The CTC – among others – are quite keen on the ‘Safety In Numbers’ effect. A couple of years ago, they produced a pdf on it.
It contains this graph, showing an attractive correlation between the cyclist death rate, and the amount of distance cycled per person, in a number of European countries.
The CTC argue, in the document, that
Countries in Europe with high levels of cycle use tend to be less risky for cyclists. In Denmark, people cycle over 900 kilometres a year and it is a far safer country to cycle in than Portugal, where barely 30 km is covered by each person by bike annually.
Clearly, there is a correlation here between distance cycled, or number of cycling trips, and safety. That much is undeniable. But are we so clear about the the direction in which the correlation runs? The main thrust of the CTC argument seems to be based on the assumption that an increase in safety will arise from a greater numbers of cyclists making trips. In their words
Cycling gets safer the more people do it.
I think this is generally true. More people cycling should mean more awareness of cyclists, and so the averaged risk to a given cyclist will probably decrease.
But there is an alternative explanation that could lie behind the correlation exhibited in that graph, that the CTC don’t seem to focus on. Namely, that more people will cycle when they feel safe. Or, to invert the CTC slogan,
More people cycle when it gets safer.
This gives us two possible interpretations for the data point for the Netherlands in the graph above.
1) Dutch cyclists are safe, because the Dutch, as a nation, cycle a lot.
2) The Dutch, as a nation, cycle a lot, because they feel (or are) safe.
Likewise, for the UK –
1) British cyclists are not as safe as their Dutch counterparts because, unlike the Dutch, we do not cycle a lot.
2) The British, as a nation, do not cycle a lot, because they are not (or do not feel) safe.
To be clear, I don’t think these two interpretations of the correlation are mutually exclusive. There is probably a great deal of interplay between them. But it is interesting how the second interpretation figures so little in the conventional explanations of the ‘Safety In Numbers’ effect.
There are now significant numbers of cyclists at peak commuting hours on arterial roads in and out of London – the ‘Superhighways’ seem to have had the effect of concentrating cyclists’ movements on these roads. I suspect that this increase in numbers has indeed led to a decrease in the average cyclist’s exposure to risk. Nevertheless, the road environment doesn’t necessarily feel any safer for a cyclist, simply because of the greater numbers. And I think that is quite important if we are ever going to get the ‘numbers’ the CTC talk about.
Eight cyclists are visible in this short clip, yet this seems (to me, at least) to be a deeply hostile and unpleasant environment to cycle in. All the regular motorists in this clip probably encounter hundreds of cyclists on a day-to-day basis, so they are certainly ‘aware’ of them. But the general attitude exhibited seems to be one of dangerous complacency, rather than consideration. They are used to cyclists – but only as objects they need to get past as quickly as possible.
Now, to be fair, the CTC do stress the need to make the road environment more welcoming and safe for cyclists. I suspect this is a tacit acknowledgement that a strategy of simply talking about how safe cycling actually is –
cycling isn’t as risky as commonly thought, with just one death every 32 million kilometres – that’s over 800 times around the world. Indeed not cycling is more risky than cycling: cyclists on average live two years longer than non-cyclists and take 15% fewer days off work through illness
– just isn’t going to cut it when it comes to getting people out there on bikes in significant numbers. Statistics about how they are actually going to extend their lives, on the basis of probability, by cycling aren’t really going to make up anyone’s mind when they are confronted with cycling conditions like those in the video above, ‘numbers’ or otherwise.
The starting point for cycle campaigning should be to make cycling seem safer and more attractive. The numbers will come.
By contrast, we shouldn’t simply endeavour to boost the numbers of people cycling in the hope that, somewhere down the line, cycling will become safer and more attractive.
Let’s not get the cart before the horse.