Research shows bike sharers have lower rates of injury than other cyclists

Metro launches its bike-share pilot program Thursday in downtown Los Angeles with 1,000 bikes docked at 65 different locations.
Metro launches its bike-share pilot program Thursday in downtown Los Angeles with 1,000 bikes docked at 65 different locations.
LA Metro

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When Los Angeles County's transit agency launches the largest bike-share system in the county with 1,000 bikes in downtown L.A. on Thursday, safety will be on the minds of those monitoring the program.

A recent death by a bike-share user in Chicago has given safety issues some currency, although research shows that such sharing systems are safer than other cycling activity.

A young woman was killed in the July 1 crash while riding a shared bike in the city's Avondale neighborhood, the Chicago Tribune reported. It was the first death in the eight-year history of bike-share systems in the U.S.

"Bike-sharing like bicycling is a mode that has some element of risk and exposure," said Elliot Martin, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, who authored a study on bike-share safety earlier this year for San Jose State University's Mineta Transportation Institute.

Despite the inherent risks of bicycling, Martin found the rate of injury among bike-share riders to be much lower than the rate among cyclists at large.

Though Martin completed his research before the recent fatality in Chicago, he calculated that even factoring in a single death in one of his sample areas would bring the fatality rate to just half that for cyclists in general in the same area.

Experts and bike-share user focus groups interviewed for the study pointed to the design of the bikes as the major factor in safety.

"Bike sharing bikes are typically built to be more sturdy, heavier, wider tires and they’re generally painted these bright colors," said Martin. That makes bikes more visible and harder to maneuver, reducing risky behavior.

Although helmet use was rare among the bike-share users surveyed, the riders reported more cautious behavior than average urban cyclists, due in part to both the bike design and the relative inexperience of many bike sharing riders.

Like most bike-share systems, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will not provide helmets at the check-out kiosks. The agency advises users to bring their own for better protection.

Metro's safety page also provides a list of things to check before riding the bikes, including tire pressure, seat height and tightness, and wheel and brake function.