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Some of My Best Colleagues are Bike Lanes

September 23, 2011

“Methodologically we could spend the next six months refining and refining and refining,” he said. “All we said here is a number we hadn’t reported before. It’s nothing against bicycles.”

The damage from the hastily produced Hunter College Study is already done, but the Times’ Christine Haughney serves up this interesting follow-up to its findings.  Her lede focuses a tad too much on intra-departmental sniping for my tastes, but the points raised by colleages of Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski are fair.  Why did the study not seek to determine fault?  Why did it not highlight the finding that injury rates have gone down since 2007 while cycling rates have gone up?  Why was the study released before these and other questions could be answered?  Saying that “we could spend the next six months refining and refining and refining” seems like a cop-out on Milczarski’s part.

More bluntly, if Transportation Alternatives initiated a study with shortcomings as obvious to the layperson as they are to the academic, such a study would be dismissed out of hand by all but a small cadre of Critical Mass participants.  But because this study conveniently follows the Hulk-like narrative favored by the tabloids — “Bikes baaaaadddd!” — it’s embraced as evidence of the “bike menace” and spun beyond any hope of rational discussion.  Haughney’s piece, as welcome as it is, will largely go unnoticed and, as a result of what these professors chose not to address before they released their study, a rare opportunity over how to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists has unfortunately been lost.

  1. September 23, 2011 2:53 pm

    It’s unlikely that their source dataset has any indication of fault. And since these researchers seem to have done little more than import a CSV into Excel, they’re a long way from having such insights.

    There are far more serious problems with the report, such as the assumption that underlies this statement: “This value of the code pertains only to the pedestrians who necessitated medical treatment – not the cyclists.” The researchers assume that across the state, hospital personnel logging a fairly rare injury code are getting it right every single time. That not once has some harried worker glanced at something like this and put in E826.0 for what was actually a bicycle-only accident. Just look at some of the tickets that the NYPD writes to cyclists (or to motorists) if you want to see how professionals can utterly fail at simple-sounding bureaucratic procedures.

    But the report has no discussion of the data’s integrity, which is pretty amazing. Given that, the change in logged injuries over time is really the only thing you can trust, since reporting errors are likely to be constant over the years, if the reporting methods and systems have not changed at all in that period. Have they? Who knows? Who cares! (Just be sure to get “Rogue cyclists” on the first page.)

    It’s gotten worse as people try to compare this injury number to the DMV’s number for injuries, as if they were measuring exactly the same thing and were equally accurate. In this report we would include people who sustained some minor cycling+jogging injury in an park upstate park, and sometime (maybe the next day?) sought treatment, and finally… somebody logged a particular code. Does DMV data capture a scenario like that, or are they just counting people who went off in an ambulance?

    It would make more sense to do the same kind of report on logged pedestrian injuries from automobiles, if relevant hospital codes are available, and use that for the inevitable comparisons—unless you’ve got an agenda to support. In that case it makes sense to take this sloppy report, blast it out to your press contacts, and accuse everyone with a bicycle of not apologizing fast enough for the alarming number of times E826.0 was punched into some database.

  2. September 23, 2011 3:07 pm

    This is why I love doing this. My readers are far smarter than I am. Thanks as always for your excellent comment.

  3. Gothamer permalink
    September 23, 2011 3:47 pm

    Yet another problem with this study: it relies on hospital visits as a yardstick for accident figures, yet it does nothing to balance for inequities in health care.

    Delivery cyclists may be injured at a rate ten times that of the average Upper East Sider, but since few people who work delivering food for a living receive health benefits, they might seek treatment for only the most extreme injuries and only then if a police officer or EMT forces them into the back of an ambulance. A person with a sprained pinky and health insurance could walk to the hospital immediately or even a few days later.

    Additionally, a person who depends on tips can ill-afford the downtime a trip to the ER might entail. Such an expense of time and money would be less of a concern to a person who has paid sick days and a small co-pay.

    Even equalizing for insurance rates doesn’t end the problems with the Hunter study.

    Let’s say that a hospital had a category on its intake form that allowed a nurse to assign fault in an accident. It would be horribly unreliable. A pedestrian who was too embarrassed to admit he had been looking at his Blackberry before stepping into traffic could tell the nurse, “This damn cyclist came out of nowhere!”

    The steps needed to equalize this variable are insurmountable for any serious study. Basically, it would require the cyclist to be present at the time of the pedestrian’s intake interview, but given how rare it is for two parties to an accident to a) be injured equally and b) visit the same hospital even if they are, I wouldn’t stake my academic reputation on hospital records. Police reports, as unreliable as they are, are still a better measure for determining fault than the stories the injured tell their physicians. Hence the reason insurance companies need a police report in order to fulfill most accident claims.

    By not accounting for these and too many other variables, the Tuckel and Milczarski and study would not pass muster with a graduate school dissertation review board. I find it, and most of what comes from the Gruskin Foundation, terribly suspect.

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