I’ve written extensively about the ‘Safety in Numbers’ effect before, particularly about the folly of employing it as a safety strategy, so I won’t spend too much time going over old ground.
One of my main concerns about the ‘Safety in Numbers’ effect is that it can be stripped away from its original context – an observation of a correlation between safety and numbers, without any established mechanism for that correlation – and directly employed as a safety strategy, even as a substitute for hard action to make cycling safer. Instead of changing the physical environment of our streets, to minimise the number of interactions between motor vehicles and bicycles, and to lower the speeds when those interactions do take place, you might see politicians arguing that all we need to do is increase the numbers of people cycling. As I wrote back in October
‘Safety in numbers’ is attractive as a theory because it requires very little financial or intellectual investment in trying to improve conditions for the most vulnerable users. All that needs to be done is to ‘encourage’ more walking and cycling, without the hard effort required of improving the environment itself (which, incidentally, does have a proven record of making walking and cycling safer).
It’s also a useful way of dismissing or silencing the concerns of those who argue that cycling is too dangerous, or feels too dangerous. By talking about the hazards of cycling, and how unpleasant cycling feels, so the argument runs, we are discouraging potential cyclists, and so reducing the ‘safety in numbers’ effect, and making cycling less safe. This is something Andrew Gilligan has argued, in response to the Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling Campaign -
It’s still not clear whether The Times’ coverage will bring about many, if any, of the improvements it seeks. What it certainly will do, however, is make several hundred thousand Times readers think twice before they get on a bicycle. And if fewer people cycle, or take up cycling, the casualty rates will suffer.
That is, cycling safety is dependent on the numbers of people cycling – so stop talking about how dangerous it is.
Boris Johnson and Transport for London have placed a good deal of emphasis on ‘Safety in Numbers’ as a safety strategy. A TfL document [pdf] claims that the Boris Bike scheme will, in and of itself,
Improve safety by increasing the number of cyclists on London’s roads
Likewise Transport for London’s 2010 Cycle Safety Action Plan [pdf] argues that
One of the most effective strategies to increase the safety of cycling may be to encourage more cycling and more cyclists.
At few years before this was written, there may have been good grounds for believing this. The rate of cycling casualties on London’s roads had generally fallen since 2000-1, over a period in which cycling increased substantially (albeit from a very low base). Yet a graph contained in the London Assembly’s newly-published report, Gearing up – An investigation into safer cycling in London [pdf] throws this relationship into serious doubt.
The casualty rate in London has risen quite consistently since 2007, despite a continuing increase in the amount of cycling over this period. Here are the figures for the average number of trips since 2000, from TfL’s Travel in London report -
So the increase in cycling has been fairly continuous over the last decade, and yet since 2007 there has been a reversal in the casualty rate. More people cycling is not leading to an increase in relative safety; quite the reverse. Cycling in London is getting less safe, despite the increasing numbers.
The London Assembly report is quite right, therefore, to note that
The Mayor believes the ‘safety in numbers’ effect will improve cycling safety in London but this is not currently evident… Our analysis shows that the safety in numbers effect has not prevented an increase in the cycling casualty rate between 2007 and 2010. Therefore, there remains an imperative for the Mayor and TfL to make improving the safety of cyclists on the roads the top priority in all their cycling programmes.
Danny over at Cyclists in the City has provided an excellent summary of the main findings of the whole report, although I’d recommending reading it in full if you have the time. It’s a rallying call for action, particularly for greater financial investment in physical infrastructure for bicycles, and for the Mayor to fully commit to following London Cycling’s Go Dutch demands. The overwhelming impression it gives is that we simply cannot go on as we are, with our roads and streets so poorly designed for bicycles, and so far behind our European neighbours and other major world cities. There can be no more complacency.