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Supporters insist Seattle’s new bike share program not an accident in the making

As 500 new bikes hit the streets of Seattle Monday thanks to the city’s new Pronto bike share program, you have to wonder if we’ll see a dramatic increase in accidents.

Despite a number of tourists and inexperienced riders potentially taking to the roads, backers insist it’ll actually make the streets safer.

“There’s strength in numbers,” says Pronto Cycle Share Executive Director Holly Houser.

She argues the more bikes there are on the road, the more visible they are to cars. And she says the bikes themselves encourage more of a cautious, slow style of riding.

The custom bicycles were designed specifically for the program. They’re more upright and have wider tires and a heavier frame than a traditional road bike.

“Everything about these bikes makes them comfortable and easy, too, and they encourage more of a slow, leisurely style of riding,” Houser says.

The program provides maps at every one of its 50 stations around the city, and offers suggested routes, many of which include quieter streets or those that have been upgraded with designated bike lanes, including the new separated bike lane on Second Avenue downtown.

“For somebody who is a tourist, they’re going to probably stick to more bike-friendly routes. So they’ll be able to have that information to help with their riding,” Houser says.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has provided 2,000 bike maps and brochures called Seattle by bike with safety tips, according to spokesperson Mary Beth Turner.

SDOT is also working with the Seattle Police Department on a public information campaign to educate riders about their rights and responsibilities, including yielding to pedestrians on sidewalks, Turner says.

The experience in other cities seems to support Houser’s contention that bike share programs make the streets safer for cyclists.

A recent analysis found the number of bicycle-related injuries decreased about 28 percent in five cities that offer bike share programs including Washington, D.C., Boston, Minneapolis, Miami Beach and Montreal, according to a report by City Lab.

The number of head injuries from bicycle-related accidents also decreased by about 14 percent, according to the analysis by University of British Columbia researcher Kay Teschke.

That contradicts a highly-publicized study published in the American Journal of Public Health, authored by a Washington State University researcher, that suggested the number of head injuries increased in cities with bike-share programs.

While not mandatory, Seattle’s bike share program offers complimentary helmets with each rental, which Houser says will also go a long way in increasing the safety of the program for riders using the bikes. A number of other programs including those in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis, by comparison, do not.

But the Washington Post points out that there have been no reports of a major injury involving bike share riders in Minneapolis and no head injuries at all. Washington D.C.’s program reported fewer than 100 crashes since 2010 in over 6.8 million bike trips, the Post reported.

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