The ‘Safety in Numbers’ delusion refuses to die

Having just written a fairly lengthy analysis of the problems with (and outright myths behind) the ‘Safety in Numbers’ theory, I find that the Times, under the auspices of their Cities Fit For Cycling Campaign, have just published an interview with the founder of Rapha, Simon Mottram, giving him a public platform to air precisely those dubious, fact-free claims about cycling safety that are often built on the uncertain sand of that very same ‘Safety in Numbers’ concept.

I am not going to repeat all the evidence that shows why ‘Safety in Numbers’ is not only unproven and impractical but also morally dubious as a ‘safety’ strategy; please refer to my previous piece, if you haven’t done so. But I will quickly skim over some of the standout claims from the Times piece.

The headline runs

‘Weight of numbers’ will bring safe cycling

And beneath it

Mr Mottram, who founded Rapha in 2004 as a high-end clothing brand aimed specifically at road cyclists, has insisted that the key to safer cycling lies with its rising popularity.

He said he would like to see lower speed limits enforced, but crucially more bikes on the road and in popular culture. “We will get a long way through sheer numbers,” he added.

This is a fairly extraordinary statement at a time when the rate of cyclists being killed and seriously injured has risen for three consecutive years, despite increasing numbers. The evidence is even there in the sidebar of the Times, mere inches away from where these words appear.

Even the CTC – for so long the prime advocates of the ‘Safety In Numbers’ theory – are now accepting the obvious -

Roger agrees that we shouldn’t dangerise cycling. However the safety in numbers effect is starting to fizzle out and we need to consciously work at cycle safety as improvements won’t happen naturally.

Even setting aside this basic evidential problem with the ‘Safety In Numbers’ concept, Mottram’s idea that “we will get a long way with sheer numbers” is itself desperate, wishful thinking, on two counts.

The first is the assumption that – contrary to all the evidence – this country can build a mass cycling culture out of thin air.

The second is that we will have to go a very long way indeed before the safety benefits of pure ‘numbers’ become tangible. As I wrote last week

At some distant point in the future we may hit a point at which sufficient numbers of people walking and cycling, and few enough are driving, that relative safety is achieved, without any change to the environment, but that is some way off, and the route to that point is unclear, and may be littered with the bodies of cyclists and pedestrians.

In a paper published in 2009, Rune Elvik argued that a doubling of pedestrian and cyclist volume, with corresponding mode shift away from driving, would not, alone, reduce the KSI burden, and may actually increase it. Indeed, he suggests that, without any change in the environment, it is only when the amount of driving is reduced by 50% (with corresponding mode shift to walking and cycling) that we may see a reduction in the total KSI burden. That is an enormously long way to go by ‘Safety in Numbers’ alone, with an  increasing KSI burden in every year that we attempt to get people to switch to bicycles.

That is, if we are relying on “sheer numbers”, we will have to have a remarkable and unprecedented drop in driving levels before we see an absolute reduction in deaths and injuries. And – most importantly – that increased safety would come principally from that reduction in motor vehicle volume, not from ‘numbers’ of people on bicycles or on foot. It is motor vehicle volume and speed that is an established predictor of safety for vulnerable road users; the alleged causal connection between numbers and safety that keeps on being parroted, week after week, simply isn’t proven.

It’s not proven because, while a non-linear relationship between numbers and safety has been established in a number of data sets, there are serious questions about the temporal direction of that relationship – with the best evidence suggesting that it is actually safe conditions that attract greater numbers, rather than the other way around.

It’s also not proven because there are serious questions about confounding variables – confounding variables that affect both safety and numbers simultaneously, and must serve to explain why the general relationship between safety and numbers over the last 50 years in the UK is so confused.

And there are, finally, serious questions about the exact causal mechanism that is assumed to produce greater safety from more numbers. Jacobsen speculated that it might be because drivers behave better as they are become confronted with more and more cyclists; this remains speculation, despite it now being repeated as fact.

We should be ignoring ‘Safety In Numbers’ as a strategy principally because there are already established and uncontroversial methods of improving the safety of pedestrians and cyclists; methods that involve the adaption of the environment to reduce the hazards posed to them by motor vehicles. This can involve lowering the numbers of vehicles using streets, or removing them completely, or reducing the numbers of potential interactions between motor vehicles and cyclists. In other words, it is the structural separation of motor vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists that is the best way to improve the safety of the latter group (and, tangentially, the best way of increasing numbers).

Unfortunately this is precisely the opposite of what Simon Mottram thinks should happen. As he is quoted in the Times -

I do think special cycle lanes can help, but I don’t like the principle of segregation. There is no reason why bikes and vehicles can’t coexist on the roads. That must be the goal.

The trouble with this point of view – especially given the reliance upon boosting numbers as a way of ensuring safety – is that the vast majority of people do not want to coexist on the roads with motor vehicles, while cycling, and keep saying so. That is why the modal share for cycling in this country remains so execrable. People want to be able to cycle free from interactions with motor vehicles; they want safe, quiet routes to and from the shops, and to and from schools. They don’t want to share those routes with lorries, buses, vans and cars, however slowly and carefully we can imagine they might be driven.

Conversely, the countries that have the very highest levels of cycling are those that do their very best to separate cyclists from motor vehicles. The evidence is there, right in front of our very eyes, but it continues to be ignored by those like Simon Mottram, who for some reason don’t like the idea of being separated from motor vehicles, and assume that because they are happy cycling amongst them, everyone else must be persuaded to come around to their point of view, despite their stated preferences to the contrary, and despite the evidence that no country has ever achieved a mass cycling culture by these methods.

It’s almost staggeringly conceited.

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34 Responses to The ‘Safety in Numbers’ delusion refuses to die

  1. Stuart says:

    Nice piece, I have always been dubious of the safety in numbers principle.

    I ride everyday and do well over 200 miles a week both in London and out on club runs. The one thing I see that is cause danger to cyclist is the way cyclist ride. Jumping lights, riding o pavements, blatantly ignoring pedestrian crossing both zebra and light controlled. This just annoys drives, it winds them up, it makes them RESENT cyclists. I really believe this is causing a lack of worry or care form drivers when around cyclist.

    More cyclist riding badly will only compound the problem and expose more people to risk.

    Basically we, the cyclists, have the ability to resolve a large part of the problem, it is in our hands!

    And yes you will here me shouting at you if you jump a red light on a bike!!!

    • “The one thing I see that is cause danger to cyclist is the way cyclist ride”

      Well you must be very lucky indeed. Outside of your magic bubble, danger – both to pedestrians and cyclists – is posed almost exclusively by motor vehicles.

    • Obvious troll?

      In some over 15 years of daily commuting by bike in London I’ve gone through periods of absolute compliance with traffic laws and times of a more liberal interpretation.

      However, my commute witnesses blatant red light jumping from motorists on a daily basis (and if you include jumping amber, at nearly every junction and light change), speeding, unsafe passes and aggressive driving, mobile phone use and blocking of cycle facilities. There appears to be a complete lack of interest from the Police in enforcement even when presented with evidence of frequent offenders or areas of road that are a daily problem.

      At present I’m at the ‘whatever keeps me safest but always give way to pedestrians’ approach to the regs. Bella Bathurst covers this very well if The Bicycle Book.

      “we, the cyclists, have the ability to resolve a large part of the problem, it is in our hands!” Your faith impresses me but does not give me any confidence.

      • Stuart says:

        Two wrongs don’t make a right. I have always found that if you want someone to live by a law then you need to respect it your self, I think it goes along the line of what is good for the goose is good for the gander?

        We do have the ability to change the way drivers think and approach cyclist, just deferring it because it is a tall order helps no one.

        • Simon says:

          Most of the people killed on the roads are in cars. This is not because people need to “think car”. It’s because a large number of people drive like cnuts.

          I don’t want them to have to “think bike”. I want to be on a segregated path, and them to be on the road where they can kill each other in peace.

          • Stuart says:

            I don’t disagree with that, in fact in urban enviroment it is the only option in my opinion. But the decision makers drive cars and are loathed to reward, what they see, as law breakers

            • But they already do reward law breakers, by giving over to the motorists every want and need DESPITE I high number of them regularly breaking the law, wasn’t it an AA study recently that disclosed that some 40% of drivers admitted to using a smartphone whilst driving? Some don’t even stop at making calls which is bad enough but actually check emails/facebook/tweet etc which is an even bigger distraction!

              Combine that with drivers treating speed limits as targets/minimums and it’s no wonder we have such a high amount of KSIs, yet no one dare suggests motorists “get their house in order” (asides from Carlton Reid did a great satirical piece on this claiming motorists wouldn’t get any new roads/spending until they ALL obeyed the law) in the same way it is regularly suggested of the cycling community.

              Another important point is to ask WHY these cyclists feel the need to break the law? As Simon says sometimes it is a judgment call based on personal safety which is understandable given the car centric road designs we have, after all whilst I might be comfortable/confident/quick/stupid (delete as appropriate) enough to take on Vauxhall Cross I can easily understand why some riders turn a blind eye to road regulations around there – I think the sheer number of times incidents from there have appeared on Youtube is testament to how dire that area is :-(

              • Stuart says:

                Loved the Charlton Reid peice and agree with you totally. Cyclists shouldn’t be placed in a situation were they feel the need to break the law. But that isn’t the cyclist I am talking about, I am talking about the silly cyclists that impact others.

        • John the Monkey says:

          Well, the drivers who’ve watched me scrupulously observing traffic law[1] (it’s easy to observe people when you’re agressively tailgating them, after all) would seem to disprove that.

          For god’s sake. Think of the half remembered Highway Code excerpts we get shouted at us You’re really saying that adhering to the notion of ideal cycling that that person has will get us “respected”?

          [1] Traffic law provides a predictable framework of behaviours that I think is important in terms of anticipating the actions of other road users.

          • Stuart says:

            I agree at a individual level it is hard to influence drivers by obeying traffic law, But I honestly think that if it was done on mass it would have a massive impact.

            How to achieve that is anyone’s guess!

            • Indeed, I believe it’s impossible to get almost all cyclists to obey the law. Especially since that would mean that every child riding a bike would have to use the carriageway.

              But cyclists obeying the law isn’t needed. Motorists disobey the law in staggeringly high numbers, and yet we still spend billions on roads.

              It’s not drivers we need to influence, it’s the policy-makers and planners in national and local government. Nothing will change until they realise the real benefits, including economic benefits, in switching funding from motorists to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.

  2. John the Monkey says:

    Yeah, I’m sure lots of kids aren’t riding & walking to school because of the menace of other cyclists.

    YMMV, but the ONE thing that puts me at risk is sh*tty driving.

  3. 3rdWorldCyclinginGB says:

    OK. There must be countries with high modal share but no segregation. Somewhere in India, maybe – I wonder what the KSI rate is there. Cue jingoistic arrogance…

    Another excellent piece.

  4. Well said Mark, again. The notion that magic will occur by magic should be fought. The answers to the issue of how to get cycling numbers back up is really very simple, and has nothing to do with anyone ‘getting their house in order’ For mass cycling, we need clear, separated space on the roads, to and from schools, high streets and places people go. Until we actually prioritise bikes, there use will remain low.

    • Stuart says:

      We wont get want we want and desperately need if people don’t think we deserve it! Sorry its the way humans work.

      • I hate to be cynical but I would argue that humans don’t care if people deserve something or don’t, they just care about money (and the things money equates to, time for example). So if cycling can be shown to have a net positive monetary effect for the average Joe, they’ll support it.

      • But as I and others have said, you’re never going to get 100% compliance by cyclists while there is no safe infrastructure (nor, actually, even if you do have – I’m sure there are ‘idiot cyclists’ even in the Netherlands).

        This is an utterly nonsensical and irrelevant line of argument anyway – there is no other area of life where rules or infrastructure to increase safety is dependent on the people they’re intended to protect ‘deserving them’ or being well behaved.

  5. Paul M says:

    Is the “Safety in numbers” doctrine actually no more than a corruption of the “critical mass” theory?

    I think I can see some merit in the CM theory. It is rare to see a critical mass of cyclists outside the monthly CM events eg in London starting from South Bank, but there are – or used to be – critical masses occurring on a daily basis in normal life. This would be typical of big factory sites with a high employment density, like steelworks, mines, and in the cases I have personally seen, Naval Dockyards and shipyards.

    The ones I particularly remember are the naval dockyards at Portsmouth and Devonport (Plymouth) and the Trident submarine yard at Barrow-in-Furness. It was a truly awesome sight to see what happened a few minutes after the end-of-shift hooter sounded. A kind of Le-Mans start to the bike sheds and a massed phalanx of bicycles all heading home. Shortly before that there would be a less concentrated arrival of the following shift. Either way motorists messed with it at their peril.

    But of course, these phenomena pre-dated the mass-ownership of the motor car. The yards were built before even the bicycle, and are certainly not configured to accommodate thousands of parked cars now. The geography helped a bit too – relatively flat, quite compact areas with high population density and terraced housing with very limited space for on-street car-parking. The bicycle culture was already there, it didn’t have to develop over time.

    In that sense critical mass is also an apposite term, originating as it does from nuclear physics. If you want to control a critical mass, for example to create an explosion, you have to go from well below CM to above CM almost instantaneously. Any slower and it just vaporises with little explosive impact. It’s almost a quantum leap, another term which is hard to envisage in practice, ie changing from one state to a materially different state with literally no interval between the two.

    Perhaps, if Hugo Chavez, Crown Prince Fahd, and the Emirs of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman all decided simultaneously to turn off the taps, we might see a change happen fast enough to work. Don’t see it myself.

  6. Loyalty-card says:

    In the clamour to promote segregated facilities, we shouldn’t forget the Dutch model also involves extensive use of shared-space … streets where peds/bikes are prioritised but cars are also allowed.

    Of course these are only implemented in low-motor-traffic areas, typically residential, but it’s an essential component of the successful Dutch system, and one we forget at our peril.

    Too many politicians and planners say with glee “there’s not enough space” in London for proper bike facilities. We must remind them Dutch design principles can address pedestrian and cyclist safety on any street in any town or city.

    • Yes, of course. The Dutch have refined their roads policy over three decades to make cycling and walking safe and more convenient for local trips than the car. So we need to copy pretty-much everything they’ve learnt that works.

      The biggest problem we have in the UK is that we expect streets where people live or shop to also function as motorways for through traffic at the same time. Since doing both is impossible, we have a fight between motor traffic flow and people, and motor traffic flow wins every time.

  7. When I’m feeling generous, I suspect that often people like Simon Mottram are against segregation because the majority of the time, they’re basing their opinions on the frankly rubbish infrastructure seen in the UK. Bike lanes that are poorly planned, poorly maintained, and end abruptly. In comparison, if you’re a fast, confident cyclist, you’re likely to prefer to ride with traffic; especially if the bike lane means having to share with slower cyclists. But that shouldn’t mean that integration is the only viable option, it just means we need better infrastructure, that can accomodate fast, confident cyclists as well as slower ones.

    When I’m feeling less generous, I suspect that for all their protestations, they really don’t want to have to share the road with more wobbly, beginner cyclists, and secretly, they enjoy being part of something that’s only for the fast and the brave. That they’d see more bikes on the road as being akin to everyone developing an interest in your favourite band, and having to put up with cargo bikes, kids and older people would cramp their style. But maybe I’m just a cynic…

  8. rdrf says:

    Here I go being “staggeringly conceited”. I too have presented arguments at length about SiN. They just happen to disagree with yours – that’s what debate is about.

    There is significant evidence for an increased cycling presence (in certain circumstances such as where there are low speeds and a presence of cyclists already, as in inner London in the first decade of the 21st century) having an effect on danger from motorists, resulting in reduced cyclist KSIs per journey. Sin (or Critical Mass) is a version of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation. This helps to explain what happens with everything from the effects of anti-lock brakes, car seat belt wearing, bicycle and motorcycle crash helmet wearing through to the general effects of increased motorisation on casualty levels. There is a lot of explanation of risk compensation in the (admittedly lengthy) texts quoted in my comments in the previous post .

    A couple of points:
    1. Even the CTC – for so long the prime advocates of the ‘Safety In Numbers’ theory – are now accepting the obvious -. This is one opinion of one CTC Councillor, and does not actually deny SiN, just suggesting that it may not be apparent at the same level of intensity.
    2. Simon Mottram is not saying that the answer is JUST more cyclists. And anyway, he is just one person asked for an opinion. The Times has got all sorts of things wrong in their campaigning – asking someone for their opinion whose only claim to authority is that he makes very expensive cycling clothing is not one of the biggest.

    I think there is one big issue with your opposition to SiN. Some of us want to support people who want to cycle in the current conditions, whatever future road layouts there are. We want to reduce danger at source, for us cyclists and other road users.

    An element in segregationism opposes us, arguing – implicitly or explicitly – that people are asking for trouble by cycling in current conditions, and sometimes even suggesting that cyclists should volunteer to be banned from roads (as a tactic to getting segregated cycle facilities).

    There is a serious difference of opinion here. Maybe you’re right, and maybe we’re wrong. Or vice versa.

    I look forward to posts where we can and do agree.

    • michael says:

      The statistics, I grant you, appear to require closer examination than I have the time/energy to give, because there are different stats out there saying entirely different things regarding KSI in London (i.e. has the rate increased or decreased over the last 10 years?)

      But I say again, I disagree with putting emphasis on SiN on basic moral philosphy grounds. I don’t want to be used as a means to persuade motorists to behave better, sorry. I’m a human being, not a mobile traffic-calming device.

      There is a fundamental flaw in your reference to ‘adaptive behaviour’, which I’m curious to know your reply to. Namely, that the other examples you give (such as seatbelts) involve people adapting to changing risks _to themselves_. The SiN issue is different, as it relies on peoeple’s responses to changing circumstances regarding _the risk they pose to others_. This is a fundamental moral distinction that the SiN proponants seem to keep ignoring.

    • Thanks again for commenting, and for the civilised discussion. I don’t think there’s much point in going round in circles on Safety In Numbers – suffice to say, I think the evidence is shaky, both because of intervening variables – particularly lower motor traffic volume – and causality, where the best evidence suggests that safer conditions, both perceived and actual, attract greater numbers.

      I think there is one big issue with your opposition to SiN. Some of us want to support people who want to cycle in the current conditions, whatever future road layouts there are. We want to reduce danger at source, for us cyclists and other road users.

      I’m not sure why opposition to SIN should present any issue when it comes to reducing to danger at source. There are plenty of methods and tactics to reduce danger that simply don’t involve any reliance on ‘numbers’ at all; pedestrianising streets, reducing through traffic, lowering speed limits, better enforcement, and stiffer penalties, to name but a few. On all of these topics I suspect we would strongly agree. I think making a connection between ‘numbers’ and danger reduction is unhelpful.

      An element in segregationism opposes us, arguing – implicitly or explicitly – that people are asking for trouble by cycling in current conditions, and sometimes even suggesting that cyclists should volunteer to be banned from roads (as a tactic to getting segregated cycle facilities).

      I don’t think anyone calling for segregation, on Dutch terms, would ever, either implicitly or explicitly, that people are ‘asking for trouble’ – I certainly don’t know of anyone who would stoop to that kind of victim blaming. That is not to say that there is a strong will from the motoring lobby to get cyclists out of the way; but I don’t think the two tendencies can be so easily conflated.

      I think this comes down – at least in urban areas – to how we perceive segregation. Benign segregation involves the separation of cars from people, be they on foot or on bikes. That is, the reclaiming of urban space from motor vehicles, removing them from certain streets, or reallocating road space. (This is, incidentally, a very effective danger-reduction strategy.) Or, conversely, there is the ‘segregation’ that involves pushing pedestrians into underpasses, and behind barriers, and generally keeping them out of the way of cars – this is the kind of segregation that I am far from inclined to support.

      Dutch cities are very effective at separation and segregation, principally by keeping motor vehicles out, and away from people. Danger has been greatly reduced by these methods.

  9. michael says:

    Invoking SiN as a central aim involves _using_ people. It actually means accepting the deaths of some of those so used, in order to persuade some motorists (the less sociopathic ones) to be a bit less reckless, so as to reduce the KSI _rate_ (but not the absolute number).

    I believe this is morally dubious as an approach. Reducing the danger posed by motorists is the job of the infrastructure and the law, Its not the job of vulnerable human beings on bikes “walking into the guns” in the hope that some of those motorists might learn to behave better and so cause the _rate_ of casualties to drop (at the price of an increase in absolute numbers of deaths and injuries)

    This is reflected in how difficult it is to achieve in practice, as people will, reasonably enough, resist being used in this fashion, and, consequently, you will have great difficulty getting the numbers up enough to achieve a useful SiN effect (said effect will mostly only apply at certain times of day in any case).. This is why, as As Easy says, SiN in itself has never managed to create mass-cycling culture anywhere. Its a bonus feedback-effect that will kick in if you actually tackle the real issues.

  10. Malcolm says:

    It may clarify the debate to understand how the Safety in Numbers effect first came to light. 20 years ago, the predecessor of the DfT used a modal that assumed linear relationship of cycling with KSI. For this reason, they based transport policy on the assumption that doubling cycling would double deaths and serious injuries. For this reason, they adamantly opposed any arguments in favour of a revival of cycling. This is where the “more cycling means more danger” attitude came from.

    In reaction to this, some researchers began to look at cases where there in fact had been a cycling revival. The two best documented examples are the UK and the Netherlands. In both countries, following the first oil crisis there had been a substantial revival of cycling; by about 60% in the UK (1973-85) and 30% in NL. In both cases, cyclist annual deaths actually fell. The NL revival was supported and sustained by favourable policy and large investment in infrastructure. The UK revival was largely ignored at the time and petered out in the mid-1980’s, returning to decline in the late 80’s and early 90’s (coincidentally about the same time that cycle helmets began to be promoted and get a lot of media attention).

    The UK case is especially interesting, because of course there was no major investment in infrastructure in the years of the revival. There were large general improvements in road safety, with all road users (except motorcyclists) seeing improved fatality rates. This background improvement is very unlikely entirely to explain the lack of an increase in deaths with a 60% increase in cycling in ten years. It probably explains only about half of it.

    In summary, the origin of the SiN effect is rooted in observations that refuted a model being used by the DfT (or whatever it was called 20 years ago) as justification to stifle cycling. Nobody ever intended the effect to be taken up as a campaigning tool. As with anything else that gets taken up in a crusade, the cautions and deeper reservations of a few early researchers have been “lost in translation”. SiN is often bandied about in a banal fashion, but on balance, it is hard to dispute that there is some reduction in fatality rates with increased cycling. In practice, there is not going to be a large revival of cycling without multifarious, vigorous interventions, of which better infrastructure will be one. So the point is somewhat moot.

    Comparing cyclist safety in France and the UK is instructive, though, as the French generally ride in the roads as we do, The French National Travel Survey shows that cycling is a little more popular there than in this country (5.4 Bn KM in 2008, versus 4.5-5Bn in UK) and cycling is a little safer (0.3f/mhu over the population as against about 0.4f/mhu in UK). Given the far poorer driver safety record in France, there is actually little significant difference between hourly risk of cycling and driving in France, despite the lack of infrastructure. Many age groups will be much safer cycling than driving, as in this country.

    Concerning the attraction of more people to cycling, the only comprehensive studies I am aware of (by John Pucher and colleagues) reported that successful programmes used a range of measures, the individual effectiveness of which could not be determined. His work does note that on-street cycle lanes were as effective as segregated routes in supporting a cycling revival.

    Something to bear in mind is the complete distinction between “cyclists” who go out for long rides or train for competition, and “bicycle users” who are just getting on a bike in lieu of any other means of travel. The former will use country roads a lot, the latter almost never. There will never be any extensive infrastucture of segregation on country roads in the UK. That is why “cyclists” are very wary of anything that might lead to on-road riding being stigmatised as “unacceptably dangerous”. The risks in reality are not high, and it is wrong to suggest they are.

    The ideal cycling infrastructure is laid out in “Cycling by Design” and recognises that there are different classes of rider who have different preferences. I suggest we just acknowledge that fact and work for cycling having a broader appeal, rather than insulting each other.

    • >Comparing cyclist safety in France and the UK is instructive, though, as the French >generally ride in the roads as we do,

      Purely anecdotal I know and I’ve not ridden in urban environments but riding on rural roads in France is a pleasure that it never is in the UK. I suspect le Tour has a lot to do with this. Climbing through small French villages you’re regularly greeted with shouts of “Allez” and within moments of pushing my bike along a road with a blown tyre a van screeched to to a halt to offer a lift. You don’t get that in the UK whether on the hills of Surrey or Cumbria.

      Yes the French also drive like idiots (though there are a lot of speed cameras, both overt and covert, and the use of radar detectors or SatNav with camera locations is banned) but they generally they tend to give cyclists a decent amount of space to pass and my right to be on the road has never been questioned.

  11. rdrf says:

    In response to Michael: I’m glad to (try to) satisfy your curiosity. Adaptive behaviour/ risk compensation refers to everything that a road user does in reaction to anything they may perceive as a hazard. This applies whether in terms of a threat to their personal physical safety or a threat to their self-perception as a competent motorist or reasonably civilised member of society.

    Most motorists, most of the time, don’t want to run down pedestrians/cyclists: they may not be very well disposed to us, and indeed see us as hazards, but they are generally prepared to do things like, for example, slowing down (and maybe even stopping) if they come across a visible group of pedestrians. It doesn’t have to involve an actual physical threat to one’s wellbeing, just something that you don’t want to happen, e.g. in this case running down pedestrians. You would feel bad about yourself if you were to do something like this, so you try not to do it.

    This isn’t good enough for (to continue the analogy) everything we want for the safety of people walking across the road, but it’s a start and works most of the time. In fact making this better will involve extending what already happens, namely making motorists even more concerned about the effects on their well-being of knocking down pedestrians.

    Now, it might well be the case that we would like something else in addition to extend this, like pedestrian activated automatic braking of vehicles, not to mention effective law enforcement and deterrent sentencing with regard to drivers potentially endangering pedestrians. Getting this requires a cultural change based on regarding pedestrians rights mores seriously. But if we do get this, the most apparent manifestation of such a cultural change would be in the everyday behaviour of (most) motorists driving more carefully, rather than waiting for the automatic braking to kick in.

    Look at it this way: I have been cycling on a daily basis in London for 35 years. I have not been decked by a motorist once in that time (the only time was outside London, with fewer cyclists and other traffic around). I have had a couple of very minor impacts not involving me coming off the bike, and of course numerous near hits. But the point is that motorists have deliberately avoided me literally dozens of thousands of times. If they are pressured to do so more by the presence of cyclists, that seems to be a morally desirable, if incomplete, change in motorist behaviour for the good. I don’t care so much if I am seen as a hazard (although it would be nice for drivers to have a friendly attitude): if people watch out for me and behave in the way they should, that’s pretty good.

    I don’t think that these last 35 years have involved me “walking into the guns”, or being “used” – in fact the motorists who have had to change their direction, slow down or stop for me and other cyclists are the ones who have been “used”.

    • michael says:

      As a pedestrian in London for decades I simply have a far less positive view of motorists. I’ve seen too much appalling driving over the years.

      And as a cyclist or pedestrian I don’t particularly want to have to rely on the the guy weilding the deadly weapon to be restrained only by guilt or concience, _especially_ when legal penalties for killing with a vehical are so ludicrously light.

      Now if that legal situation were to be hugely improved your ‘adaptive behaviour’ argument would carry a bit more conviction (and a lot more convictions!). But as it is I know its likely that someone killing or injuring is all too likely to get away wiith a very short driving ban or a suspeded sentence at most.

      I believe there is a natural human tendency to be more willing to push-the-limits when it comes to imposing risks on strangers rather than on oneself or one’s own family. That’s human nature as much as ‘adaptive behaviour’ is.

  12. rdrf says:

    2. In response to AsEasy:
    (a) First bit of my post responded to: I don’t think this really answers the point. If you are arguing that you want cyclists to not be in the vicinity of motor traffic, then at some level there is an inevitable opposition to support for people who are riding in conditions where they will be in the vicinity of motor traffic.

    (b) Second bit of my post responded to: I’m sure that there is no intentional victim blaming among most of the current generation of segregationists. (However some have indeed opposed or questioned the idea that people should be encouraged to cycle in current conditions).

    But in a sense, that does not matter. What matters is that the powers that be use the idea of segregation to think of “solutions” that are not taking space away from motor traffic, but seeing cyclists instead as the problem to be got out of the way. (The “cycleway in the sky” is a classic example of this). In short, it is not what you want that counts, but what the dominant ideology and institutional powers that be translate it as. And I am concerned that it has the negative effect that I mention, of victim blaming, dangerising cycling etc.

    Also, even if some high quality Dutch style infrastructure comes in, what happens to us on the vast majority of the highway network where we will be but where motorists will think we don’t have the right to be? If you start off with at least 20% of journeys already by bike, and lots of it on segregated tracks, as the Dutch did, that’s one thing. But if you have a much smaller and less significant cycling population, almost all of which is not on segregated facilities but with the idea that cyclists only belong there; can’t you see the negative consequences of that?

    • If you are arguing that you want cyclists to not be in the vicinity of motor traffic, then at some level there is an inevitable opposition to support for people who are riding in conditions where they will be in the vicinity of motor traffic.

      This isn’t the case in the Netherlands, where you will, of course, spend time riding in the vicinity of motor traffic, albeit on streets where motor traffic is low. A reduction in the number of interactions with motor vehicles – in particular, fast vehicles – shouldn’t mean reduction in support for people riding bicycles around and amongst them. Indeed ‘strict liability’ arrived in the Netherlands in the 1990s, some time after the Dutch embarked on the construction of their bicycle network.

      What matters is that the powers that be use the idea of segregation to think of “solutions” that are not taking space away from motor traffic, but seeing cyclists instead as the problem to be got out of the way. (The “cycleway in the sky” is a classic example of this). In short, it is not what you want that counts, but what the dominant ideology and institutional powers that be translate it as. And I am concerned that it has the negative effect that I mention, of victim blaming, dangerising cycling etc.

      I agree, that is a very real danger. Much the same has been true, of course, for provision for pedestrians – putting them behind barriers, or into underpasses. There are signs that that is changing, and that pedestrians are being given more space and greater priority at street level. I think a strategy of separation from motor vehicles and better provision for pedestrians *has* to be part of a broader strategy of reducing reliance on motor vehicles in urban areas, and making our towns and cities more humane. This is all part of a bigger battle.

      Also, even if some high quality Dutch style infrastructure comes in, what happens to us on the vast majority of the highway network where we will be but where motorists will think we don’t have the right to be?

      You would hope that motorists would be able to use the evidence of their eyes and realise that provision for cyclists isn’t available on the particular road or street that they are driving on. I have had bad experiences with drivers, but I’m not that pessimistic about the rationality of most people.

  13. rdrf says:

    Dear AsEasy, I think we are wearing this exchange out, but before leaving it – I think I have referred to what’s wrong with your first point here:

    In the Netherlands they never went below 20% modal share, and the memory of 28% was fresh in people’s minds. The idea of cyclists as legitimate road users who might be in the vicinity of motor vehicles didn’t go away, and also a large network of segregated paths/tracks were not unusual. The same factors do not pertain here.

    Malcolm makes some interesting comments on SiN above. I really do think we have to leave it here, but would urge people to read through the copious literature by Adams in particular, Gerard Wilde and yes, myself, on risk compensation/adaptive behaviour and road casualties.

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