Dying to Get Home

Data science has made massive strides in the last decade. It’s the evil magic that allows retailers to buttonhole you wherever you go, and the good magic that lets us understand, in clear detail, the causes of underlying problems. You take the crunchy with the smooth, I guess. One thing I learned over years working in marketing, though, is that many humans are immune to data. Numbers don’t move them, no matter how clear the numerical case is made. Instead, they thrive on anecdote. These are not bad people. Humanity has traveled thousands of years on word-of-mouth stories. We relate to them. We invest emotionally.

The received wisdom in cycling, over the last twenty years is that riders have flocked to gravel and mountain biking, because they no longer want to deal with the stress of riding on the road. They no longer want to brook the danger. I, myself, have parroted this narrative and accepted it as obviously true.

As with any good story, however, it’s good to get some data to back it up.

And so, I was horrified/satisfied to read this piece in the New York Times last week.

For those who don’t want to click over, let me summarize the salient points.

  1. Among wealthy nations, the US sees the highest number of road deaths per million people at nearly 150.
  2. In 2021, 43,000 people died on American roads.
  3. During the pandemic, the number of deaths rose by 5%, much of that among “vulnerable” road users, i.e. pedestrians and cyclists.

Not surprisingly, the primary cause for this bit of “American exceptionalism” is an infrastructure badly skewed toward automotive transport. We put cars first. We prioritize the maximum possible speed for cars, even in densely populated areas. We enforce speed limits poorly.

Other developed countries lowered speed limits and built more protected bike lanes. They moved faster in making standard in-vehicle technology like automatic braking systems that detect pedestrians, and vehicle hoods that are less deadly to them. They designed roundabouts that reduce the danger at intersections, where fatalities disproportionately occur.


Sadly, none of this will surprise you. If you’ve been riding the roads for decades, like I have, you have seen it all unfolding. Even as strips of paint marked out places for cyclists to ride, distracted drivers have continued to rule the roads. Even as the pandemic launched legions of new riders, drivers took the decrease in traffic as a license to speed.

The narrative here (and this is my own, not the Times’) is not: Drivers Bad, Cyclists Good. Anecdotally, I have seen just as many folks (proportionally speaking) riding their bikes badly as I have seen driving badly. The story, for me, is that infrastructure is more important than culture. In other words, you can foster a cycling culture in your community, but if it’s not matched with infrastructure, you’re still going to have injuries and deaths result.

Unfortunately, Americans seem to have a higher tolerance for danger and death than most other countries. While prizing our own safety, we tend to disregard the well-being of other people, especially when the belong to a group we perceive as “other,” like bike riders, just as one example.

This piece is commentary on a news story authored by Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano.

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    More numbers: the number of cyclist deaths in 2021 compared to the population was about 0.0003%. From cancer, about .17%, or 566 times higher. From heart disease, .2%, or about 667 times higher.

  2. jlaudolff says

    Support you local cycling advocacy group! Out here it is Cascade Bike Club which has a lobbying arm called WaBikes. They are the ones going to the state capital and scrutinizing every scrap of transportation funding. They also go to the city council and county council meetings to make sure new road projects include all the right stuff.

  3. mattdwyerva says

    You probably already know about the YouTube channel, NotJustBikes, but I recently stumbled onto it, which then led me to Strong Towns, a non profit that shows how car dependent suburbia is an economic disaster. NJB meanwhile shows the many ways Amsterdam fixed infrastructure over the past two decades. We don’t need to invent this stuff because it’s already been done, all we have to is copy and paste.

    Many compelling arguments in both places that support my real motivation: to avoid death by car.

  4. Pat Navin says

    Ironic that I just added a comment in your World Cup post about creating an urban cycling event that would draw a huge, worldwide audience.

    As someone who commuted daily in Chicago for more than 30 years, I did not escape unscathed. The near-misses were legion, and the actual crack-ups were worse. Some of them were my fault, but most were the result of distracted drivers, unleashed dogs, runners with earbuds making abrupt changes in direction, car doors and all the usual hazards of urban cycling. I’d still rather ride than drive or take public transit.

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