The cyclist’s dilemma: How safety, climate and air pollution collide on America’s roadways

Walkers and bikers are getting killed at alarming rates -- at a time when we need this type of transportation more than ever. 

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed on American roads, according to data released this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another 857 cyclists were killed. That means that on average, 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in traffic crashes last year.

That’s more than 7,000 human beings whose lives were cut short early in just a single year. Mothers. Fathers. Husbands. Wives. Kids. Siblings. Friends. That’s more than 7,000 funerals that shouldn’t have taken place. What’s worse, this incalculable heartbreak was preventable. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I bike to work everyday, and I constantly have to deal with Uber and Lyft drivers pulling in and out in front of me. Then there are people who after parking on the street open their doors without looking. I also have to be mindful of trucks taking wide turns while paying no attention to who might be around them. The list goes on. But I bike because it’s the fastest way to get to work, it’s exercise and it’s a climate friendly choice. But on my bike ride into work this morning I was thinking about this blog and about this new data, and I got scared. I got scared and thought, “maybe I shouldn’t bike to work anymore.” I have a 2-year-old daughter and a second daughter on the way. What if something were to happen to me? I want my kids to grow up in a world where global warming and air pollution aren’t constant threats, but I also want them to grow up with their dad around. I wish I was being dramatic, but these numbers say that I’m not. 

I’m sure lots of people who walk or bike face this same dilemma, and many of them decide to stop walking or biking for these reasons. But with everything we know about global warming and air pollution, that should be a huge red flag. 

Biking and walking are pure zero-emissions ways to get around. We have to act on climate change in a big way, and our transportation system is a key place to start. That sector is not only America’s biggest source of carbon pollution, but it’s also one of the biggest sources in the world. Our country’s cars, trucks, trains and other vehicles emit more carbon dioxide than the entire economy of any single country other than China and India. We simply can’t solve global warming without reducing the amount we drive. 

Along with accelerating  global warming, car emissions are also worsening air quality and making people sick. Air pollution was on the decline for several years, but it’s getting worse again. Following a 24 percent drop between 2009 and 2016, particulate matter in the air increased 5.5 percent  over the last two years in the U.S., leading to an estimated additional 10,000 early deaths. Cars and trucks, again, are a major source of this air pollution. What’s worse, the amount we drive our cars and trucks keeps going up. As long as that continues, we’re going to have a hard time maintaining a healthy air quality. 

So we know that making walking and biking safer is a win on multiple fronts — safety, climate change and air quality. What’s more, we know how to make it safer — and, as a result, more popular. Lower speed limits. Build separated bike lanes. Give people dedicated, highly visible space to walk along and cross streets. None of these fixes are even that expensive in the grand scheme of things.

All this should be a no-brainer, but, tragically, so far it isn’t. Our streets are currently designed to move cars above all else, or as Smart Growth America has written, they are “Dangerous by Design.” When a pedestrian or cyclist is killed, you often hear a lot of victim blaming. “They were jaywalking.” Or “they were texting.” Or “that’s too busy a road; they shouldn’t have been biking there.” Whatever the specific accusation, the basic idea behind this misguided criticism is that roads are for cars and people who walk or bike on them are somewhere they don’t belong. In other words, if you really want to get where you are going, you should hop in a car.

Why is it still this way? Why haven’t we already done everything we can to make it safer and easier for people? Part of the problem is messaging. Nobody wants people dying when they walk or bike, but we rarely do a good job of putting a face on the people who are killed. In addition, we often fail in highlighting the simple fixes that could have prevented their deaths. 

Instead, those who grumble about how a new bike lane or speed limit reduction would inconvenience drivers far too often win — sometimes with absurd arguments like “paint stripe pollution” or “historic preservation.” Look, I’m all for historic preservation, but not when people’s lives are at stake. Especially when what is being proposed is as small as painting a bike lane and putting up some dividers. 

It’s time to get our priorities straight and transform our transportation system. It’s time to stop making excuses, stop victim blaming and stop ignoring the solutions. We can make it safer to walk and bike, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and we can improve air quality. So let’s do it.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG