A district councillor in Horsham, Philip Circus, has a ‘provocative’ column in the local newspaper, the West Sussex County Times. Judging by the typical character of his output, it is usually safe to take ‘provocative’ to mean ‘ill-informed’ (a staple is climate change denial) and the current column, entitled Why British cyclists are not always heroes, is no exception.
The success of British sporting cyclists at the Olympics and the Tour de France has, it seems, presented Mr Circus with a golden opportunity to unburden himself of his latent prejudices about cycling as a mode of transport. Stating that ‘transport policy has to start with the safety of people on two feet’ (admittedly, a very promising start) he then proceeds to write at great length about the dangers posed to pedestrians by… cyclists, curiously saying absolutely nothing about the much larger danger – both objectively and statistically – posed to them by motor vehicles.
Between 2005 and 2009, ten pedestrians were killed by cyclists and 262 seriously injured. And many readers of the County Times will not be remotely surprised by the figures.
Quite why readers of the County Times would ‘not be remotely surprised’ by these figures is not at all clear, especially when we examine the pedestrian casualties in Horsham, where there have been two pedestrian deaths, and twenty serious pedestrian injuries, in Horsham and the immediate vicinity, between 2005-11 (data from crashmap.co.uk).
As a numerate and informed reader of the County Times might already have guessed, on the balance of probabilities, none of these pedestrian deaths or serious injuries involved a cyclist; all twenty-two involved one (or more) motor vehicles.
This is, of course, entirely in line with the figures Mr Circus quotes, because ten pedestrian deaths, and 262 serious injuries, involving cyclists over a period of four years amounts to just 2.5 deaths, and 65.5 serious injuries per year. Or – approximately one serious injury involving a cyclist, per million people, per year. Horsham has a population of around 50,000, so by rough extrapolation we should only expect a serious pedestrian injury involving a cyclist in Horsham every twenty years.
Of course, these figures are not quite as damning as a bold statement that ‘262 pedestrians were seriously injured by cyclists’, and it is natural to suspect that only someone with an axe to grind would choose to present the figures in such a context-free manner. This is even before we start to address the issue of responsibility, which Mr Circus has decided to unilaterally attribute to cyclists, stating without evidence that they ‘killed’ pedestrians, when of course many of those cyclists may have been completely blameless.
In any case Mr Circus – who let’s not forget has started and finished his column with a plea to focus on the safety of those on two feet – has absolutely nothing to say about the effects on the safety of pedestrians resulting from other modes of transport.
To put his figures into some kind of perspective, in 2010 alone, 19,658 pedestrians were hit by cars in the UK (just cars – not all motor vehicles), of which 237 were killed, and 3,924 were seriously injured. In the same year, 3,855 pedestrians were hit by other types of motor vehicles (motorcycles, buses, LGVs and HGVs), of which 96 were killed, and 760 were seriously injured. To repeat, this is just for one year, not four.
Given these figures, are bicycles really the most pressing safety issue for pedestrians?
But having apparently established where the problem of danger for pedestrians correctly lies – with cyclists – Mr Circus then moves on to fulminate against the
sense of superiority and self-righteousness which often contributes to selfish cycling
a sense of superiority which,
with cycling being put on a national pedestal… is likely to increase further and with it the dangers to pedestrians.
Has Mr Circus really considered whether a cyclist using the pavement or going through a red light actually believes him or herself to be ‘superior’? Has he thought about their motives? If he did, even for a moment, he would divest himself of the bizarre opinion that the success of Chris Hoy or Laura Trott in a velodrome many miles away is going to have any bearing on their behaviour whatsoever.
The extent of Mr Circus’ disconnect with reality becomes fully apparent in this paragraph-
Anyone who walks around Horsham has seen it. Despite dedicated cycle lanes being provided for cyclists, you will see cyclists weaving in and out of pedestrians on the pavement.
This presents a curious paradox. ‘Dedicated cycle lanes’ have been provided, and yet cyclists are choosing to weave in and out of pedestrians on the pavement! Why on earth would this be? Perhaps these cyclists prefer, for some reason, to lengthen the time and distance of their journey by cycling around pedestrians? Or, they are masochists, who like to make their journeys more arduous? Or perhaps they delight in annoying pedestrians, so much so that the bike lanes – however fantastic – are ignored?
Of course none of these theories is a rational or sensible explanation. The only reason cyclists are using pavements is because the ‘dedicated cycle lanes’ in Horsham Mr Circus refers to are actually non-existent, or desperately poor, and the roads they might usefully be on are intimidating to negotiate on a bicycle.
And here’s the proof – the main arterial roads in Horsham. (All pictures were taken at around 6pm last Sunday, when traffic levels were considerably lower than during a weekday.)
On all the main routes in and out of Horsham, then, cycle lanes are almost entirely non-existent, and in the few places they do exist, they are frankly of such a dangerous quality it would probably be better if they were removed. That means anyone who chooses to cycle lawfully around Horsham will have to cycle next to and amongst rapidly-moving vehicles, ‘taking the lane’ at pinch points and at junctions, and will have to have the nerve to cycle well away from parked cars and also to negotiate out into the second or even third lane of fast flowing traffic.
The idea that people cycling on pavements in Horsham are wilfully choosing to ignore wonderful infrastructure that has been laid on for them is therefore manifestly absurd. That infrastructure does not exist. Cycling on the main roads in and out of Horsham feels dangerous, and is stressful and unpleasant. That is why pavements are being used; not because of an innate sense of ‘superiority’ or ‘self-righteousness’ on the part of cyclists, but because of simple self-preservation.
The three nice ladies in their fifties who attended a Bikeability class with me last year in Horsham came from their homes, and returned to them, almost entirely on pavements. They wanted to use their bicycles to make short trips in town, but were terrified of the roads, and hoped some instruction and training would help them. They were not hooligans, or anti-social; they just wanted their journeys by bike to feel safe and pleasant. The pavements were – and still are – their best option. That state of affairs is almost entirely the responsibility of Horsham District Council.
I hope the District Councillor bears that in mind the next time he decides to write about road danger and the behaviour of people on bicycles, and that instead of imagining into existence infrastructure that doesn’t exist and dreaming up strange motives for cyclists’ behaviour, he reflects on the actual sources of threat posed to pedestrians, and the concomitant problems faced by those who might want to use bicycles for everyday trips.