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A cyclist passes a car parked in ta bike lane on Wellesley Street in downtown Toronto in 2011.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

One of the most ambitious studies of bicycle injuries ever conducted in Canada has reach a conclusion that won't surprise anyone who rides to work: It is far safer to travel on a physically separated bike lane than on busy city streets.

The research, led by Prof. Kay Teschke of the University of British Columbia's school of population and public health, involved interviewing hundreds of victims of bike accidents in Toronto and Vancouver, and then studying the location where the accident took place.

The analysis, published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that a cyclist is ten times as likely to be injured on busy street with parked cars than on a cycle lane alongside the street, separated by a physical barrier.

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It is also much safer to bike on less busy local streets, major streets without parked cars, and on bike lanes through parks, the study found. On those routes, the risk of injury is about half what it is on a busy street with parked cars.

The study shows there is a "dramatic reduction" in accidents when separated bike lanes exist, Prof. Teschke said. And it underlined how much more likely bike accidents are to occur if there is construction, steep hills, or, in the case of Toronto, streetcar tracks.

Indeed, nearly one-third of the accidents studied in Toronto occurred on streetcar tracks, either with bike wheels getting caught in the tracks or slipping on the slippery rails.

Prof. Teschke said the results jibe with earlier studies of route preferences that indicate people don't like to ride on busy streets. This research shows "there is a reason for that [attitude]. People's gut reaction is the correct reaction."

The study could bolster the action being taken in many large North American cities, where separated bike lines are now being constructed. Vancouver and Montreal already have many kilometres of separated lanes, and the first one in Toronto is now being built along Sherbourne St. on the east side of the downtown core.

While there are enough separated bike lanes in Montreal to form a connected network throughout the downtown core, Vancouver is not at that point yet, and Toronto is years away from anything similar, said Toronto bicycle consultant Yvonne Bambrick. "If you have one little space that [has separated lanes] and everywhere else is regular, it doesn't make any sense," she says.

She also notes that the design of separate lanes is crucial in making them safe and functional. The new bike lane on Toronto's Sherbourne Street has been criticized because its barrier is so low that it will still allow delivery vehicles to pull into it and park.

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The UBC study interviewed 690 people who were injured in bike accidents, 414 from Vancouver and 276 from Toronto. Almost three-quarters of the accidents involved collisions.

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