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Making City Centers More Livable

Increasing Biking and Walking Safety Revitalizes Urban Downtowns

Courtesy Photo

Many European cities, large and small, are transforming their centers into car-free, bike- and pedestrian-friendly zones. The benefits are numerous: better air quality, less noise, thriving retail, animated cafés, abundant street entertainment, and less decay of historic structures and monuments.

While three-quarters of serious and fatal bike accidents take place in urban areas, a sizeable cycling population makes drivers more aware and seems to be the biggest factor in reducing accidents. As bicycling increases, injury risk declines markedly. The key is making streets feel safe to children, women, and seniors so that these groups feel comfortable cycling. Without exception, cities with more bicyclists are considerably safer for both cyclists and pedestrians.

Youth today are a third less likely to get a driver’s license than when baby boomers were young. Many of today’s 20-year-olds are opting for walkable-bikeable communities. Accompanying this trend, spurred by bike-sharing programs and improved biking infrastructure, are innovations to make riding safer.

To address a big cyclist concern of not being seen by motorists, a light-weight bike horn that mimics a car horn is now available. Research indicates that car horns are one of the best ways to deter car accidents. When drivers hear a horn, they immediately brake even before they know the source of the sound. Such a horn on a bike similarly deters collisions.

Another device is designed to make cyclists more visible. This “intelligent” bike light uses sensor technology to assess a rider’s environment and responds by making the rider more obvious when most needed. When the sensors detect that the cyclist is at a road junction, roundabout, or even swerves or brakes, they tell the lights to flash faster and brighter, similar to the lights of an emergency vehicle.

An innovative system of white and red LEDs mounted on bikes’ front and rear wheels illuminates wheel rims as they spin as well as the road immediately in front and behind the tires. These illuminations, white in the front and red in the rear, are visible from all angles. Another safety gadget creates two high-visibility red lasers that project lines onto the road, three feet on either side of the bike, simulating an ad hoc bike lane.

Like car airbags, an inflatable bike helmet and neck pillow is now available. It weighs a quarter of what a conventional bike helmet weighs and inflates by detecting the impact of a crash. Performance results have led a Swedish insurance company to claim that it is far better at reducing serious head/neck injuries or even fatalities than standard helmets.

These and other bike safety innovations will boost cycling and walking in our urban areas, which contribute to making cities more livable. Maybe State Street will soon become a vibrant, car-free district.

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