Why safer roads make cities more liveable

4th May 2018

By Alexandre Santacreu*

Why is the protection of vulnerable road users in cities so important? Feeling safe amid the hustle and bustle of urban traffic is a crucial aspect of how citizens judge their urban environment. It is also often underrated. But a liveable city must also be a safe city, where parents can be confident to let their children walk to school without the danger of being hit by a car, and commuters can cycle to work without fear.

Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists represent eight out 10 fatalities in city traffic. Pedestrians are 10 times more likely per kilometre travelled to be killed in an urban traffic crash than car occupants. These figures come out of the Safer City Streets initiative, a global network of road safety experts working in and with cities. Safer City Streets is also a global database for urban mobility and road safety data, with indicators to compare performance and monitor progress.

A global network for urban road safety

The initiative is managed by the International Transport Forum, a Paris-based intergovernmental organisation with 59 member countries, and is generously supported by the International Automobile Federation (FIA). Over the past two years, the network has grown rapidly. Currently, 45 cities around the world participate in the sharing of knowledge and best practices.

Cities have long recognised the importance of promoting walking and cycling—the so-called ‘active modes’ of transport—as an important way to improve air quality, reduce congestion and address the public health issues created by many peoples’ lack of physical activity. Cities are also recognising, however, that simply painting a line on a busy street and calling it a bicycle lane is not a sustainable strategy, and that in absence of a thought-through, comprehensive approach to active mobility, traffic risks may increase rather than fall as the share of pedestrian and cyclists among road users rises.

New data sources

Cycling is a case in point. Is there safety in numbers? Does cycling become safer when more people use bicycles? Or will more cycling increase risks and lead to more casualties? With support from the European Commission, Safer City Streets has been able to collect data from more sources than were previously available. For the first time, this has made it possible to measure the risk of cyclists dying in traffic (per kilometre cycled), comparing 25 cities and urban areas around the world.

The data reveal vast differences between cities, even between places of broadly similar characteristics. Interpreting these differences in a productive way offers a simple lesson: Many cities should be able to achieve significant reductions in the number of cycling deaths and serious injuries within five to 10 years, simply by following the lead of those who are already there. The main lesson mayors and city officials will have to heed is also quite straightforward: Set credible reduction targets and underpin them with safety measures that have been shown to deliver improved safety elsewhere.

Some pragmatic things to do

There are a few areas where decision makers won’t even have to peek over their shoulder to see what colleagues in other cities are doing. If you want to promote cycling and keep those who take to it safe, speed limits and notably 30 km/h zones are one of the most obvious policies. Another no-brainer is to keep cars and cycles separated. All the red or blue paint in the world will not keep a truck from veering on a bicycle lane if there is no physical separation.

However, segregation can be expensive and take time to construct. A pragmatic option pioneered by Seville, London, Mexico City and New York City, among other places, is light segregation: Instead of concrete separators, rows of light delineator posts or similar infrastructure can make it much less likely for cars to “cross the line” and hit a cyclist. Thus, light segregation offers a relatively cheap, quick and flexible solution to protect cyclists, which can be used in both temporary and permanent situations.

Road safety will be at the core of debate at the Annual Summit of Transport Ministers this month (23-25 May, Leipzig, Germany) organised by the International Transport Forum. ‘Working together for safer city streets’ is the theme of the main plenary on 25 May that will bring together decision makers from national administrations, cities and the private sector to explore ways to make urban traffic safe—and cities more liveable.

*Alexandre Santacreu is a road safety expert at the International Transport Forum and the project lead for Safer City Streets. He can be reached at alexandre.santacreu@itf-oecd.org. Recent ITF road safety publications and more Summit information at www.itf-oecd.org

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