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Missoula bikers, pedestrians confront alarming crash trends

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Bike Fatal

Investigators look over the scene of a fatal vehicle versus bicyclist accident at Orange and South Third streets in May.

Katy Robin Garton bikes around Missoula every day with her three children.

Elliot Melzer, 6, rides alongside his mother, who carts around Emi Sue Melzer, 3, and Teddy Waltman, 2, in a double-seated contraption on the back of her bike.

“We get them biking young,” said Garton.

She generally feels safe riding with her young children in Missoula, but streets are getting more dangerous for non-motorized users like Garton and her family.  

In the past 10 years, the national traffic safety record for non-motorists has gotten substantially worse. According to Dr. Kelcie Ralph, an associate professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, 80% more people are dying on American streets while walking and bicycling.

Pedestrian fatalities paint a particularly bleak picture. A traffic safety report from the U.S. Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that in 2021, 7,300 people nationwide died while walking. That’s equivalent to 20 people per day, or one every 50 minutes.

The pedestrian fatality rate was 13% worse in 2021 than 2020.

In Missoula, where according to American Community Survey data residents bicycle 12 times more than the national average, a high-profile bike fatality in May highlighted the danger present to bikers and pedestrians on local streets.

Between 2019 and 2021, the Missoula Police Department took 172 reports of accidents between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists. Of those, 95 involved bikes and 77 were between vehicles and pedestrians.  

Fatality factors                      

Local mobility advocates and government officials see numerous reasons for the alarming trend of bike and pedestrian crashes. Street design, individual behavior and vehicle changes all seem to contribute to the growing danger.

“Roadway design is the predominant determinant of travel speeds,” states the city’s Safe Speeds on City Streets report created in 2021.

Wide, multi-lane arterials are particularly dangerous. In Missoula, that includes popular thoroughfares like Reserve Street, Broadway, Brooks Street, Russell Street and Orange Street — where a May 2 collision killed 77-year-old cyclist Vincent Burrafato. 

“Half of all the pedestrian deaths in the United States happen on these kinds of roadways,” said Ralph.

Parking design also plays a subtle but important role in pedestrian and biker safety.

“Parking in general is always a hard one,” noted Emily Jensen, program director at the Free Cycles bike shop in Missoula. 

Parallel parking presents a challenge because bikers are susceptible to being hit by opening doors and thrown into passing traffic. But angled parking is also a danger because drivers can back up into bikers, and it creates additional space between the rider and the edge of the road. 

“A cyclist ends up being pretty much between a rock and a hard place,” said biking enthusiast Gene Schmitz.

Road design may be the primary determinant of driving speeds, but individual behavior also accounts for bike and pedestrian crashes.

“I’ve definitely noticed a major shift in Missoula over the past few years of more aggressive driving and who knows what to chalk it up to, but it is a pattern,” said Jensen.

Schmitz said dangerous behavior includes drivers making right turns while looking to their left, as well as cyclists riding on sidewalks.

Burrafato was riding his bike on the Orange Street sidewalk before he was struck near the intersection of Orange and South Third Street West.

“This is a fairly common occurrence, actually,” said Schmitz.

Vehicle design, too, is a factor in biker and pedestrian safety.

Larger SUVs are resulting in bikers and walkers feeling the impacts of a collision higher up on their bodies, while at the same time limiting visibility out of vehicles for drivers. That's according to Ben Weiss, the senior planner with the city’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program.  

According to Ralph, people who are hit by an SUV are two to three times more likely to die than someone who’s hit by a sedan.

“What we’re seeing … is vehicles are getting safer for people inside and more dangerous for people outside,” said Weiss.

What can be done

Bike and pedestrian advocates suggest a wide variety of interventions to improve roadway safety, and local government officials are already working on implementing many of those solutions.

Schmitz advises individual behavior changes on the parts of bikers and motorists.

Bikers, he said, should ride with traffic, avoid sidewalks, wear helmets and use lights and mirrors. They should also make eye contact with drivers when riding through intersections.

Drivers should be mindful of looking to their right, even when making a right turn.

At the structural level, Free Cycles’ staff advocates for protected bike lanes, road diets and roadways designed with two lanes of opposing traffic and a center turn lane. Roundabouts, too, are a major crusade among Free Cycles staff.

Dangerous by Design, a pedestrian advocacy resource, also says narrowing traffic lanes and turn radii, as well as adding curb extensions, safety islands, and high-visibility crosswalks, improves pedestrian safety.

Each of these prongs on its own has limitations, Weiss explained at a community forum in June. But together, Weiss believes these initiatives could create a safer community for bikers and walkers.

Most of Missoula’s non-motorized crashes take place within city limits. Surrounding Missoula County also strives to address biker and pedestrian safety by bringing more focus to constructing and connecting trails.

“From a Parks, Trails and Open Lands perspective, our effort to complete a countywide shared-use trail plan is very applicable to pedestrian/bicycle safety,” said Travis Ross, the county’s Parks and Trails operations administrator.

“We know that shared-use, separated trails are much safer for pedestrians and bicyclists than even bike lanes,” Ross added.

The county is working on developing four major trails outside the city limits: the Bonner Streetcar Trail, Cote Lane to Deschamps, along Mullan Road in Frenchtown, and from U.S. 93 to Blue Mountain.

Public Works Director Shane Stack said the county is also evaluating a resort tax in Lolo that could be used to fund sidewalk infrastructure there.

“It’s really important to have safe places for different users,” said Stack.

Since Missoula’s principal arterials are all controlled by the Montana Department of Transportation, the agency’s approach to bike and pedestrian safety also plays an important role for local non-motorized users.

MDT District Administrator Bob Vosen said the agency is putting a particular emphasis on changing driver behavior. MDT recently contracted with a new public involvement company to roll out a campaign targeted at seat belt use, drinking and driving and distracted driving.

What’s working                  

Nationwide trends and the recent Missoula bike fatality notwithstanding, non-motorized crashes actually went down from 2020 to 2021, per MPD’s data. Both 2019 and 2020 saw 63 bike/pedestrian collisions, but 2021 only had 46.

While one year is not enough to draw conclusions about trends, existing local initiatives can be credited with contributing to non-motorized safety in Missoula.

Those initiatives include Missoula’s Neighborhood Greenways, a series of streets parallel to major roads that bikers and walkers are encouraged to use instead.

Local policy has also proven a useful tool for increasing safety on local streets. Bob Giordano, executive director of Free Cycles, lauded programs like Complete Streets and the Long Range Transportation Plan, which includes the goal of halving single-occupant vehicle trips by 2045 and tripling walking, biking and transit trips by the same year.

Missoula’s Traffic Calming Program, which operated for 20 years, also achieved numerous milestones like installing 45 traffic circles, curb extensions in school zones and other traffic interventions throughout its lifetime. The program, however, required community buy-in through Special Improvement Districts in order to maintain operation, and its equity was limited because higher-income neighborhoods could more easily participate in the program.

Challenges like equity continue to complicate efforts to improve roadway safety in Missoula. Another is funding.

“We’re continuing to operate under an extremely tight budget,” pointed out Vosen with MDT. The size of the budget prevents MDT from taking measures like retrofitting busy arterials, where most non-motorized crashes occur.

In the city, funding shortages mean that the Neighborhood Traffic Management Program initiated in 2021 can only put in place four or five traffic solutions a year, even though the queue for proposed projects is a few dozen requests long.

Vosen pointed out bike lanes present a trade-off because many streets, particularly in urban areas, have limited space to utilize.

Whenever he works on bike lane projects, Vosen said, he has to ask, “What are we going to give up?”

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