Having just written a fairly lengthy analysis of the problems with (and outright myths behind) the ‘Safety in Numbers’ theory, I find that the Times, under the auspices of their Cities Fit For Cycling Campaign, have just published an interview with the founder of Rapha, Simon Mottram, giving him a public platform to air precisely those dubious, fact-free claims about cycling safety that are often built on the uncertain sand of that very same ‘Safety in Numbers’ concept.
I am not going to repeat all the evidence that shows why ‘Safety in Numbers’ is not only unproven and impractical but also morally dubious as a ‘safety’ strategy; please refer to my previous piece, if you haven’t done so. But I will quickly skim over some of the standout claims from the Times piece.
The headline runs
‘Weight of numbers’ will bring safe cycling
And beneath it
Mr Mottram, who founded Rapha in 2004 as a high-end clothing brand aimed specifically at road cyclists, has insisted that the key to safer cycling lies with its rising popularity.
He said he would like to see lower speed limits enforced, but crucially more bikes on the road and in popular culture. “We will get a long way through sheer numbers,” he added.
This is a fairly extraordinary statement at a time when the rate of cyclists being killed and seriously injured has risen for three consecutive years, despite increasing numbers. The evidence is even there in the sidebar of the Times, mere inches away from where these words appear.
Even the CTC – for so long the prime advocates of the ‘Safety In Numbers’ theory – are now accepting the obvious –
Roger agrees that we shouldn’t dangerise cycling. However the safety in numbers effect is starting to fizzle out and we need to consciously work at cycle safety as improvements won’t happen naturally.
Even setting aside this basic evidential problem with the ‘Safety In Numbers’ concept, Mottram’s idea that “we will get a long way with sheer numbers” is itself desperate, wishful thinking, on two counts.
The first is the assumption that – contrary to all the evidence – this country can build a mass cycling culture out of thin air.
The second is that we will have to go a very long way indeed before the safety benefits of pure ‘numbers’ become tangible. As I wrote last week
At some distant point in the future we may hit a point at which sufficient numbers of people walking and cycling, and few enough are driving, that relative safety is achieved, without any change to the environment, but that is some way off, and the route to that point is unclear, and may be littered with the bodies of cyclists and pedestrians.
In a paper published in 2009, Rune Elvik argued that a doubling of pedestrian and cyclist volume, with corresponding mode shift away from driving, would not, alone, reduce the KSI burden, and may actually increase it. Indeed, he suggests that, without any change in the environment, it is only when the amount of driving is reduced by 50% (with corresponding mode shift to walking and cycling) that we may see a reduction in the total KSI burden. That is an enormously long way to go by ‘Safety in Numbers’ alone, with an increasing KSI burden in every year that we attempt to get people to switch to bicycles.
That is, if we are relying on “sheer numbers”, we will have to have a remarkable and unprecedented drop in driving levels before we see an absolute reduction in deaths and injuries. And – most importantly – that increased safety would come principally from that reduction in motor vehicle volume, not from ‘numbers’ of people on bicycles or on foot. It is motor vehicle volume and speed that is an established predictor of safety for vulnerable road users; the alleged causal connection between numbers and safety that keeps on being parroted, week after week, simply isn’t proven.
It’s not proven because, while a non-linear relationship between numbers and safety has been established in a number of data sets, there are serious questions about the temporal direction of that relationship – with the best evidence suggesting that it is actually safe conditions that attract greater numbers, rather than the other way around.
It’s also not proven because there are serious questions about confounding variables – confounding variables that affect both safety and numbers simultaneously, and must serve to explain why the general relationship between safety and numbers over the last 50 years in the UK is so confused.
And there are, finally, serious questions about the exact causal mechanism that is assumed to produce greater safety from more numbers. Jacobsen speculated that it might be because drivers behave better as they are become confronted with more and more cyclists; this remains speculation, despite it now being repeated as fact.
We should be ignoring ‘Safety In Numbers’ as a strategy principally because there are already established and uncontroversial methods of improving the safety of pedestrians and cyclists; methods that involve the adaption of the environment to reduce the hazards posed to them by motor vehicles. This can involve lowering the numbers of vehicles using streets, or removing them completely, or reducing the numbers of potential interactions between motor vehicles and cyclists. In other words, it is the structural separation of motor vehicles from pedestrians and cyclists that is the best way to improve the safety of the latter group (and, tangentially, the best way of increasing numbers).
Unfortunately this is precisely the opposite of what Simon Mottram thinks should happen. As he is quoted in the Times –
I do think special cycle lanes can help, but I don’t like the principle of segregation. There is no reason why bikes and vehicles can’t coexist on the roads. That must be the goal.
The trouble with this point of view – especially given the reliance upon boosting numbers as a way of ensuring safety – is that the vast majority of people do not want to coexist on the roads with motor vehicles, while cycling, and keep saying so. That is why the modal share for cycling in this country remains so execrable. People want to be able to cycle free from interactions with motor vehicles; they want safe, quiet routes to and from the shops, and to and from schools. They don’t want to share those routes with lorries, buses, vans and cars, however slowly and carefully we can imagine they might be driven.
Conversely, the countries that have the very highest levels of cycling are those that do their very best to separate cyclists from motor vehicles. The evidence is there, right in front of our very eyes, but it continues to be ignored by those like Simon Mottram, who for some reason don’t like the idea of being separated from motor vehicles, and assume that because they are happy cycling amongst them, everyone else must be persuaded to come around to their point of view, despite their stated preferences to the contrary, and despite the evidence that no country has ever achieved a mass cycling culture by these methods.
It’s almost staggeringly conceited.