Bicyclists are seen near the Shaw-Howard University Metro station as they ride south on 7th Street NW in Washington. (Willis Bretz /For The Washington Post)
Columnist

A bicyclist is struck and killed by a car in Baltimore on Dec. 27, prompting hundreds of sad and angry cyclists to hold a memorial ride on Jan. 1. A sorrowful start to the New Year.

Two days later, another bicyclist is hit by a car in Harford County; the 25-year-old rider is reported to have sustained life-threatening injuries.

The drivers of the vehicles may or may not have been at fault. Nevertheless, those two cyclists should never have been in harm’s way.

What cyclists need is a separate network of biking roads, not bike lanes. Give them trails through wooded areas, away from cars and trucks. Once they enter high-traffic areas in the city, it’s off the bicycle and onto alternative transportation. Like two feet.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, bicycle fatalities increased from 682 in 2011 to 726 in 2012. Injuries from collisions with cars increased from 48,000 to 49,000. There were no reports of motorists being killed by a cyclists. Passenger vehicle deaths actually declined during the same period.

In the Washington area, seven bicyclists were killed in collisions with cars in 2013, compared with three in 2012, according to the Washington region’s Transportation Planning Board. There were 902 injuries in 2012, compared with 783 the previous year.

It may not look so bad to some, but the problem is likely to get worse. Area jurisdictions are hurrying plans to funnel thousands of bicyclists into unsafe streets. The District has the audacity to fast-track plans for 200 miles of on-street bicycle facilities by 2040.

Which means that an already outdated 20th-century bike lane system should be finished by the dawn of the 22nd century.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, agrees that cars should be separated from bicycles. But he favors what are called “protected bicycle lanes,” which is a bike lane lined with curb-high concrete barriers.

“What we want are protected bike lanes with a trail nearby and the space is dedicated so that cars cannot get into it,” Farthing told me. “It’s not that we want to take the space from cars. We want a network where bikers don’t have to face the cars.”

Farthing added that bicycling in urban areas is a lot safer than many people perceive it to be. He’s probably right. But I see the worst kind of tragedies looming.

There are children on bicycles with training wheels trying to keep up adults as they bicycle through downtown. It’s one thing to put yourself at risk, but endangering your child is another matter. I cringe at the sight of infants riding on seats strapped to handle bars, and cyclists towing toddlers in those two-wheel “baby buggies” that are barely taller than the bumper of a car.

“It is not unsafe as long as you have the infrastructure and culture to support family biking,” Farthing said.

But here’s where we are now:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the groups with the highest rates of bicycle deaths are those between the ages of 15 and 24 and adults 45 years and older. People from ages 5 to 24 account for nearly 60 percent of all bicycle-related injuries.

Also, from a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association:

88 percent of those killed were male.

69 percent of bicyclist fatalities occurred in urban areas.

30 percent of bicyclist fatalities occurred between 4 and 8 p.m., according to the NHTSA.

Of the 49,000 injuries to cyclists in 2012, the NTSA said “6,000 were incapacitating, meaning the bicyclist could not leave the crash scene without assistance (skull, chest, or abdominal injuries, broken limbs, severe lacerations, or unconsciousness.”

The District’s transportation safety plan, called “Vision Zero,” aims to create an accident-free road system with no fatalities and no injuries. Nice thought. The concept originated in Sweden, adopted in New York City and may have shown a modicum of success in the smaller European countries.

But D.C. is not Denmark, San Francisco is not Sweden, New York is not the Netherlands.

Here, bicycles and cars were not designed to “share the road,” and the roads weren’t built to accommodate the wishful thinking of well- intentioned urban planners.

Better to provide a special bus for cyclists once they get off the wooded bike trail. It would sure beat riding in an ambulance.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. The correct name of the agency is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.