Commentary: Street bicycling here feels dangerous, but it shouldn’t

By James Wilson and Anna Quisel

With surging demand for cycling in 2020, Delawareans can count ourselves lucky to live in America’s sixth-ranked Bicycle Friendly State (according to the League of American Bicyclists). Over just the last decade, the state of Delaware has made significant investments in beautiful paved pathways, such as the Markell Trail (between Wilmington and New Castle), the Castle Trail (between Delaware City and Chesapeake City) and the Lewes-Georgetown Trail (which hasn’t quite made it all the way to Georgetown yet but is on its way). The counts on these trails have all skyrocketed during the pandemic.

James Wilson

While we know trail use is growing fast (we have the data for that), anecdotally we haven’t seen the same increase in cycling on Delaware’s streets. But those streets are essential for cycling-as-transportation (or even just to get to our great trails, even if we are only talking about cycling-as-recreation). So why has Delaware’s “bike boom” been mostly confined to trails so far?

The reason is that, for most of us, bicycling on many of Delaware’s streets feels dangerous.

For those who want to talk about numbers rather than feelings, 2019 was the single deadliest year for cyclists in Delaware history (seven people died last year while cycling). But even in years like 2007 and 2011 (when there were actually zero fatal crashes involving bicycles in Delaware), bicycling still felt as dangerous as it does today.

Anna Quisel

Even if you are a confident and enthusiastic cyclist, ask yourself this question: Would you let your 12-year-old daughter or son bicycle to school? How would you feel knowing that your 12-year-old granddaughter or grandson was bicycling to school every day? Relaxed? Or anxious?

We ask these questions all the time, and we know the most common answers are: “hell, no” and “incredibly anxious” (respectively).

We’ve got a lot of work to do in Delaware so that all of us feel 100% confident and relaxed about letting our children bike to school — maybe even every day! And the work we need to do to achieve that is the exact same work we need to do so that the rest of us also feel safe and comfortable cycling to get where we want to go, even if that’s only to a trail. That means safe and seamless and connected and extensive “low-stress” bicycle networks that we can all access — right from our front doors — and that we can use to get where we want to go.

And that’s exactly why Bike Delaware, with key support from AARP, has organized an online conference later this month.

The trickiest part of making streets feel (and be) safe for cycling is often not the street itself, but rather where the street crosses another street or a road, i.e., the intersection. How can an intersection feel, and be, safe for people if it’s also being used by, literally, thousands of 2-ton vehicles every day? To answer that question, we have recruited the smartest national and international experts we could find to each select a specific intersection in Delaware and to present their very smartest and most creative ideas about how to make these intersections work better for bicycle traffic.

The conference is intuitively named “Designing Delaware Intersections for People,” and it’s totally free, thanks to the generous sponsorship of AARP Delaware. You can find out more and register here: bikede.org/intersections.

James Wilson is the executive director of Bike Delaware. Anna Quisel is a retired family physician and current master’s student at the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment.