in droves. 

The IIHS found that the number of people using bicycle trails in Arlington, VA between March 2020 and December 2020 increased by 4%, or about 40,000 riders during those months. Yet the rate of crashes resulting in injuries decreased by a huge amount – 28%. Why was there such a drastic reduction in the number of crashes resulting in injury? The IIHS says that it’s because cyclists changed the way they were riding. 

IIHS researchers delved into the whys of fewer accidents

IIHS researchers wanted to find out why there were so few accidents involving bicycles during these months. They attribute part of the decrease to a reduction in the number of cars on the road. Yet that didn’t give the full picture, so the IIHS looked more closely at what was happening in Arlington. It’s a good city to study bicycle patterns in, because it’s large, densely populated, and extremely bicycle-friendly. 

Arlington has more than 52 miles of off-road bicycle trails and 37 miles of on-road bicycle lanes. Riders took to the off-road trails in much larger numbers than they had in 2019. 65,000 more people used off-road bicycle trails compared to 2019. And 25,000 fewer people used on-road bicycle lanes. The number of people riding during morning hours (which is the most dangerous time of day) decreased by half. 

 Statistician Sam Monfort is the lead author of the paper that the IIHS produced. He says, “Cyclists moved from unprotected bicycle lanes to off-road trails and rode less often in the morning hours, which are normally the most dangerous.”

It isn’t just the shift in patterns that contributed to fewer accidents

The IIHS says that part of the reason that Arlington saw fewer accidents is because they were able to handle a massive shift in traffic patterns. With so many available off-road trails, cyclists had ample space to spread out and ride off-road. 

Montfort says, “We found that Arlington’s network of off-road trails was able to absorb a large amount of additional traffic in 2020 — at least 300 more riders per day compared with the year before. Places with fewer trails might have seen an increase in cyclists on the road instead, leading to more injury crashes with motor vehicles.”

The lesson that can be learned from this study is that more off-road bicycle lanes will make cycling safer. If more cities and areas of the country become more bicycle-friendly, it can create a safer and greener commute and recreational activity for people.

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