Op-ed: Ways we can make Utah safer for bicycles

Written by: Shawn Teigen

Bikes are the best.

They are good for our physical and mental health, as well as for economic, environmental and practical reasons.

OK, not everyone feels that way. Many drivers would prefer not to share the road with bicycles, or pedestrians, for that matter. Further, many who would like to bicycle are reluctant for one reason or another.

A top reason for this reluctance is danger. That makes sense, particularly given a recent spike in bicyclist deaths on the road. The reasons for the increase in deaths are complex but clearly include speeding and dangerous driving.

The individual behind the wheel of a red Toyota Tacoma who hit me in 2019 was doing both of these things. The driver was speeding down 500 East in Salt Lake City, taking the corner heading east on 1700 South at 50 mph or more, when he fishtailed into the oncoming lane. Had the driver hit me with the grill of the vehicle instead of the rear quarter-panel — you would certainly not be reading this right now. Thanks, driver, for not killing me.

In fact, surviving a collision with an automobile going 50-plus mph is statistically almost impossible, while the likelihood of surviving a 20-mph crash is 95% survivable.

A new report from the Utah Foundation suggests that one of the reasons we are speeding more often and driving more dangerously is a lack of police presence. Indeed, Utah police are giving 80% fewer traffic tickets that they did in 2000 — even with a larger population today. Why?

In part, it’s because the police are busy with an increasing and more complex workload today than they were two decades ago. Would an increase in police presence result in slower speeds, safer driving, and fewer pedestrian and bicycle deaths? Certainly. For those of us who drove somewhere today, nearly all of us broke a law by — at the very least — exceeding the posted speed limit.

Short of additional police on the street keeping our behaviors in check, there are ways to increase safety. How? In a word: Infrastructure.

I use myself as an example because I often ride my bike, but more and better infrastructure will benefit all of us regardless of our mode of transportation.

To understand the importance of infrastructure, it is helpful to understand a well-known categorization of cyclists by type. Roughly, people are either: fearless, confident, concerned, or “no way, no how.”

Over half of all Americans are in the concerned-about-riding category, but still interested in doing so. How do we help ourselves get on our bikes?

I used to be the fearless type. Since being hit, I have been downgraded to “confident.” Where I once rode on any street, I now prefer protected bike lanes. While these lanes that share blacktop with cars are great, they are still not safe enough for some concerned riders.

An even better option is the type of infrastructure we are now seeing around the state — the trails that are the focus of the Utah trail network. These are connecting existing trails that are easy for Utahns to access, those running near parks and rivers, and just over the fences of some of our own backyards.

These include the amazing Murdock Canal Trail in Utah County, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Rail Trail in Davis County, the Ogden River Parkway Trail in Weber County, and many others. In Salt Lake County, we are fortunate to have a similar network of trails, but we also have some great active-transportation focused routes.

Have you ever taken UTA’s trolley to Sugarhouse? Along that route is an amazing S-Line trail that connects to other trails in the valley. Salt Lake City also just finished some complete-streets infrastructure on 300 West and is working on an even more impressive east-west route aptly titled the 9-Line on 900 South.

These are all essentially wide sidewalks. While not perfect, this type of infrastructure helps provide the level of safety to bicyclists similar to that of pedestrians. I now choose the 9-Line as my bike commute every day. It is simply safer than sharing the street with a 4,000-pound Toyota.

Safety is at the heart of the newest Utah Foundation report. As part of the Healthy Communities Series, the report provides policymakers with ideas for investing in safer routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. This benefits all Utahns, not just those interested in biking.

Again, bikes are the best. With more effort and funding to increase bicycle infrastructure, we could see increasing numbers of people out and about enjoying active transportation, running errands, seeing friends, going to school, and commuting to work. With this, we might also see an increase in all Utahns’ quality of life.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Deseret News. Shawn Teigen is the president of the Utah Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.

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