Corvallis Tops Cities for Ped and Bike Commuters

By Dave DeLuca

BicycleI recently witnessed a car hit a bicyclist in a very common instance of “Whose turn is it to turn?”, everyone’s favorite commuting game show. The biker was unharmed and as angry as the driver was apologetic. The drama unfolded and resolved in mere seconds as I watched from my own car. My heart still pounding, I thought to myself, “Pedestrians, bikes, and cars just cannot safely coexist in this town!”

Was I Right? Actually, Corvallis has the highest number of bike commuters of any city with a population of over 50,000 people in the country. According to the latest U.S. Census data, about 10.6% of those of us who commute to work or school do so by bike. Not only that, it has a huge population of walking commuters who live near large employers like Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard. Statistically, Corvallis has the second-highest percentage of citizens who walk to work of any city in the country: 11.2%.

It would be a natural to assume that Corvallis would have more accidents between cars and bikes as well as cars and pedestrians than most places. The statistics above don’t even account for all the students peddling and walking about.

But no, it turns out that Corvallis is really quite safe for bicyclists and pedestrians. From 2009 to 2013, there were only 68 car-pedestrian accidents requiring police reports. That averages out to less than 14 per year. Only three of the accidents resulted in fatalities. That’s not bad for a city with a population of over 54,000 which contains a major university with a student body population of 27,925.

The bicyclists are surprisingly safe here too. There were 171 bike versus car accidents in the city reported to the Corvallis Police Department between 2009 and 2013. That is an average of just over 34 per year. None of those accidents led to fatalities, and most didn’t even require a trip to the hospital.

In fact, Corvallis has been designated as a Gold-level “Walk Friendly Community” by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. Only three other cities in the state have earned the title of “Walk Friendly Community.”

The accidents that do take place rarely happen at the same location twice. From the beginning of 2009 to the end of 2011, there were 150 intersections within city limits that saw bike versus car accidents. The majority of those intersections had just one accident each in the three years. Some exceptions included several downtown streets with two minor accidents each. There were four intersections with three accidents in the three years. Two of them were near campus, and the other two were just off of 9th Street in Corvallis. The even distribution of accidents indicates a lack of problem areas. This is good news to Greg Wilson.

Wilson is a transportation program specialist with the City of Corvallis. He believes that the sheer number of bikers and pedestrians increases their safety. Bikers, pedestrians and drivers are simply accustomed to seeing each other on the roadways. A culture of awareness has been created here, and we all reap the benefits.

It’s difficult to quantify awareness, but there are plenty of tangible measures taken by the City to make all of us safer. Corvallis has bike lanes on 98% of its main roads. When bikers do choose to share high-volume roads, they usually have a protected lane. We have plenty of low-volume roads that are good alternatives for bicyclists as well.

Thanks to a decade of the Bike Safety Education Program in the Corvallis School District, safer routes to school have been developed and protected. The Neighborhood Navigators program has taught children how to be safe bikers and walkers, building the confidence and competence of younger riders.

When it comes to pedestrians our infrastructure is also increasingly designed to protect them. The advent of curb extensions known as bulb-outs downtown actively decrease the distance pedestrians have to travel across a street, while also making them more visible to motorists. Pedestrian-activated crossings with flashing yellow lights have been constructed on some of Corvallis’ wider streets like Circle Boulevard and 9th Street to allow safe crossing between intersections. Despite not technically being “traffic-controlling devices” like stop signs or traffic lights, the crossings do increase pedestrian visibility and provide a protected island.

The State of Oregon also sets a high standard for pedestrian safety as well. Though many are not aware of this law, every intersection in the state is considered a legal crosswalk. Pedestrians can request safe passage from a motorist by simply placing any body part or object in the street. With the tip of a hat, pedestrians from Portland to Monmouth can legally cross anyplace where two streets intersect.

bikesidebarSpecial Tips for Bikers
The majority of accidents that do take place are at intersections and in front of driveways. It is essential for drivers to check their blind spot before turning across a bike lane. If you see a biker when driving, be clear about whether you intend to turn in front of them or plan to wait until they pass you before making your turn. Another key is that you should never park in a bike lane, and when you are legally parked on the street be sure to check your side view mirror for oncoming bicycles before opening your driver side door. Lastly, never assume that a biker will stop at a stop sign. While it’s absolutely true that they should obey traffic laws as if they were driving a car, they still don’t deserve to be struck by your two-ton Toyota for being careless.

Bicyclists have an even greater responsibility to pay attention to their surroundings. Biking defensively can mean the difference between life and death, so pay extra attention to your surroundings when you two-wheel it on the next sunny day. You don’t know for sure that a motorist can see you, even if you’re able to see them. As a biker, you should never assume you are going to be given the space you are legally allowed. You can help cars by riding predictably, signaling, and anticipating when cars might turn right across your bike lane. Riding the wrong way in a bike lane makes you a dangerous nuisance to everyone. Signal your turns, stay off sidewalks, and don’t be afraid to “take the lane” when there is no dedicated bike lane. It will make you more visible than if you attempt to hug the parked cars to your right. And please exercise some common sense when it comes to listening to music or texting while riding; for instance, don’t text at all! And obviously, always wear a helmet.

OSU’s Role
Think of OSU as a city within a city. Now, imagine that it’s a city where nearly every citizen swaps buildings every hour during the day. How do you keep thousands of students, faculty, and staff from getting hit by cars? Rainier Farmer, chair of OSU’s Alternative Transportation Committee, says it’s done with infrastructure and education.

The danger to pedestrians comes from cars and bicycles. OSU eliminates some of the risks by keeping most of campus closed to outside automotive traffic. The roads that do allow regular motorists are heavily marked with crosswalks and stop signs. Service vehicles are allowed nearly everywhere around the school, but their drivers are accustomed to heavy foot traffic and know when to make deliveries, and when to stay off the paths.

A larger challenge comes from helping pedestrians and bicycles coexist. The school is always looking for ways to safely separate bikes and pedestrians. A recent improvement was the addition of bike lanes on 14th and 15th streets, which keep bikers off of the sidewalks. In fact, bikes are banned from sidewalks throughout campus. There are also several “dismount” zones at pedestrian pinch points. Another change was the advent of contra-flow lanes. These are roadways which allow cyclists to move in the opposite direction of motorized traffic. They convert a one-way street into two-way. The main lane is used by cars and bikes traveling in the same direction. A bike lane borders the main lane, but is designated one way in the opposite direction. Contra-flow lanes can be seen on Jefferson Way, Campus Way, and 26th Street.

“There’s only so much you can do with engineering, in terms of marking the road.” Farmer pointed out that the real challenge comes from building a safer culture. “Sharing the road, and that’s all users. That’s cyclists when they’re in the midst of pedestrians…likewise with motorists.”

Pedestrians, drivers, and bikers all benefit from keeping a cool head in an accident. The incident I witnessed was certainly kept under control by the helpful intervention of concerned citizens and the apologetic attitude of the driver at fault. The tension of a life-threatening situation can be quickly resolved when we communicate. Whether we bike, walk, or drive, we’re all sharing the same road. Maybe we can coexist after all.