How Atlanta hopes to save lives with a Chief Bicycle Officer

Fri, 2016-03-11 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

While some cities are just getting around to hiring Chief Innovation Officers, Atlanta has made a hire that could launch another new trend: It hired a Chief Bicycle Officer.

You may question how many chiefs a city really needs, but U.S. cities significantly lag major metropolitan areas elsewhere both in terms of how many people commute by bike and how many of them arrive safely.

Given both goals aren’t happening by themselves, Atlanta’s approach could play a significant role in helping the U.S. catch up — and save lives in the process. Make sure to note the research that guides it. — Kevin Ebi

What does a Chief Bicycle Officer do?
The Chief Bicycle Officer is responsible for anything and everything relating to biking in the city. Part engineer, part advocate, Becky Katz is responsible for designing and managing Atlanta's bicycle projects, everything from development and project management to public outreach and grant writing. She will also work with the city and state transportation departments to include bicycle projects in their work.

She’s one of just 4,000 Atlanta residents who commutes by bicycle. The city has 2.6 million commuters. Not quite halfway into her first year on the job, she wants to dramatically increase that percentage. (Cities like Portland, Oregon, have 10 times as many.) City leaders, meanwhile, want to go even farther: They want Atlanta to be one of America’s best cities for bicycling.

What makes bicyclists safer?
Barely six months before taking the job, Katz was seriously injured in a bicycle accident. A driver rear-ended her, sending her to the hospital with a broken shoulder socket and wrist.

More than dedicated bicycle lanes or any other individual tactic, research shows the best way to improve safety is simply to get more people to ride. There is safety in numbers.

European cities are generally well ahead of their American counterparts in terms of bicycle ridership. As more people ride, the accident rate falls dramatically. Portland shows that holds true in the U.S. As its number of daily bicycle trips quadrupled, the accident rate dropped by about three-quarters.

How do you get more people to ride?
In addition to being an advocate, Katz is also helping to educate city staff. For example, it matters how grating is installed on the roadway. If the bars run parallel to traffic, a bicyclist’s tire can get stuck it, likely throwing the rider over the handle bars.

The BBC also advocates Atlanta’s approach. One of the main challenges face is trying to make room for cyclists on infrastructure that’s designed for cars. Having an advocate for cyclists who’s involved at the earliest stage of projects can help you avoid costly retrofit work later.

More stories …
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Bike lanes to nowhere? Cycling infrastructure hits and misses