The pernicious logic of ‘safety in numbers’

The recent announcement of a 13% rise [pdf] in cyclist casualties (Killed or Seriously Injured – KSIs) in the first quarter of 2012, compared to the same period in 2011, is unfortunately only further evidence of an increasingly sharp upward trend in cycling KSIs, which have risen in ten of the last 13 quarters.

Chart taken from the same report [pdf]

This 13% rise in the first 3 months of 2012 follows a similar 15% increase in cycling KSIs in 2011 on 2010 (a period in which all cycling casualties, slight and serious, rose by 11%). Data released by the Department for Transport at around the same time suggests that the distance cycled rose by only 2% over the same period; if this is correct, then it reflects a substantial increase in the rate of cycling casualties.

In London, where the ‘safety in numbers’ effect should be at its most prominent, cycling KSIs rose by a staggering 22% in 2011, on 2010. The most recent figures we have for the increase in cycling in London come from the fourth Travel in London report [pdf], dating from the end of 2011, which records a 15% rise on TLRN (the roads controlled by Transport for London) in 2010, compared to 2009.

However, this is unlikely to be representative of an increase in cycling across London as a whole, particularly as Superhighways lie on the TLRN and have ‘sucked in’ cycle traffic from other routes. A more realistic picture of the increase in cycling in London as a whole comes on page 63 of the same report, which records an increase of just 6% in cycling stages in 2010 on 2009, and about a 5% increase in cycling trips. This rate of increase has held steady for the last few years; I see no reason to assume it will have changed much in 2011. So the best evidence suggests that, just as across the rest of Great Britain, the increase in cycling KSIs in London is greatly outstripping the increase in cycling, and cycling is becoming – for whatever reason – more dangerous, despite the increasing numbers of trips being made by bicycle.

Against this background, I find it quite hard to excuse statements like this one, which recently appeared on the Economist’s ‘Blighty’ blog –

the best way to reduce the rate of injuries is to increase the number of cyclists

I don’t know what evidence the author D.K. has for this statement – none is presented – but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The increasing number of cyclists in Great Britain is currently having absolutely no effect, whatsoever, on the rate of injuries. To argue, in the light of the facts, that the best way – note, the best way – to reduce those casualties is to go on pouring cyclists onto Britain’s streets and roads is verging on immoral.

The actual best way to reduce the rate of injuries is to adjust the environment so that motorists are forced to drive more safely, and cyclists are structurally separated, as much as possible, from motor vehicles. That is to say, danger reduction. It’s the tried and tested approach employed in the Netherlands, where despite people of all ages and abilities cycling in vast numbers, the casualty rate is substantially lower. The environment for cycling is ‘soft’; mistakes can be made, and the consequences are only minor. That is very different from the situation in Great Britain, where ‘mistakes’, like going up the inside of a large goods vehicle, can very often be fatal.

As I have written before, it is superficial in the extreme to attribute the greater safety of Dutch cyclists simply to the greater numbers of Dutch cyclists. But this is precisely what the CTC did in their ‘Safety in Numbers’ document [pdf] –

Countries in Europe with high levels of cycle use tend to be less risky for cyclists

And also –

The Netherlands has witnessed a 45% increase in cycling from 1980-2005 and a 58% decrease in cyclist fatalities.

No mention here of the vast amount of work the Dutch have put in over that period to make their roads and streets subjectively and objectively safer for cycling – work that has enabled that 45% increase in cycling, as well as bringing about the decrease in fatalities. In other words, the root cause of both the increase in cycling and the lowering of the fatality rate is the infrastructure. This is precisely the view of the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research –

I do not expect that just a greater number of cyclists will on its own result in a risk reduction for the cyclist. On the other hand, I do expect that more cycling facilities will lead to lower risks. Policy that only focuses on an increase in cycling and at the same time ignores the construction of more cycling facilities, will not have a positive effect on road safety.

There is a historical analogy here that I think is instructive.

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, street lighting became increasingly common in European towns and cities. Over the same period, more women started to use the streets later at night, and crimes on those streets diminished. Doubtless we could argue, if we were a particularly stupid nineteenth century administrator, that an increase in the numbers of women on the street late at night led solely and directly to a reduction in the rate of crimes perpetrated against them.

We might even draw a graph showing a correlation.

Indeed, we might further argue that to publicly discuss the muggings, rapes and murders that were still occurring on the streets would be unhelpful, because it would put off women from going out on the streets late at night, and a lowering of the numbers of women on the streets at night would increase the exposure risk to those same women. We would argue this, despite women stating, in poll after poll, that it was the perception of danger that kept them at home.

‘Women! Going out on the streets late at night alone is safer than you think!’ might be a helpful rallying cry, accompanied by statistics showing that the relative risk of coming to harm – being mugged, raped or murdered – while walking into town is actually fairly similar to taking a carriage, or just staying at home and descending the stairs. The authorities might usefully create glossy posters showing happy women walking along dark streets, informing them that they should ‘catch up with night walking’; the idea behind the campaign to suggest to nervous women that walking alone down unlit streets is a perfectly normal activity.

Or our public servant could attempt to argue, when questioned by the press, that the risk of women being mugged, raped, or murdered is actually offset by the health benefits of walking into town, which would, on balance, prolong the lives of women. Thus

Walking into town late at night through mugger’s alley is safer than not walking into town at all.

Persuasive, no?

We would, if we were so minded, also hope to see arguments from women, suggesting that they themselves shouldn’t talk about the dangers they faced on the streets, for fear of putting off other women from walking into town at night, and thus depriving themselves of a ‘critical mass’ of female night walkers to ensure their own safety. For that would be to commit the offence of ‘dangerising’ walking alone at night, when everybody knows that night walking is actually perfectly safe (or at least safer than it is perceived to be) and we shouldn’t do anything to jeopardise increasing the numbers of women walking on the street, so vital for achieving ‘herd immunity’.

We would also expect to see women suggesting that they shouldn’t talk about the dangers involved on the streets at night, because the priority must surely be to increase the number of women walking at night, so as to gain sufficient political influence to subsequently campaign for improvements to the nocturnal walking environment – influence so sorely lacking while women walking alone at night remained such a tiny minority of the population. Indeed, as street lighting was so expensive, surely nobody could have asked for it until that political weight had been achieved.

Finally, we would also see our Victorian public servant offering, in lieu of street lighting and a subjectively safer environment, training for women nervous about walking along dark streets. Perhaps some kind of Victorian self-defence class, with women being taught how to use their parasols to ward off attackers. Once empowered, women could venture out onto slightly less well-lit streets (which double as ‘training facilities’, useful for building up their confidence), before eventually moving onto the really dark streets once they’ve realised that it’s not all that bad.

The absolute priority, in other words, would be to get women out on the streets at night, regardless of their perception of risk, and regardless of other improvements to the streetscape that would both address that perception of risk directly, and make the street objectively safer.

Put like this, such a collection of policy measures sounds absurd, even inhumane. We wouldn’t expect the authorities to persuade women to do something they didn’t really want to do, even if there were alleged benefits for ‘the herd’ in them doing so.

Of course, this account is also ahistorical. To pretend that the greater safety of women walking around towns at night in the nineteenth century was achieved simply through greater numbers of women being on the streets doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. That safety was actually attained through better lighting, and through better policing, and – more broadly – through the creation of  a better environment. It was these actions that allowed the night to be ‘reclaimed’ by women, not facile campaigns that simply urged women to ignore their fears and head out onto the streets regardless, or posters, or statistical arguments, or training, or waiting until enough women were walking the streets at night anyway.

Women responded to the changes in their environment, which had been made subjectively and objectively safer. (Note that I am not denying that there are probable benefits to women’s safety from having more of them on the street at any one time – my point is one of causation, and of ordering).

But unfortunately many cycling campaigners make precisely these same errors.

Firstly, they attribute the current greater safety of cycling in other European countries to the numbers of people cycling, instead of to the different environment – they do this in just the same way that our mythical Victorians might have attributed the safety of women to the increasing numbers of them on the street, and not to the safety benefits of lighting and an improved environment.

And secondly, they use precisely the same slightly cold and callous logic employed by our Victorian public servant to achieve the safety of their target demographic. The sad truth is that their arguments are directly analogous to the historical fiction I have just created.

For a start, those who pin their hopes for a better cycling future on ‘safety in numbers’ or a ‘critical mass’ are, just like our mythical Victorians, quick to play down talk of danger.

many organisations perceive cycling as dangerous, and perpetuate that perception through their actions

They are so concerned about this talk because they believe that it increases the perception of danger, and would, analogously, put off ladies who might otherwise consider walking into town at night, or cycling on London’s roads. And if we’re relying on more ladies walking into town at night as our strategy for ensuring their own safety, that simply won’t do.

And if we are worried about perception, it’s not hard to see, therefore, that bunches of flowers left at the scene of a fatality are definitely unacceptable, because – obviously – they might put people off cycling, or walking into town late at night.

“While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they [may] give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is,” said Chris Peck

Quite. We can’t have visual reminders creating a false impression of the safety of walking into town, alone, late at night. Because let’s remember, the statistical risk is actually very small. And of course, in some nebulous and ungraspable way, it is ‘safer’ and more beneficial to walk into town late at night, than not to walk into town.

safety in numbers is making the roads safer than ever, with a new study… that suggests it’s actually more dangerous NOT to take to two wheels.

Or –

“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.”

Even in heavy traffic. Or even on dark streets plagued by muggings. It’s actually better for you, in the long term. How persuasive!

Other cycling campaigners, while acknowledging that a subjectively safer environment for cycling is the ultimate end goal, nevertheless insist that we must first ‘boost the numbers’ before we should even consider arguing for those changes.

More people cycling leads to greater political will to improve conditions for cyclists.


The Dutch way. It would be nice, but none of us will live to see that Utopia here. To build that stuff – and to enforce the laws that make it work – you need political will. That needs votes. And not enough people cycle for that.

Once we’ve embarked on this road, it again necessarily involves playing down danger, emphasising the health benefits, and embracing marketing and training; all the measures used to increase numbers (and to attain safety) by our Victorian administrator. There just isn’t enough political will for street lighting, he might say. And besides, street lighting is very expensive (‘expense’ is, of course, an argument that has been made, by cycling campaigners, against changes to the street environment for the benefit of cycling for nearly 80 years).

Cycling campaigners enthused by safety in numbers are also keen to ‘normalise’ activities that the target audience finds intimidating. Just as our Victorian public servant might have put up posters showing walking into town on dark streets as an activity carried out by ‘ordinary’ women, so our cycling campaigners are keen on posters and images that attempt to do the same thing for cycling; cycling in a fashion that the vast majority of the population finds (with good reason) unpleasant and intimidating.

TfL is actively marketing cycling. The ‘catch up with the bicycle’ campaign lets other road users know that cyclists have a right to be there. Images used by Tfl are generally positive images of normal people on bikes (often without helmets and hi-viz). TfL could go a step further and show more images of cyclists riding in the traffic stream, perhaps in front of a bus.

The premise here is that the only thing stopping women from walking alone down dark streets, or from cycling amongst HGVs and buses, is the perception that these activities are not something for ‘ordinary’ people; that they not have been ‘normalised’. Make these activities seem normal, and people will do them.

In other words, a complete failure of understanding and empathy; a belligerent refusal to accept the reality that people don’t want to do these things.

This is where the pernicious logic of ‘safety in numbers’, as a bedrock of a cycling strategy, gets you. It involves assuming that when people say ‘danger’ puts them off cycling, they are thinking about brute statistics, when in fact they are concerned with how unpleasant the roads appear to them as they walk or drive along them.

It then involves attempting to solve this problem of ‘danger’ not by adjusting the street environment so it appears and feels pleasant to cycle on, but by attempting to adjust people’s perception of that same street environment as it currently exists; in other words, attempting to show that dark streets are actually safe places that ladies can venture down, provided they are confident and are trained. Every step must be taken to ensure that our dark streets are as full of women as is humanly possible, because with greater numbers comes greater safety (try not to think about how safe dark streets might feel when women are, as would naturally be expected, scarcer on them at certain times).

This policy must be rigorously adhered to; nothing can be said or done that might affect the numbers of people on the streets, even if that involves an obstinate unwillingness to address the real reasons that people continue to give for their reluctance to cycle on roads busy with motor traffic, or to walk down dark streets late at night.

These are the misguided and wrong-headed strategies that you are forced to employ if you are convinced that the overriding goal, above all else, is to boost the numbers of people cycling. Such an obsession with ‘numbers’ not only ignores the real reasons why you find greater numbers of cyclists in the Netherlands, and why they are so much safer; worse, it railroads policy into the adoption of the slightly mad tactics outlined here.

While this post was being written, David Arditti chimed in with a very similar post entitled Fear and Loathing, which covers much of the same ground, particularly on the way public policy should address a widespread problem of perception. Needless to say it is well worth a read. See also this from Freewheeler, which provided a good deal of inspiration

This entry was posted in Absurd transport solutions, Cycling policy, Infrastructure, Promotion, Safety In Numbers, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The pernicious logic of ‘safety in numbers’

  1. Mike Stead says:

    Awesome. Yet *another* stick to beat TfL / DfT / others with.

  2. I have to say the whole “catch up with the bike” campaign I believe is a little pointless. The vast majority of cars I encounter are already very desperate to not only catch up with the bike but also MUST overtake the bike regardless of any danger that may present to the rider or if they’ll immediately have to jump on their brakes or join a stationary queue of traffic….

    Mind you during the rush hour in London it is often impossible to “catch up with the bike” as the other cars are in their way 😉 A point that unfortunately is lost on all those drivers who moan about bikes holding them up! I might accept that as a reasonable argument when someone in a car can average >15mph for their journey, until then they can stop moaning 😀

  3. Just to play Devil’s Advocate, do you think there may be a much more basic political truth to the statement by the Economist: “the best way to reduce the rate of injuries is to increase the number of cyclists”?

    Politically, the more cyclists there are, the more political support there will be for difficult political decisions resulting in better cycle infrastructure. Therefore, the more cyclists there are, the safer cyclists will be.

    • Yes, but how do you increase the number of cyclists (or, more accurately, people riding bicycles for transport, as not everyone wants to be a “cyclist”)? Do you try to persuade them that “it’s safe, statistically” even though everyone knows that cycling on UK roads is dangerous (you can see the cars and lorries, and they can certainly kill you)? Or do you provide an environment where cycling is clearly safe?

      Should we encourage children to cycle to school on our current roads, so that politicians see that they need to invest in safer facilities for children to cycle to school? Or should safe conditions be provided for our children before they’re encouraged to cycle to school?

      • My point is that you can use BOTH methods.

        So push for safer infrastructure to increase cyclist numbers safety, while AT THE SAME TIME pushing for more cyclists (while still of course making the risks to potential cyclists clear to avoid anything ‘morally dubious’) who will provide the widespread political support that will mean cyclist infrastructure will improve quicker.

        Everyone here seems to be pushing the former. That’s great. But rather fewer seem to accept that there are also advances in cycle safety/provision by SIMULTANEOUSLY pursing the latter course.

        What do you think?

    • I have no objection to the proposition that more people cycling means more political influence. Indeed, more broadly, ‘more people cycling’ is immensely beneficial to society on many different grounds.

      The problem is how to arrive at mass cycling. While there is undoubtedly a degree of positive feedback from greater numbers resulting in greater political influence, the point of this post is essentially about the correct way of achieving those greater numbers; namely, addressing the concerns people have directly, rather than trying to massage those concerns out of existence because of a need to keep numbers up.

      • monchberter says:

        Mass cycling should be the aim, but the cynical side of me says that encouraging people to cycle without appreciation of the inherent risk (particularly to new cyclists) it seems to be a form of concious political expediency. It’s almost as if mass cycling is to be achieved, then it’s worth a few deaths along the way. Surely that’s the sign of a flawed / amoral campaign?

      • Simon Parker says:

        I was invited to the City of London Cycling Forum nearly a month ago, and I was asked, as we all were, to offer some feedback to the officers on their strategy. Amongst several other points I made, I wrote:

        “What is clear is that the ‘safety in numbers’ theory has been thrown into question. Your City of London Cycling Plan says: “The more cyclists there are, the lower the risk associated with cycling. This relates to the concept of critical mass; as cyclists increase their presence on roads, it becomes safer to cycle (Wardlaw, 2002).” As I said before, a good way to show whether something is right or not is to establish that it is not perhaps wrong. The concept of critical mass is assuredly ‘perhaps wrong’.”

        I agree that more people cycling means more political influence, but the problem is, as you point out, how to arrive at mass cycling. Cycalogical suggests that good organisation, science, targets and the pursuit of marginal gains has worked for the elite cyclists, and I have every reason to believe that it could work for us, as well. What does everyone else think?

      • I don’t think it is constructive to see ‘mass cycling’ as a fixed end point that we can ‘arrive’ at. The entire thing is a grey-scale spectrum and cycling levels will always only ever increase incrementally and only ever be relative.

        So, I would argue, the question is instead how to increase cycling numbers. We can’t realistically think of an end goal anymore concrete than that.

        And, I would argue, that there are many different ways of increasing cycling numbers and it is our job, as keen proponents of utility cycling, to pursue ALL of these options (while still, obviously, making the potential risks clear so there is no suggestion of it being worth ‘a few deaths along the way’ – e.g. you can encourage a friend to maybe get on a boris bike for the day and cycle in London without suggesting he/she attempt to tackle Bow Roundabout straight-off)

      • airbag says:

        why does there need to be a single ‘correct’ way? I will continue to put pressure on local and national government to put better infrastructure in place, but that’s unlikely as long as its perceived to be infrastructure for the small number of actual cyclists rather than the large number of potential cyclists who are too scared to do so.

        I used a bike for transport when I had no other choice – when I could afford a car I ditched it. Then I bought a road bike for sport, realised how much more I could do with fitness and a fast bike, used the bike for more transport where previously I would drive, and recently attended a council meeting for improving a cycle path to take kids from a nearby village to school. I’d never have done that were it not for the fact that I was attracted to cycling the ‘wrong’ way. The ‘wrong’ way can still be better than ‘no way’, even if it isn’t the ‘correct’ way.

        • hear hear!

          There can be many ‘correct’ ways into cycling and we should embrace all of them!

        • I am not suggesting there is a single ‘correct’ way. What I am suggesting is that focusing on ‘safety in numbers’ as a means of getting more people on bikes and ensuring their safety – quite often as a substitute for infrastructural changes – is as wrong-headed as focusing on encouraging Victorian women out onto dark streets in great numbers, without addressing their concerns about how unpleasant and unwelcoming those dark streets are.

          • airbag says:

            First and foremost: I understand (and agree with) your ‘undue focus’ point. But there is a vicious circle – high quality infrastructure simply won’t be there until large numbers of cyclists are, because governments don’t work like that. Additionally, although safety is a large concern, there are many who don’t cycle because it simply never occurred to them, or they harbour some (ironically itself childish) belief that it’s for kids (it’s amazing how pervasive the ‘more complicated/expensive = better’ fallacy is in society as a whole), or they’re lazy. If seeing Wiggo on the telly, or cyclists filter past on the inadequate but well-branded CS7, gets them cycling, all the better.

            Echoing George Johnston, a cycling revolution is probably not going to happen. Cycling evolution, however, already is.

            Congrats on an excellently written blog btw- it’s nice to have an intelligent discussion on the internet for a change.

  4. Paul M says:

    Over my career as an adviser in one of the more obscure backwaters of the UK financial sector I have come to the conclusion that it is easy to get yourself acknowledged as an “expert”. All you have to do is speak loudly and with apparent self-confidence, and to tell your target audience what it wants to hear. You may, privately, have very little confidence in what you are saying, but your audience will lap it up because they want to believe you, because it addresses emotional needs of their own. I think the same proposition must work in almost any field, and that includes cycle campaigning and the CTC.

    CTC speaks loudly and with apparent confidence about “Safety in numbers” as part of its “Hierarchy of provision” approach, and is accepted by many as having an expert opinion in this regard. I am not saying that CTC is just a bunch of f*ckwits – I have no doubt that they do have some genuine technical expertise in some areas, and I suspect that they privately cross their fingers about some of what they say on HoP – but the deference given to their opinions in this area arises from the certainty with which they say them, from the fact that much of their membership wants to believe it (because they are fundamentally a cycle touring – open road using – community which fears being banned from roads if cycle paths become common), and critically, from the fact that local government and highway authorities want to believe it – having an apparently technical excuse for not spending money and infuriating the “Taxpayers’ Alliance” or reallocating road space and so annoying the many vociferous motoring lobbyists at local and national level.

    Excuse me if I make some nerdy references here to nuclear physics, a subject peripheral to my BA degree a few decades ago: it seems to me that safety in numbers is a corruption of the “Critical Mass” concept – that once cyclists’ numbers reach a critical mass, safety is assured. I think you can (or at least could) see the logic of that proposition where it exists(ed) in reality. I well remember the awesome sight of massed ranks of dockyard workers exiting the docks on their bicycles mere minutes after their shift ends, following what resembled a Le Mans start the instant the klaxon sounded. It would have taken a brave driver to mix with that. You could see this in Portsmouth, (Plymouth) Devonport, and the Trident submarine yards at Barrow in Furness, and no doubt elsewhere.

    The thing about critical mass though is that you have to follow the logic of nuclear physics, the foundation of which is quantum mechanics. The key point about QM is that there is no such things as a continuum. Atoms, electrons and protons etc could exist in different energy states or different locations, but in passing from one to another they spend literally zero time in between – you have a series of “quantum leaps”. The first popular use of the term critical mass is in explosive fission reactions – atom bombs. The quantum leap issue is also found there, in the sense that you CANNOT build a critical mass gradually. The result of any attempt would be for the mass to melt and vaporise long before it got critical, so the big engineering challenge for the first bomb-makers was how to store multiple small and relatively stable pieces of plutonium and then crunch them together fast enough (within nanoseconds) to ensure that they formed critical mass before they vaporised and dispersed.

    So Critical Mass works, more or less, as a thousand or so cyclists setting off together from the South Bank on the last Friday of every month, but it can’t work any other way.

    Except, perhaps, that if we implemented a massive programme of safe infrastructure so that all the wannabe cyclists could actually saddle up, once they had, perhaps we would no longer need the infrastructure. A bit like spending £10bn on spectator sports facilities which you will almost certainly largely demolish or allow to fall into disrepair within months, and having a quantum leap in participative sports as a result.

  5. monchberter says:

    I completely agree with you, and I think it’s somewhat irresponsible for TFL / cyling organisations to be promoting cycling as easy and inherently safe based on the assumption that if enough people do start cycling then the situation for cyclists will get safer.

    I assume the uptick in incidents / fatalities is partially due to unprepared new cyclists taking to the road in confidence but completely without any awareness of the inherent risks involved in cycling with traffic and the state of the roads.

    I also consider that far from being a good thing, that encouraging inexperienced cyclists into such a hostile environment is hugely counter productive and significantly contributes to both resentment from other road users (poor awareness, poor road positioning, following the cultural expectation that cyclists can and should bend the law to ‘stay safe’) and the perception that cycling is dangerous. I say this as I reckon a percentage of keen new cyclists have encounters through their lack of experience that bring them to the conclusion that cycling is dangerous, it’s also likely that their friends / family will no doubt hear that they gave up cycling as it scared them stupid / put them in hospital / the morgue.

    So in short, please please please, let’s do something about making cycling safer for people, or encourage people to be more responsible!

    • Just to clarify: cycling on its own isn’t dangerous. Cycling amongst fast-moving motor vehicles is most certainly dangerous. No amount of training, protective gear, or high-viz can change the laws of physics.

      • monchberter says:

        This is indeed the point i was getting at. Campaigns for cycling often don’t make the distinction. ‘Riding a bike’ and ‘cycling’ are not the same thing, but they’re often treated as such.

    • I would argue that there is no need for the ‘or’ that you use in your last sentence. Instead:

      “Let’s do something about making cycling safer for people, AND encourage people to be more responsible”

      The two are not, in my opinion, mutually exclusive.

  6. JC says:

    And, of course, the leading local politician of the time tells the public: “Though I have to tell you… sometimes I just go down Bloodlet Alley because it’s fine. If you keep your wits about you, Bloodlet Alley is perfectly negotiable. I want people to feel confident. The darkened super-alleyways are about building confidence.”

    By the way, the Catch Up With The Bicycle campaign has cost over £3.5m since 2009… …why spend money on infrastructure when you can give it to your pals at Saatchi & Saatchi instead?

  7. Joe Dunckley says:

    The problem with campaigning for street lighting is that women will then be banned from unlit roads. I heard it happened in the Netherlands and has caused big problems for those who prefer to use the unlit roads.

  8. Sorry to disagree, but here goes:

    Nobody has ever argued that increasing the numbers of people cycling is the only way of reducing danger on the roads for cycling. Also, there are different effects of increases in cycling according to the precise local circumastances: it helps if speeds are already low and if there are already a noticeable number of cyclists.

    Why has there been a cut in the chances of a cyclist being killed in collision with an HGV (despite there heing more road freight traffic) of some 50% in London in the first decade of the 21st century? Why too has the cyclist casualty rate – KSIs per journey or distance travelled – in this period in London also fallen? Because of all the (very few) segregated cycle tracks? Because of TfL publicity campaigns? Policing of errant motorists?

    No. The truth is that the decline (which is inadequate, but nevertheless real) has involved a greater physical presence of cyclists which has a definite – albeit limited – effect on motorist behaviour.

    Changes in motorist behaviour due to their perception of other road users has been documented for decades and written about extensively by myself, John Adams, Gerard Wilde etc. – naturally “road safety” professionals don’t like admitting that motorists drive worse with “safety aids” like seat belts, air bags etc. in their cars , or adapt to “safer” roads – cutting down road side trees, installing crash barriers, lengthening sight lines etc. – by driving less carefully. Nor do they like accepting that overall pedestrians and cyclist casualties have fallen since the 1930s at least partly becasue of a removal of these groups from the road environment and their more careful behaviour,which has occurred at least partly in repsonse to the danger from motorised traffic.

    It’s a shame that otherwise good blogs can’t accept this.

    • I can’t help but find myself in agreement with this comment. It is easy to lose sight of the fact the motorists don’t want to hit cyclists almost as much as cyclists don’t want motorists to hit them. Who on earth would want someone’s death on their conscience by knocking them off their bike while cycling around London? Therefore all motorists will subconsciously (to a certain extent depending on the individual) change their driving habits to something safer when confronted with a cyclist on the roads. When they are confronted with many cyclists they will change their behaviour even more so that it is (comparatively) even safer.

      Dr. Robert Davis is right to say that gradually improved driving due to increasing numbers of cyclists, though inadequate, is nevertheless real.

      Since its inadequate we of course need segregated lanes and many other elements of European cycling infrastructure. And we need it ASAP.

      But its not realistic, nor constructive in the greater scheme of things, to maintain that one is in more danger on any London main road when cycling with a group of 10 other riders as opposed to being by oneself. For myself at least, I personally feel a million times safer on London’s streets when surrounded by other cyclists, even if they are sometimes Boris Bike users that are wobbling all over the road.

    • I dunno Bob. An alternative theory might be that the drop in casualty rates in London for a few years until recently was due to the extensive implementation of bus lanes by the Livingstone administration which gave cyclists more relatively safe space, and some of the better schemes on the LCN which allowed cyclists to avoid some dangerous junctions and manoevres. The worsening picture of the last two years might be due to the bus lane policy going partly into reverse and other “smoothing the flow” initiatives from Boris Johnson speeding the traffic up. I don’t see compelling evidence of a correlation between cycling numbers and safety.

      After reading your writings, which have in fact influenced me a lot in the past, I am still left wondering what you see really as the best “settlement” for the roads. You don’t seem to like the Dutch separation paradigm, but I can’t quite see what your solution is that would give the higher levels of safety and greater ease of cycling and walking that we all want to see.

    • Hi Robert,

      As much as we might (slightly) disagree, I do appreciate you commenting here. In fact it’s rather flattering.

      I think you have misinterpreted me slightly on a couple of points.

      “Nobody has ever argued that increasing the numbers of people cycling is the only way of reducing danger on the roads for cycling.”

      Of course; they will also say things like we need to lower speeds, and to make drivers more accountable, for instance. I have not claimed otherwise. My specific objection here, and elsewhere, is with people like the writer for the Economist who say things like ‘the best way to keep cyclists safe is to boost their numbers’. The evidence for this is dubious, and as I have attempted to explain here does lead to some policies that are slightly misguided, if we are interested in getting non-cyclists cycling.

      Nor have I argued that there is absolutely no relationship between numbers and safety, although I admit I may not have been as clear on this as I might have been. I did argue in my ‘Victorian’ analogy that women might expect to be safer on darker streets if they were present in greater numbers; the same is doubtless true for ‘critical mass’ bicycle rides. I do not deny that there is some effect at work here. Again, my objection is to the undue focus on this effect as a means with which to achieve mass cycling, and/or to keep cyclists safe, often in place of changes to our streets themselves to make them more pleasant and inviting for cyclists and pedestrians.

      • I think you objection to the ‘undue focus’ on getting more cyclists on the streets to make them safer is very valid here.

        What I would say though is that I believe (although I am unfortunately not in government myself so can’t speak from personal experience!) that ‘changes to our streets themselves’ require significantly much more financial backing and political will on the part of government than a campaign to get more people cycling or creating the BCH scheme (after all cycling in Copenhagen didn’t suddenly jump to 50% of all commutes because the government suddenly built 420km of cycle paths – the process, I believe, happened relatively gradually).

        What I would argue therefore is that cycling lobbies should aim for both. We want changes to our streets. Yes, of course we do. We also want (although not half as much) more cyclists on those streets. If it’s much easier for the government to grant measures that improve the latter than that’s what they might end up going for most of the time.

        But though unacceptable in terms of road safety, I would argue that their actions are at least understandable in terms of modern politics.

        We shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, because the Economist saying ‘more people should cycle’ is better than the economist not mentioning cycling at all, or worse saying that cycling is unacceptably dangerous and no one should do it. And if more people do end up cycling we might end up getting the lanes that we wanted in the first place.

        Do you think that is fair? I know it perhaps sounds slightly cynical…

      • What are we talking about when we say “safety in numbers”? Are we talking about overall modal share, or having lots of other cyclists around when riding a bike?

        Of course, if I’m out riding a bike during rush hour, there’s plenty of other people riding bikes around me, and I can see how it may make drivers more aware that there are cyclists around, and I may well be cycling as part of a group.

        But surely that only helps me when it’s busy out? It’s 1.45am now and if I go out riding in London I probably will be the only cyclist in any given place – even at Blackfriars Bridge which will have huge numbers of cyclists seven hours later.

        The good thing about proper infrastructure, of course, is that it’s there 24/7/365, whenever you need it.

  9. Simon Parker says:

    To add to my earlier comment, a few facts and figures:

    (i) Cycling levels through the City increased by 225% between 1999 and 2010.
    (ii) Cycling journeys as a proportion of all vehicular journeys in the City [their words, not mine] increased from 3.8% in 1999 to 16.4% in 2010.
    (iii) The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured increased by 143% by 2010 compared to the average for 1994-98.

    The number of KSI in the City between 1999 and 2010 was 174, at an average per year of 13.4. For 2011, the number of KSI was 23.

    The City’s composition surveys, which are conducted in October, showed a total of 16,030 cyclists passing through the E-W / N-S screenlines in 2007, and 24,888 in 2010 (i.e. roughly a 50% increase). And the number of KSI went from 12 in 2007 to 18 in 2010 (i.e. a 50% increase). In 2007, there was a 1 in 1,336 chance of being involved in a serious or fatal incident, and in 2010 it was a 1 in 1,383 chance.

    Please note as well that, as a proportion of the City’s road traffic, cycling journeys went from 9.2% in 2007 to 16.4% in 2010 (i.e. nearly an 80% increase).

    Evidentially, more cyclists does not, in and of itself, equate to safer cycling, not to any significant degree at any rate. But then again … “Nobody has ever argued that increasing the numbers of people cycling is the only way of reducing danger on the roads for cycling.”

    Except that someone did. To quote the City of London Cycling Plan again: “The more cyclists there are, the lower the risk associated with cycling. This relates to the concept of critical mass; as cyclists increase their presence on roads, it becomes safer to cycle (Wardlaw, 2002).”

    Monchberter said: “… It’s almost as if mass cycling is to be achieved, then it’s worth a few deaths along the way. Surely that’s the sign of a flawed / amoral campaign?” Yes, I agree.

    So how do we get more people cycling, meaning more political influence, meaning an improvement to the cycling environment? Simple. We wave a magic wand, say the magic words, et voila!

  10. But in fairness your quote from the City of London Cycling Plan is a decade old (2002), and the word ‘only’ is not actually used in it, and this whole idea of critical mass is not constructive and should be dropped. It’s a concept that has no discrete value in reality.

    ‘Mass cycling’ is not something that can simply be ‘achieved’. There is no magic number of cyclists which suddenly makes everything okay. You might see Copenhagen as an ideal to be reached as an end point in of itself, but in Copenhagen town planners are actually thinking “cycling rates here aren’t as high as they could be, what can we do to improve this?”. So this idea of having ‘a few deaths along the way’ in order to reach this non-existent status that is ‘critical mass cycling’ is not constructive. It’s a useless sweeping statement when what we need, particularly in London, is cycling campaigns that deal with the specifics. Specific dangerous junctions. Specific roads that could feasibly accomodate a cycle lane. Specific ways to encourage fellow Londoners to cycle themselves.

    Cycling needs to be made safer. Of course it does. But people unfortunately die using all methods of transport. We should abandon any idea of reaching a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists and simply work on an incremental basis to do what we can to increase cycling safety/provision and to (responsibly) increase cycling rates.

    Lastly, if cycling rates have increased, but cycling collisions have increased by more. that does not necessarily mean that increased cycling rates mean cycling is more dangerous.

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    There can be other factors involved. I don’t pretend to know exactly what factors are at work with the figures you describe but the increase in cycling recorded could have actually made cycling safer (as anyone speaking from personal experience of London’s road could assure you) while there has been an outside factor that has caused the number of collisions to increase in spite of the additional safety provided by larger numbers. This outside factor could be more lorries in the city. It could be measures taken by the Mayor to increase traffic speed. It could be neither of these factors. It could be both of these factors plus others that I haven’t thought of.

    The important thing, as I said before, is to deal in specifics. Specifically, more cyclists on a road make all the cyclists on that specific road safer. That is pretty indisputable. So there must be something else going on with these statistics that is causing the risk of collisions to rise. So we need to find out what that external factor is and target that as a problem to be solved if we want to improve safety for cyclists. And with this approach move forward in a constructive way (and without unnecessary sarcasm).

    • Simon Parker says:

      Thank you for your reply, George. Thank you also for pointing out that the City of London Cycling Plan does not include the word ‘only’. I realised that myself, but too late, alas. Hey ho.

      Still, there’s no denying that some people think safety in numbers is the ‘best’ way to reduce the rate of injuries, and many people, including yourself, believe it to be ‘part of the solution’. My own view is similar to that of Peter Wright’s, whose daughter Rosie was killed by a left-turning HGV.

      I wasn’t being sarcastic by the way; I was being facetious. In particular, I was employing a form of refutation known as reductio ad impossibile.

      In your first comment, you said: “Politically, the more cyclists there are, the more political support there will be for difficult political decisions resulting in better cycle infrastructure. Therefore, the more cyclists there are, the safer cyclists will be.” Surely you meant to say, “… the safer cyclists will become“?

      In your second comment, you said that campaigners should push for safer infrastructure and AT THE SAME TIME push for more cyclists. You make the proviso that potential cyclists should be told of the potential risks, to avoid anything ‘morally dubious’. But even so, let’s do both SIMULTANEOUSLY.

      In your third comment you said, “There can be many ‘correct’ ways into cycling and we should embrace all of them!”

      In your fourth comment you said, “Let’s do something about making cycling safer for people, AND encourage people to be more responsible.”

      In your fifth comment you pointed to the fact that motorists don’t want to hit cyclists, of course, so when they are confronted with a cyclist on the road they would change their driving accordingly, and when they are confronted with many cyclists on the road they would change their behaviour even more. So if you’re cycling with a group of 10 other riders, as opposed to being by yourself, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that you would not be in any danger.

      In your sixth comment you said that ‘changes to our streets themselves’ require significantly more investment than a campaign to get more people cycling, “and if more people do end up cycling we might end up getting the lanes that we wanted in the first place.”

      In your seventh comment (the one I am replying to), you say that ‘mass cycling’ is not something that can simply be ‘achieved’. “There is no magic number of cyclists which suddenly makes everything okay,” you suggest.

      “What we need, particularly in London, is cycling campaigns that deal with the specifics. Specific dangerous junctions. Specific roads that could feasibly accomodate a cycle lane. Specific ways to encourage fellow Londoners to cycle themselves.”

      In your eighth comment you talked about aiming for Cycling Evolution, instead of a Cycling Revolution, as a much more feasible and practical way forward.

      Okay? Fair enough? Haven’t misrepresented you or anything? Then I’ll carry on.

      The first thing I would ask you to do is read this.

      I am just going to deal with your seventh and eighth points if I may, that is, deal in specifics, and aim for cycling evolution.

      The problem with dealing only in specifics is that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities describes dealing only in specifics as a “strictly pragmatic and ad hoc approach”, and whilst there is no doubt that this work would have some value, it is possible to “go much further than this” for not very much money and relatively quickly.

      And rather than aim for cycling evolution, it might be a better idea to aim for one revolution at a time. I say this because evolution, strictly speaking, is blind. There is no plan with ‘evolution’, only the appearance of a plan.

      If you would like to consider my thoughts in more detail, the Movement for Liveable London recently published an article of mine, which you can read here.

  11. Aseasy: Thanks for kind comments.
    Firstly, some comment on your analogy, which is very interesting. (I’m an analogy man myself; many would say a wild analogy man…) For a lot of the women I know, cycling in current conditions is a matter of pride: they don’t want to stop doing it in exactly the same way that they don’t want to be intimidated off night-time streets. That doesn’t mean that they accept road danger any more than they accept harassment. The problem with stressing the danger is that it feeds into scaring them away from their rights.
    So: if encouraging people to cycle is PART of the solution, along with attempts to control danger at source from motor traffic (these measures also benefits other road users, particularly pedestrians, which RDRF has a commitment to), then we should do it. It is not contradictory – although it may be apparently so (paradoxical) – to point out the low chances of being hurt or killed, while emphasising the grotesque ability of some road users to easily threaten others without anything like adequate controls, lenity of “punishment” for rule and law breaking etc.
    Another point about stressing the hazards of cycling : (Incidentally, I do wish people would not talk about cycling being “dangerous” when what they mean is that motor vehicular traffic is dangerous to cyclists) is that it does slot into the kind of thing I have been up against all my life, albeit quite unintentionally. It is the kind of thing that comes out of Bradley Wiggins’ sadly uninformed thoughts: basically that cyclists are asking for trouble by being out on the roads, need to take evasive action, wear lids etc., etc.
    As I understand it, David Arditti’s approach (thanks for your comments David, I’m pleased if I have had some influence!), and maybe some others, is to specifically NOT encourage cycling in current conditions, and even suggest that cycling organisations argue for bans on cycling on roads. So there is a real division between us there.
    To refer to David’s points:
    1. Safety of cycling in London: I don’t think we can comment easily on the effects of Mayor Johnson’s mayoralty over a short period, and which has not dramatically changed the London environment despite lots of talk about smoothing traffic (TfL was never anyway keen to reduce motor vehicular capacity). Also, while there have been various interventions in the last decade such as speed controls, plus some cycle facilities which may have reduced danger a bit, the decline in cyclist KSIs per cyclist journey is quite dramatic and can’t be explained by these interventions. I also don’t think this decline can be explained by wearing of crash helmets, as you know.

    The HGVs issue is fascinating. The basic problems, including design of vehicle, the law and its enforcement (without even considering highway design) are still there. But the numbers of cyclist deaths are more or less constant while cycling in the areas where most of the collisions occur has at least doubled, and HGV numbers increased. Cyclists may be more aware of the issue, but TfL advertisements and Changing places programmes only impact on a minority of cyclists’ behaviour. Something has happened. I don’t think lorry drivers are more likely to respect or feel friendly towards cyclists. But I do think that a greater awareness of cyclist presence has happened, leading to a bit more care.
    2. What approach to take? What I have suggested already in terms of controlling danger at source, for other road users as well as cyclists. Highway engineering will be a part of it, certainly at places like Staples Corner, Vauxhall roundabout etc.
    However, I have doubts about the potential for something like (to take an example you advocated some time ago) making Kilburn High Road one way only – although I would be OK with implementing such a move as transport professional were a Council, TfL, local Councillors etc. be willing to do it.
    I also tend to look at things the other way around: how to reduce motor vehicular traffic rather than create mass cycling.
    And I have problems with copying a country which never went below 20% modal share anyway.
    But that does have to be all for now – I am enough of sad old git without making things worse by blogging at 12.45!

    • As ‘Airbag’ said above I believe aiming for Cycling Evolution instead of a Cycling Revolution is much more feasible and practical, particularly since, as Dr Robert Davis points out, we are trying to copy a country which never below 20% modal share and has a whole number of other geopolitical differences (e.g. lack of military/political power to secure oil in the Middle East) with us that make the UK and NL very different places.

  12. Peter Clinch says:

    I agree that it’s simplistic to say Dutch safety results are just down to cyclist numbers, but I suspect it’s not entirely down to infrastructure either. I think there’s a lot of feedback between the two, and the reason I think that is that a problematical side-effect of separate infrastructure is it creates a lot of junctions, and junctions are where accidents usually happen, but they tend not to happen nearly as much in NL despite the high volumes passing over them. Some of that is good junction design but I think some portion comes from drivers expecting cyclists and being highly aware of them, and that’s probably because you can’t fail to notice they’re everywhere.
    If, as a driver, you’re very used to seeing lots of bikes at these junctions then everyone is better off, and while I’ve been in NL (I don’t live there but I do have family there so am over more than most people) it strikes me that I (and local cyclists I watch if I’m on foot) get given way to and generally noticed much better than I do in the UK when I have to move on to a road from a separate facility. Mixing it with Real Traffic (which actually happens quite often IME, especially in urban streets above the level of pure residential but not yet big enough for segregated lanes or fietspads) strikes me as just working better with more mutual respect.
    I suspect you’ll need infrastructure to really boost numbers, and there’s certainly places where infrastructure makes life not only safer but a lot more pleasant, but if you just magically beamed in infrastructure without the cyclists I think it would create the danger of just concentrating your accidents in to new places, rather than removing them.
    So I think we need numbers too, and once you have numbers it gets safer in the sort of places even the Dutch don’t bother with segregated infrastructure.

  13. Mark Steven says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking piece.
    I wonder if there’s a statistical effect that needs to be explored more throughly, around what happens when a lot of people new to cycling in our risky environment suddenly start.
    In other words, assuming people new to cycling survive their first year or two on the roads, their likelihood of having a near fatal incident would then fall significantly.
    So the rise in fatalities correlates directly to numbers cycling, but disproportionately so due to the naivety of new cyclists. (I’ll qualify that – obviously cyclists tend to get killed by cars rather than throwing themselves under them – but it can take a bit of experience to learn to ride defensively).
    I wouldn’t detract from your key theme about making environments safer. As far as I know central government has no stick to wield over local authorities in terms of getting them to comply with a policy of investment in better street conditions, and presumably it lacks the political will to get such a policy through legislation.
    Strikes me that spending on infrastructure doesn’t need to happen all at once, nor need it be expensive: as streets deteriorate and reach a point where they’re scheduled for major works like resurfacing, councils should take the opportunity to improve them in favour fo cyclists.

  14. Chris. says:

    it’s all well and good pushing for segregated cycle routes to reduce cycling casualties, but where would you put them?

    Half of my 30 mile round trip commute is on CS7. The only reason it works is because there is room for cyclists to overtake other cyclists.

    Whilst it would of course be possible to build segregated cycle lanes in new build environments which have room for faster cyclists to overtake slower ones, any attempt to retrofit this sort of thing into a place like London is invariably going to end up with segregated lanes so narrow that they’re single file only. At that point, using them for more than a few hundred yards would become impossible, as everyone would just get stacked up behind the slowest cyclists, and longer journeys such as mine would just take too long to be realistic.

    I’d be delighted to see more investment in CS7 to repair the road surface (and keep it repaired!), to ensure that contractors digging it up for utility work have to repaint it blue once they’ve finished and maybe even to put up regular signs warning motorists to check over their shoulder before turning left across the route, but please God don’t let it get made into a narrow, segregated path, as I’d be left with no choice but to seek out an alternative (probably more dangerous) route or in the real nightmare scenario, see myself forced back onto the train.

    As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!

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