The recent announcement of a 13% rise [pdf] in cyclist casualties (Killed or Seriously Injured – KSIs) in the first quarter of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011, is unfortunately only further evidence of an increasingly sharp upward trend in cycling KSIs, which have risen in ten of the last 13 quarters.This 13% rise in the first 3 months of 2012 follows a similar 15% increase in cycling KSIs in 2011 on 2010 (a period in which all cycling casualties, slight and serious, rose by 11%). Data released by the Department for Transport at around the same time suggests that the distance cycled rose by only 2% over the same period; if this is correct, then it reflects a substantial increase in the rate of cycling casualties.
In London, where the ‘safety in numbers’ effect should be at its most prominent, cycling KSIs rose by a staggering 22% in 2011, on 2010. The most recent figures we have for the increase in cycling in London come from the fourth Travel in London report [pdf], dating from the end of 2011, which records a 15% rise on TLRN (the roads controlled by Transport for London) in 2010, compared to 2009.
However, this is unlikely to be representative of an increase in cycling across London as a whole, particularly as Superhighways lie on the TLRN and have ‘sucked in’ cycle traffic from other routes. A more realistic picture of the increase in cycling in London as a whole comes on page 63 of the same report, which records an increase of just 6% in cycling stages in 2010 on 2009, and about a 5% increase in cycling trips. This rate of increase has held steady for the last few years; I see no reason to assume it will have changed much in 2011. So the best evidence suggests that, just as across the rest of Great Britain, the increase in cycling KSIs in London is greatly outstripping the increase in cycling, and cycling is becoming – for whatever reason – more dangerous, despite the increasing numbers of trips being made by bicycle.
Against this background, I find it quite hard to excuse statements like this one, which recently appeared on the Economist’s ‘Blighty’ blog -
the best way to reduce the rate of injuries is to increase the number of cyclists
I don’t know what evidence the author D.K. has for this statement – none is presented – but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The increasing number of cyclists in Great Britain is currently having absolutely no effect, whatsoever, on the rate of injuries. To argue, in the light of the facts, that the best way – note, the best way - to reduce those casualties is to go on pouring cyclists onto Britain’s streets and roads is verging on immoral.
The actual best way to reduce the rate of injuries is to adjust the environment so that motorists are forced to drive more safely, and cyclists are structurally separated, as much as possible, from motor vehicles. That is to say, danger reduction. It’s the tried and tested approach employed in the Netherlands, where despite people of all ages and abilities cycling in vast numbers, the casualty rate is substantially lower. The environment for cycling is ‘soft'; mistakes can be made, and the consequences are only minor. That is very different from the situation in Great Britain, where ‘mistakes’, like going up the inside of a large goods vehicle, can very often be fatal.
As I have written before, it is superficial in the extreme to attribute the greater safety of Dutch cyclists simply to the greater numbers of Dutch cyclists. But this is precisely what the CTC did in their ‘Safety in Numbers’ document [pdf] -
Countries in Europe with high levels of cycle use tend to be less risky for cyclists
And also -
The Netherlands has witnessed a 45% increase in cycling from 1980-2005 and a 58% decrease in cyclist fatalities.
No mention here of the vast amount of work the Dutch have put in over that period to make their roads and streets subjectively and objectively safer for cycling – work that has enabled that 45% increase in cycling, as well as bringing about the decrease in fatalities. In other words, the root cause of both the increase in cycling and the lowering of the fatality rate is the infrastructure. This is precisely the view of the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research -
I do not expect that just a greater number of cyclists will on its own result in a risk reduction for the cyclist. On the other hand, I do expect that more cycling facilities will lead to lower risks. Policy that only focuses on an increase in cycling and at the same time ignores the construction of more cycling facilities, will not have a positive effect on road safety.
There is a historical analogy here that I think is instructive.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century, street lighting became increasingly common in European towns and cities. Over the same period, more women started to use the streets later at night, and crimes on those streets diminished. Doubtless we could argue, if we were a particularly stupid nineteenth century administrator, that an increase in the numbers of women on the street late at night led solely and directly to a reduction in the rate of crimes perpetrated against them.
We might even draw a graph showing a correlation.
Indeed, we might further argue that to publicly discuss the muggings, rapes and murders that were still occurring on the streets would be unhelpful, because it would put off women from going out on the streets late at night, and a lowering of the numbers of women on the streets at night would increase the exposure risk to those same women. We would argue this, despite women stating, in poll after poll, that it was the perception of danger that kept them at home.
‘Women! Going out on the streets late at night alone is safer than you think!’ might be a helpful rallying cry, accompanied by statistics showing that the relative risk of coming to harm – being mugged, raped or murdered – while walking into town is actually fairly similar to taking a carriage, or just staying at home and descending the stairs. The authorities might usefully create glossy posters showing happy women walking along dark streets, informing them that they should ‘catch up with night walking'; the idea behind the campaign to suggest to nervous women that walking alone down unlit streets is a perfectly normal activity.
Or our public servant could attempt to argue, when questioned by the press, that the risk of women being mugged, raped, or murdered is actually offset by the health benefits of walking into town, which would, on balance, prolong the lives of women. Thus
Walking into town late at night through mugger’s alley is safer than not walking into town at all.
We would, if we were so minded, also hope to see arguments from women, suggesting that they themselves shouldn’t talk about the dangers they faced on the streets, for fear of putting off other women from walking into town at night, and thus depriving themselves of a ‘critical mass’ of female night walkers to ensure their own safety. For that would be to commit the offence of ‘dangerising’ walking alone at night, when everybody knows that night walking is actually perfectly safe (or at least safer than it is perceived to be) and we shouldn’t do anything to jeopardise increasing the numbers of women walking on the street, so vital for achieving ‘herd immunity’.
We would also expect to see women suggesting that they shouldn’t talk about the dangers involved on the streets at night, because the priority must surely be to increase the number of women walking at night, so as to gain sufficient political influence to subsequently campaign for improvements to the nocturnal walking environment – influence so sorely lacking while women walking alone at night remained such a tiny minority of the population. Indeed, as street lighting was so expensive, surely nobody could have asked for it until that political weight had been achieved.
Finally, we would also see our Victorian public servant offering, in lieu of street lighting and a subjectively safer environment, training for women nervous about walking along dark streets. Perhaps some kind of Victorian self-defence class, with women being taught how to use their parasols to ward off attackers. Once empowered, women could venture out onto slightly less well-lit streets (which double as ‘training facilities’, useful for building up their confidence), before eventually moving onto the really dark streets once they’ve realised that it’s not all that bad.
The absolute priority, in other words, would be to get women out on the streets at night, regardless of their perception of risk, and regardless of other improvements to the streetscape that would both address that perception of risk directly, and make the street objectively safer.
Put like this, such a collection of policy measures sounds absurd, even inhumane. We wouldn’t expect the authorities to persuade women to do something they didn’t really want to do, even if there were alleged benefits for ‘the herd’ in them doing so.
Of course, this account is also ahistorical. To pretend that the greater safety of women walking around towns at night in the nineteenth century was achieved simply through greater numbers of women being on the streets doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. That safety was actually attained through better lighting, and through better policing, and – more broadly – through the creation of a better environment. It was these actions that allowed the night to be ‘reclaimed’ by women, not facile campaigns that simply urged women to ignore their fears and head out onto the streets regardless, or posters, or statistical arguments, or training, or waiting until enough women were walking the streets at night anyway.
Women responded to the changes in their environment, which had been made subjectively and objectively safer. (Note that I am not denying that there are probable benefits to women’s safety from having more of them on the street at any one time – my point is one of causation, and of ordering).
But unfortunately many cycling campaigners make precisely these same errors.
Firstly, they attribute the current greater safety of cycling in other European countries to the numbers of people cycling, instead of to the different environment – they do this in just the same way that our mythical Victorians might have attributed the safety of women to the increasing numbers of them on the street, and not to the safety benefits of lighting and an improved environment.
And secondly, they use precisely the same slightly cold and callous logic employed by our Victorian public servant to achieve the safety of their target demographic. The sad truth is that their arguments are directly analogous to the historical fiction I have just created.
For a start, those who pin their hopes for a better cycling future on ‘safety in numbers’ or a ‘critical mass’ are, just like our mythical Victorians, quick to play down talk of danger.
many organisations perceive cycling as dangerous, and perpetuate that perception through their actions
They are so concerned about this talk because they believe that it increases the perception of danger, and would, analogously, put off ladies who might otherwise consider walking into town at night, or cycling on London’s roads. And if we’re relying on more ladies walking into town at night as our strategy for ensuring their own safety, that simply won’t do.
And if we are worried about perception, it’s not hard to see, therefore, that bunches of flowers left at the scene of a fatality are definitely unacceptable, because – obviously – they might put people off cycling, or walking into town late at night.
“While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they [may] give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is,” said Chris Peck
Quite. We can’t have visual reminders creating a false impression of the safety of walking into town, alone, late at night. Because let’s remember, the statistical risk is actually very small. And of course, in some nebulous and ungraspable way, it is ‘safer’ and more beneficial to walk into town late at night, than not to walk into town.
safety in numbers is making the roads safer than ever, with a new study… that suggests it’s actually more dangerous NOT to take to two wheels.
“Cyclists in general live two years longer than non-cyclists and are in general healthier – even in heavy traffic, a three-mile ride to work is healthier than driving to work every day and failing to get any exercise.”
Even in heavy traffic. Or even on dark streets plagued by muggings. It’s actually better for you, in the long term. How persuasive!
Other cycling campaigners, while acknowledging that a subjectively safer environment for cycling is the ultimate end goal, nevertheless insist that we must first ‘boost the numbers’ before we should even consider arguing for those changes.
More people cycling leads to greater political will to improve conditions for cyclists.
The Dutch way. It would be nice, but none of us will live to see that Utopia here. To build that stuff – and to enforce the laws that make it work – you need political will. That needs votes. And not enough people cycle for that.
Once we’ve embarked on this road, it again necessarily involves playing down danger, emphasising the health benefits, and embracing marketing and training; all the measures used to increase numbers (and to attain safety) by our Victorian administrator. There just isn’t enough political will for street lighting, he might say. And besides, street lighting is very expensive (‘expense’ is, of course, an argument that has been made, by cycling campaigners, against changes to the street environment for the benefit of cycling for nearly 80 years).
Cycling campaigners enthused by safety in numbers are also keen to ‘normalise’ activities that the target audience finds intimidating. Just as our Victorian public servant might have put up posters showing walking into town on dark streets as an activity carried out by ‘ordinary’ women, so our cycling campaigners are keen on posters and images that attempt to do the same thing for cycling; cycling in a fashion that the vast majority of the population finds (with good reason) unpleasant and intimidating.
TfL is actively marketing cycling. The ‘catch up with the bicycle’ campaign lets other road users know that cyclists have a right to be there. Images used by Tfl are generally positive images of normal people on bikes (often without helmets and hi-viz). TfL could go a step further and show more images of cyclists riding in the traffic stream, perhaps in front of a bus.‘
The premise here is that the only thing stopping women from walking alone down dark streets, or from cycling amongst HGVs and buses, is the perception that these activities are not something for ‘ordinary’ people; that they not have been ‘normalised’. Make these activities seem normal, and people will do them.
In other words, a complete failure of understanding and empathy; a belligerent refusal to accept the reality that people don’t want to do these things.
This is where the pernicious logic of ‘safety in numbers’, as a bedrock of a cycling strategy, gets you. It involves assuming that when people say ‘danger’ puts them off cycling, they are thinking about brute statistics, when in fact they are concerned with how unpleasant the roads appear to them as they walk or drive along them.
It then involves attempting to solve this problem of ‘danger’ not by adjusting the street environment so it appears and feels pleasant to cycle on, but by attempting to adjust people’s perception of that same street environment as it currently exists; in other words, attempting to show that dark streets are actually safe places that ladies can venture down, provided they are confident and are trained. Every step must be taken to ensure that our dark streets are as full of women as is humanly possible, because with greater numbers comes greater safety (try not to think about how safe dark streets might feel when women are, as would naturally be expected, scarcer on them at certain times).
This policy must be rigorously adhered to; nothing can be said or done that might affect the numbers of people on the streets, even if that involves an obstinate unwillingness to address the real reasons that people continue to give for their reluctance to cycle on roads busy with motor traffic, or to walk down dark streets late at night.
These are the misguided and wrong-headed strategies that you are forced to employ if you are convinced that the overriding goal, above all else, is to boost the numbers of people cycling. Such an obsession with ‘numbers’ not only ignores the real reasons why you find greater numbers of cyclists in the Netherlands, and why they are so much safer; worse, it railroads policy into the adoption of the slightly mad tactics outlined here.
While this post was being written, David Arditti chimed in with a very similar post entitled Fear and Loathing, which covers much of the same ground, particularly on the way public policy should address a widespread problem of perception. Needless to say it is well worth a read. See also this from Freewheeler, which provided a good deal of inspiration