David Hembrow has recently posted a piece about a family in Cambridge who are considering giving up cycling – this after a nasty incident on a roundabout, in which a van struck the mother’s bakfiets, with her baby in it. David’s main focus is on the number of accidents that have occured on this particular road, and how this compares – poorly – with the most dangerous junction in the Netherlands.
My attention was grabbed, however, by the comment from the Cambridge Cycle Campaign that concludes the newspaper article David refers to –
A spokesman for Cambridge Cycling Campaign said: “Cycling is a very safe activity, and safer in Cambridge than most places in the UK.”
Whether that is all they had to say on the matter, or whether space prevented them from saying more, nothing else appears.*
It’s a statement that is rather similar to comments the CTC’s Chris Peck made in response to the ghost bikes erected in London following the recent spate of deaths there –
Despite their eerie poignancy, some cycling campaigners worry that the memorials could, in fact, act in the main to put off would-be cyclists. “While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they make [sic] give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is,” said Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator for the CTC, the UK’s main national cycling organisation. “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.”
The response to examples of danger, both perceived and quite real, is, in both cases, to highlight that cycling is statistically, objectively, ‘a very safe activity’; far safer than these isolated incidents might suggest.
Why does this seem to be the soundbite of choice for some cycle campaigning groups? No doubt they do acknowledge, privately or otherwise, that Cherry Hinton Road in Cambridge could be safer to cycle on. Likewise, they could admit that the gyratory around King’s Cross, where the ghost bike for Deep Lee has been erected, is a far from pleasant, or safe, environment for cycling. They could – when asked for their opinion by a local newspaper, or by the Guardian – state that these roads are actually far less safe than they should be, both in objective and subjective terms, and that something really should be done about them.
But, quite often, they don’t. In these two instances, they prefer to accentuate the positive – to highlight that using a bicycle is actually far safer than it appears to be, or indeed to point out that it has health benefits that will increase your life expectancy.
I think this is because cycle campaigners are terrified of ‘putting people off’ – the logic being that if we start talking about the horrible roads we often have to cycle on, and the dangerous junctions that desperately need improvement, then all we will be doing is fostering the perception – already widespread in the populace – that cycling is a high risk activity, and so in consequence we would be deterring many people from choosing to take up a bicycle as a mode of transport. Agreeing with Jane Richards – the Cambridge mother who feels like giving up cycling – that using a bike in Cambridge does indeed ‘feel like an extreme sport’ would have the net consequence of discouraging people from using bicycles, and worse, might even encourage some current cyclists to discard them.
Cycling is safer the more people who do it – so the mantra goes – and thus we need to do everything we can to hold on to the people who currently cycle, and encourage others to do so. That means we might have to refrain from speaking our minds about the danger some roads pose.
I can sympathise with this point of view. Indeed, I engaged in this kind of sunny optimism myself, as a younger man, attempting to convince my non-cycling friends that cycling around London’s busy gyratories was fine, once you got used to it. I was being honest – at the time, I genuinely felt that it was okay to cycle there, and that once my friends tried it a few times – despite probably being a little unnerving at first – they would grasp the cycling bug, and we would form a happy peloton.
They didn’t bite, though. The tube, and buses, remained a far more attractive alternative for them.
And I think this is, in microcosm, the problem. Whatever I said about cycling on London’s roads to my friends, however long I survived without incident, or injury, it just didn’t smell right for them. It didn’t seem normal. Cycling around giant roundabouts, with motor vehicles, large and small, moving all around you, just isn’t the sort of thing most people are going to engage in, however persuasive their friends are.
You do indeed ‘have to keep your wits about you’, in the famous words of our Mayor. And he was quite correct to say so. It would be beyond foolish to cycle around London without paying attention. The trouble is – and this is the crux of the matter – no other mode of transport in London requires wits to be kept, continually, about oneself. Catching a bus does not require ‘keeping your wits about you’. Nor does using the tube, or walking along the pavement. These are modes of transport that children can use without much formal instruction, beyond ‘don’t step off the kerb’. The same cannot be said, at all, for using a bicycle – not if you don’t want to come to grief.
And this is precisely why cycling, no matter how statistically or objectively safe, feels subjectively unsafe.
If you keep your wits about you, you will most likely be fine, but not everyone wants to keep their wits about them, at all times. I often remark that while cycling in London I feel like a harried fox. Although I am safe, the amount of attention I have to pay to my immediate environment is extraordinary; what a vehicle behind me is planning to do, and what measures I should take to encourage the best possible behaviour from that driver; what speed a vehicle is approaching from a side road; at what point I should start to move out around stationary vehicles; what position I should hold in a particular lane of a gyratory; how and when to filter; the list is, seemingly, endless.
This is not a recipe for subjective safety.
And this is why the responses from the cycling campaigners that provoked this piece are – at least in my opinion – misguided. It is the perception of danger that is the issue. You can tell people that cycling is statistically very safe until the cows come home, but it is how it actually feels that is surely the most important factor in whether people will take up cycling, or continue to do so. Very few people are going to be persuaded by the statistics that the likes of Chris Peck and the Cambridge Cycle Campaign are coming out with; it’s very hard indeed to imagine bicycles being wheeled out of sheds with the realisation that cycling is objectively very safe.
Indeed, if the intention of these kinds of comments is to attempt to shape public perception, then I’m afraid that as a strategy, it is very much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s too late. Cycling feels, and looks, like an unsafe activity to the vast majority of the population, and I don’t blame them for forming that impression.
We certainly shouldn’t exaggerate the dangers involved in riding a bike, but I think it’s time we saw an acknowledgement, in these soundbites, of the hostility of the environment we have to face when cycling, rather than attempts to persuade us otherwise with statistics. Who knows – it might be rather more useful in the long run.
*UPDATE – As you can see in the comments below, Cambridge Cycle Campaign did send a rather longer response to the Cambridge Evening News, which runs as follows –
Being shielded from the elements through a ton of metal, drivers have large front, limited surround view and their senses are drastically reduced as they can’t properly hear what is going on around them. Ever thicker pillars have reduced drivers viewing field. Cut off from much of the exterior and helped by powerful engines drivers speed through congested urban roads at speeds that can kill, many not aware that pretty much all danger to life on our roads derive from motor cars and lorries.
Cycling is a very safe activity, and safer in Cambridge than most places in the UK. Gardening is dangerous, yet people take the risk of gardening all the time without thinking about it. If a car collides with another car, wouldn’t the police prosecute that driver for driving without due-care and attention, yet when a car hits a bicycle they don’t. We need road junctions that make pedestrians and cyclists feel safe and are designed to be safe for everybody, not just those in big heavy vehicles.
This is an excellent response – it’s a pity that the Cambridge Evening News didn’t see fit to include the last sentence, in particular, along with the brief sentence they did quote.