Pucher 2003 - “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from The Netherlands and Germany”

Pucher, John; Dijkstra, Lewis.
“Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from The Netherlands and Germany.”
American Journal of Public Health
September 2003; v.93, n.9; pp.1509-1516
On the Web
Relevance: high

Pucher and Dijkstra used data from national travel and crash surveys to compute fatality trends fatality and injury rates for pedestrians and cyclists in The Netherlands, Germany, and the United States.  The authors found that Americans walked/biked far less than do Dutch and Germans but were much more likely to be killed or injured than were Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and per-kilometer basis.  Causes include urban design and traffic regulations.

Walking/Biking Rates: In 1995 only 6.3% of trips in urban areas in the US were made by walking/biking, compared to 12% in Canada, 34% in Germany, and 40% in the Netherlands (see article for chart and caveats).  Because 41% of all urban trips are shorter than 2 miles and 28% shorter than 1 mile, distance may not be the main barrier to walking.

The Elderly: Walking/biking rates generally increase with age in Germany and The Netherlands, while they fall in the US until age 65.  Rates are also much higher among the elderly in Germany and the Netherlands: Dutch and Germans who are 65 and older make at least 44% their trips by foot or bike, compared with only 6% of Americans aged 65 or older (see bar chart).

Fatality Rates: "Per kilometer and per trip walked, American pedestrians are roughly 3 times more likely to get killed than German pedestrians and over 6 times more likely than Dutch pedestrians.  Per kilometer and per trip cycled, American bicyclists are twice as likely to get killed as German cyclists and over 3 times as likely as Dutch cyclists" (see chart).

Cycling/Fatality Trends: Fatality numbers have fallen in all three countries, but in Germany and The Netherlands this is due to safety policies while in the US this appears to be due to fewer walkers/bikers.  "From 1975 to 2001, cyclist fatalities declined by 64% in Germany despite a boom in cycling that double the number of bike trips and a 50% growth in the share of total trips made by bike.  By contrast, the 27% fall in cyclist fatalities in the US was due almost entirely to the sharp decline in cycling by children" (see chart).

Recommendations/lessons from Germany & The Netherlands:

  • Better facilities for walking and cycling: auto-free zones; wide, well-lit sidewalks; pedestrian refuge islands; clearly marked zebra cross walks, often raised and with special lighting; bike paths and lanes forming a truly coordinated network serving practical destinations for everyday travel; “bicycle streets” were bikes have strict right of way; special bike turn lanes and traffic signals.
  • Traffic calming of residential neighborhoods: traffic calming done area-wide and not just on isolated streets so that through traffic is displaced to arterial routes and not just shifted to another local road; raised intersections and crosswalks; traffic circles; road narrowing; zigzag routes; speed bumps; artificial dead ends.
  • Urban design oriented to people and not cars: Mixed-used residential developments with cultural centers, shopping, and service establishments easily reachable by foot or bike.  Residential and commercial developments with sidewalks and bike paths instead of parking lots surrounding buildings.  When an obstacle such as a highway or river must be crossed in Germany/Netherlands, safe and attractive routes for pedestrians and cyclists are provided.
  • Restrictions on motor vehicle use: right turns on red are illegal; traffic calming; auto-free zones; dedicated rights of way for pedestrians and cyclists; lower speed limits; limited and expensive parking; most Dutch and German cities prohibit truck traffic through any kind of residential neighborhoods.
  • Traffic education: Driver training in Germany/Netherlands is much more extensive, thorough, and expensive; motorists are required to drive in a way that minimizes risk to pedestrians and cyclists, even if the pedestrians and cyclists are not following traffic regulations.
  • Traffic regulations and enforcement: Even in cases where an accident results from illegal moves by pedestrians or cyclists, the motorist is almost always found to be at least partly at fault in Germany/Netherlands.  In almost every case the police and courts find that motorists should anticipate unsafe and illegal walking and cycling.  German and Dutch police are far stricter in ticketing motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists who violate traffic regulations.


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Eric de Place

A few thoughts...

1. European bikes are safer. It's illegal to operate a bike without a working headlight, for instance (I know people who've been cited). The bikes also tend to be slower, heavier, and sturdier than the fancy American bikes.

2. I have to imagine the vehicle size/weight contributes to higher fatalities in the US. Vehicles are so much heavier and many SUVs and vans have flat-front profiles that knock people down-and-under rather than up-and-over.

3. My impression is that rates of drinking and driving are much lower in Europe. I wonder what share of ped/bike fatalities in the US involve alcohol (on the part of the driver).

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