Education is no substitute for bike infrastructure

On July 11, the Ottawa Citizen published an op-ed by Monna-leigh McElveny, a CANBIKE 4 instructor with the Kanata Nepean Bike Club, Safety and Education, following a collision between a cyclist and truck in Centretown West. In the op-ed, McElveny argued for an education-based approach to keeping people biking safe (McElveny wrote a strikingly similar piece in 2018). 

The arguments in these op-eds are concerning for a number of reasons, the most significant being that bike safety education will never be sufficient armor against the average two-tonne steel car, let alone SUVs and trucks. To promote bike safety education in the wake of horrific collisions like the one in question, undermines the importance of bike infrastructure and any meaningful progress in shifting the narrative from individual responsibility to systematic design changes. 

This emphasis on bike safety education suggests that both drivers and people biking alike can be conditioned to coexist on roads with 100% accuracy. This outdated approach does not leave room for human error, which we know is common. Cities around the world have been acknowledging the problems with this approach, however, and many are adopting Vision Zero and the Safe System Approach. Vision Zero is the commitment to eliminating all serious road injuries and fatalities. The Safe System Approach shifts the responsibility of road safety from users to system designers, and supports bike infrastructure.

In the op-ed, McElveny makes an unsubstantiated claim that “without bike safety education…., cycling infrastructure can create false security and result in increased accidents” when data has shown the opposite. For example, a 2019 study in Toronto showed that cycle tracks (physically separated bike lanes) reduced cyclist-motor vehicle collisions by 38%. In Ottawa, the Laurier Segregated Bike Lane Safety Review in 2016–17 found that cyclist–motor vehicle collisions decreased by 30% with the implementation of segregated lanes. However, despite the reduction, serious injuries and fatalities have still occurred on Laurier Avenue because of insufficient protection for people biking—and specifically because vehicles are allowed to drive into and across active bike lanes.

In contrast to the proven positive impacts of bike infrastructure, there is limited evidence to support bike/road safety education in reducing collisions. A 2014 systematic review of the effectiveness of bike safety and skills training in youth found that it did not reduce injuries related to cycling. Similarly, a 2021 study found no evidence to support the effectiveness of driver education on reducing injuries or collisions. 

To suggest that fatal and serious injury collisions could have been prevented with more education leads to victim-blaming rather than addressing the real issue: the lack of safe bike infrastructure. 

Anika Koskela is a member of Bike Ottawa’s Advocacy Working Group.