Is it safer to do a 5 mile commute on city streets on a bicycle or a motorcycle?
October 26, 2009 1:45 AM   Subscribe

Is it safer to do a 5 mile commute on busy city streets on a bicycle or a motorcycle?

Let's say we have a 5 mile commute along fairly busy 4 lane city streets. Cars are parked on the curbs on both sides of the streets. Some of the streets are very commercial with cars coming in and out of driveways. There are city buses.

Assume that I am a perfect driver, and that accidents only happen because somebody doesn't see me or sees me and misjudges how close they are to me.

Am I safer riding a motorcycle with full safety gear (going up to 35 mph) or riding a bicycle with only a bicycle helmet (up to 15 mph)?

My first thought was that the bicycle is obviously safer because of the lower speeds involved. On the other hand, I thought the motorcycle might be safer because you move at the same speed as traffic; whereas on the bike, angry drivers will constantly be trying to pass you.
posted by realpseudonym to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would say bicycle, because it's a less complex machine, won't crush or burn you if it lands on you in a crash, and is much easier to handle in stop-and-go traffic than the motorbike.

I bike all over new york city almost every day, and have found it to be pretty safe, as long as you're paying attention. Then again, I've never ridden a motorcycle through new york, an am unaware of non-obvious advantages.
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:14 AM on October 26, 2009

Since I'm about to say this, I'll probably be squished flat next week, but I actually prefer riding a motorcycle in the city to driving a car (assuming it's not pouring rain). (I have no bicycle commuting experience.) Riding in the city keeps me on edge in a way a country ride doesn't always do, and on edge is alert. It's not fright, it's focus.

I try to stay in "safe" spots in traffic, keep up with traffic, and zip around potential problems rather than hesitating (within reason and where safe, of course). I try to leave problems behind me. Mind, this is big city riding, which I find more predictable than suburban riding with its endless driveways and distracted parents with big vehicles full of kids.

I also wear an armored jacket, gloves, boots, and a helmet, and if I was commuting I'd wear my leather over-pants too.

I think the secret to my comfort is having a bike with some power in reserve (most any "real" motorcycle will) and very good brakes. If it gets cold where you are, I would hesitate, though--you can get thoroughly cold on a motorcycle in a fairly short period of time if you don't have heated clothing--and if you're cold you tend to think about your warm destination and getting there ASAP, rather than on the hazards around you.

No matter what you do, you will be safer if you decide on a motorcycle after taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.
posted by maxwelton at 2:32 AM on October 26, 2009

I've ridden both bikes and cycles in LA & Tokyo for many years and I gotta say bicycle is safer.

On a motorcycle in traffic you're put into positions where you just hope the other guy sees you, both in left turns and general lane keeping.

On a bike, I just assume I'm invisible and play defense 100%. This involves sidewalks, crosswalks, going the wrong way, and every other Critical-Mass scofflaw maneuver.

Energy of collision is a speed2 thing. Going 30mph involves not twice but several times more energies than 15mph.
posted by mokuba at 2:51 AM on October 26, 2009

I can't speak for the nature of mass transit wherever you are, but here in Vegas, the busses have bike racks on the front you can slap your ride on if you need to. An option not available to motorcycle riders. If you may ever want to take public transit, it's something to consider, as well.
posted by Rendus at 3:07 AM on October 26, 2009

If you make the assumption that you're a perfect operator, than neither is particularly dangerous. As a cyclist, you'll probably take classes in something like Effective Cycling, and implement the concepts flawlessly, every time - Not giving motorists the opportunity to door you or pass you in-lane unsafely. (Likewise for the motorcycle, but with the MSF courses above that MaxWelton links to above.) The whole point of being a good operator is that you do everything possible to take chance out of the equation.

But if you're a human being, you're going to get distracted, be tired or in a rush and fuck something up occasionally. Eventually this will happen when the universe is in an unforgiving mood.

As antic-data, I've gone over the handlebars twice in 15 or so years of commuting, and while neither time was any fun I never went to the hospital. It's hard to, statistically, identify what percentage of people have accidents that don't send them to the hospital - Where would you look for the data? You might want to look at the NHTSA website reports for fatalites both ways - but even then, you're not going to get a very complete picture.
posted by Orb2069 at 3:10 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say bicycle, because it's a less complex machine, won't crush or burn you if it lands on you in a crash

Although head injuries tend to be the most severe, leg injuries are the most common types of injuries in motorcycle crashes. I assume that's because in many cases the motorcycle ends up landing on the rider's leg.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:22 AM on October 26, 2009

i would think motorcycle, since you're operating as a motor vehicle and don't have any problem taking up a full lane of traffic and operating at the same speed as the other vehicles. you've got almost the same manuverability as a bike but the ability to go at higher speeds which would enable you to get out of some circumstances.

if you're in the main traffic lane, rather than along the side of the lane so people can pass you, you're not going to get doored when someone fails to see you and opens their car door in front of you. that, right there, removes a whole class of accidents.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:46 AM on October 26, 2009

For non-fatal injuries:

"Risk of injury from cycling compared to driving. 45,000 cyclists vs. 2.4M motorists were injured in 2005, from traveling 6.2 billion milies and 1.6 M-M miles respectively, yielding 7.3 injuries per million miles for cyclists and 1.5 injuries per million miles traveled for motorists, making cyclists 4.9 times more likely to be injured per mile of travel. NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 2005 (PDF)" (via this webpage)

For fatal injuries:

"Motorcyclists had the highest fatality rate (536.6 per 100 million person-trips), followed by other vehicle occupants (28.4 per 100 million person-trips), bicyclists (21.0 per 100 million person-trips), pedestrians (13.7 per 100 million person-trips), passenger vehicle occupants (9.2 per 100 million person-trips), and bus occupants (0.4 per 100 million person-trips). " (via this page).

You might also be interested in reading this Is Cycling Dangerous? webpage, which has a nice collection of stats.

There seems to be a lot of statistical information out there; you may be even able to find specific numbers regarding city riding vs. riding in suburbia. As a simple per-mile thing though, it looks like you may be more likely to get injured on a bicycle, but more likely to die from your injuries on a motorcycle.
posted by ragaskar at 5:13 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

All things considered, the bicycle is safer because of the speed involved. Raw statistics show a higher fatality rate for motorcyclists than for bicyclists. Both modes of transportation require a higher awareness and respect for other vehicles on the road to stay accident free.
posted by JJ86 at 6:09 AM on October 26, 2009

All things considered, the bicycle is safer because of the speed involved.

I don't think I agree with that premise. If a car t-bones you at an intersection then the speed of the person being hit tends to become irrelevant. All things considered I would feel a lot safer on my large noisy motorcycle wearing a full-face helmet, armored jacket, gloves and boots than I would on a small anonymous bicycle with a minimum of protective gear other than a small helmet.

My motorcycle gives me the power to get out of dangerous situations more quickly and with greater visibility than a bike does. But as maxwelton said, take the basic rider MSF course and maybe even the advanced course which you will benefit from greatly. And when it gets really cold just ride mass transit as there are fewer things more miserable than riding when you don't have the right gear on to keep you warm.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 7:21 AM on October 26, 2009

Also consider the speed difference between yourself and traffic. Vehicles traveling at greatly different speeds while sharing a roadway is a huge source of danger/difficulty for motorists.

Assuming you are perfect, I vote in favor of the motorcycle, as stated above, becuase you can keep up with traffic, occupy a motor vehicle lane, and other drivers think of a motorcycle more favorably than a bicycle when making their own decisions.
posted by kenbennedy at 9:34 AM on October 26, 2009

After 20 years or so of commuting on a motorcycle in Rome (capital city of the country with the highest rate of traffic fatalities in western Europe!) I would nth what other MeFites have said above about the value of having the power to keep up with the traffic and occupy a full lane when you need to. It's the slowness of push-bikes which makes them dangerous (for their riders and for other road users). Also very important is to make yourself very visible, whichever choice you take, and that is easier with a motorbike. It is legally required here to ride motorbikes with headlights on at all times, but I've gone further and added two foglights, one of them slightly, naughtily and illegally aimed a fraction too high, just to make sure I'm very visible in the rear-view mirrors ahead of me. And, again valid for either choice, position yourself well in the traffic flow, so that you can be seen in both inside and outside mirrors of vehicles in front of you, when possible. In city traffic, even a push-bike will often be faster than the cars, and you'll be overtaking them when approaching a red light, so make sure they see you.
posted by aqsakal at 9:52 AM on October 26, 2009

There are too many variables involved, but in order to gamely play along here's my thoughts after being a motorcycle rider and bicycle commuter for many years.

You're going to have to ignore most of the stats, because they are looking at cycling and motorcycling as a whole, not an inner-city commute. Chances of dying on a motorcycle are much higher at 70 or 100 mph than they are at 35, whereas you can't go 70 mph on a bicycle. So the numbers are going to be irrelevant for your purposes, if you are trying to compare apples-to-apples.

There are three big factors in terms of your safety:
1. Visibility
2. Differences in speed (the delta between you and the cars/buses etc.)
3. Protective gear.

You are more visible on a motorcycle. You have brighter lights, often larger areas of brighter color, horns, and you are closer in size to a car (there was a study done awhile back that demonstrated that people often literally don't see vehicles smaller than their own due to lack of perceived threat).

In inner-city travel you are likely to be moving along with traffic on a motorcycle and so the speed-delta will be low-to-zero for those traveling on your direction. If you crash (someone takes your lane for example) most of the force your body will be dealing with will be the ground impact. However because you'll also be dealing with lots of driveways and left-turners, you could very well hit/be hit by something that will transfer a lot more force into you and your bike.

Which leads us to protective gear. On a motorcycle you can and should have armored jacket, long pants (armored?) helmet, gloves, sturdy shoes/boots, etc.. All of these are designed around protecting you in an impact, and dealing with much greater forces than a bicycle helmet. And given the description of your route, blunt trauma is probably your biggest worry.

So you are more visible, and have better protection on a motorcycle, but you are also dealing with higher speeds, so you need those things.

A couple of other variables that just occured to me: What's the culture of your area? Are bicycles generally treated with a little respect? Or are they hounded? And what's the weather like year round? Commutes in the rain and snow may be safer on a bicycle because you've got greater control of the power you're putting down, and thus the traction.

I would argue that a motorcycle is likely to be safer in most circumstances that fit what you've described.
posted by gofargogo at 11:00 AM on October 26, 2009

Your reaction time is dependent on your speed along with sight distance. A slower speed means you have more time to react to danger ahead of you. While you may think your speed allows for more maneuverability to avoid an accident, it gives you much less time to react to avoid accidents. I've ridden on bikes for years and have ridden on motorbikes for years and would pick a bike without pause considering safety.
posted by JJ86 at 11:12 AM on October 26, 2009

Here's my anecdotal thoughts. I ride a motorcycle on the street and a bicycle off the street. My reasoning is that trees don't have a tendency to jump out into my way when I'm on my bike. I'm more comfortable in my protective gear on a machine capable of incredibly rapid acceleration, the ability to roll with traffic at any speed and it also happens to have bright lights and loud noises.

I don't like riding my bicycles on the street because I feel much more like a target. I do rather enjoy riding my motorcycle on the street because I feel like a gunslinger on a fast horse around a whole bunch of cows and wagons (yes, I really do think these things when I ride, I even say Moooooo when I pass cars sometimes).

If the framing of the question were different then the bike might win but I'd have to give it to the motorcycle for safety given the constraints of the question.
posted by fenriq at 11:03 PM on October 26, 2009

Good stuff, gofargogo! Especially you'll also be dealing with lots of driveways and left-turners, you could very well hit/be hit by something that will transfer a lot more force into you and your bike. In fact, the only two times I've had a really bad hit was, each time, when I stupidly trusted some asshole who lit up the turning indicator and then, just as I was coming alongside, turned in the opposite direction. (One of those times with just 103 km. on the clock of a brand new Guzzi 750, darn it!) You quickly learn, during those 30 minutes or so of slow-motion travel through the air, to start looking for witnesses before you hit the ground.

Sorry! Anecdotes aside, the point is very valid. Lesson: high visibility, low speed delta. Valid for both motorbikes and push-bikes. As eloquently summaried by fenrig.
posted by aqsakal at 8:07 AM on October 28, 2009

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