The subject of ‘dangerisation’ – the idea that we are discouraging people who might be tempted cycle in London from doing so by talking about danger and safety – is back on the agenda, following the ‘Die In’ outside TfL headquarters and a poll from the BBC, and the responses to both.
I think it is important, first of all, to remember what has actually put danger on the agenda. It wasn’t bloggers and campaigners suddenly deciding to talk about it. It was a series of deaths and serious injuries in a short space of time. It’s impossible to keep that kind of story out of the news, and to a large extent anything campaigners have been saying and doing after it made the front pages of newspapers and the headlines on TV is pretty irrelevant. Asking campaigns, specifically, to moderate the message – as it appears Andrew Gilligan is doing – is largely pointless, because our reach with the general public is pretty much non-existent (I wish it were otherwise, but it’s probably true). The general public has heard about cycling death and injury in the last month not from campaigners, but from the newspapers, the radio and from TV – they haven’t discovered this story from the London Cycling Campaign, and other campaigns (I think the one exception here is the ‘Die In’, about which more below). And it’s not reasonable to expect media outlets to not report or investigate this sequences of deaths.
I did short interviews with both ITV News, and with BBC London’s Tom Edwards, who asked me for comment during that sequence of deaths. I couldn’t reasonably say that cycling in London was fine, because it plainly isn’t. It is unnecessarily hazardous, and we know the reasons why, and have done for some time – I tried to put those reasons across in the interviews. I tried to explain, in particular, how we have junctions with large motor vehicles turning left, and people on bikes moving ahead, and the reasons why collisions occur. It would not have made much sense for me to talk about anything else.
Did this surge of media interest in cycling and cycling danger put anyone off cycling in London, who might have been on the cusp of doing so? It may have done so, but I’d argue that the effect is so superficial it should not even be a matter of concern. It’s tempting to imagine, if you are an optimistic cycle campaigner or official responsible for increasing cycling levels, that there is some huge cohort of the population that just needs a small bit of persuasion to start cycling, just a little nudge to get them onto two wheels. But the reality is that the people watching the news, or reading newspapers – ordinary Londoners who in the main would not even dream of cycling on London’s roads – have already firmly made their minds up about the attractiveness of cycling in this city. London, like most cities in Britain, is divided between the tiny percentage of people who are happy to cycle within it, and the huge majority who won’t even consider it.
At the same time, that tiny percentage of people who do already ride in London are not likely to be affected much by media reporting. If they were put off by danger, and talk about danger, well, frankly, they wouldn’t be cycling in London at all in the first place. In the main, they probably know the issues, and the dangers posed by HGVs. The fact that cyclists get killed and seriously injured is not news to people who cycle in London. It’s entirely reasonable to suppose that a solid majority of the people who already ride in London are not going to give up their bicycles on the basis of media reporting and campaigning on this issue.
Now it may be the case – hypothetically – that discussing the dangers of cycling may dip cycling levels in London down a few tenths of a percent, if perhaps as many as ten percent of all the trips made in London by bike are simply abandoned. (We have a poll, commissioned by the BBC, which purports to show some abandonment of cycling following the recent deaths, but the question appears to be vaguely phrased, and doesn’t actually ask why people have stopped cycling – it may be due to the onset of cold weather).
I don’t think such a degree of cycling abandonment is at all likely, because as I’ve just argued, people cycling in London are familiar with danger already, and reporting about what they already know is not likely to change their minds. But in the context of where we should be aiming – double digit cycling levels – and the policies that are required to take us there, even this kind of ‘worst case scenario’ is completely trivial. We should focus on sorting the roads out, and making them safe and attractive to cycle on, for anyone – concerns about scaring people off should rightly pale into insignificance if these changes are happening.
From acquaintances, people do not give up cycling because of media reporting – they give it up because of a bad incident, or a series of bad incidents, that they experienced themselves directly. Or they simply find other modes of transport relatively more attractive, and choose them instead. Concerning ourselves over how media reporting and campaigning frames the issue of danger is an irrelevance, when set against the broader picture of how pleasant cycling actually is.
This brings me to the ‘Die In’, which was a (limited) media event, and which, it has been argued, presented cycling as dangerous to the general public – something that wouldn’t have happened if the event hadn’t taken place. One of the most forceful critics appeared to be Copenhagenize, who wrote
Everything – absolutely everything – that tells people that cycling is dangerous is the stupidest form of advocacy.
In the UK today, a couple thousand people convinced tens of thousands of their fellow citizens never to ride a bicycle again. Well done.
Well, frankly, I think that’s a ludicrously overblown statement. The idea that tens of thousands of Britons will never ride a bicycle again because of one protest is deeply silly, especially when we consider the actual, documented barriers to cycling uptake in Britain. Now of course perception of danger is a serious obstacle – if not the most serious obstacle – but that perception has not appeared out of thin air. It is grounded in the reality of the way Britain’s roads and streets look and feel to the people who walk (and indeed drive) along them.
It has not arisen from protests about the way the roads and streets are hostile for cycling, for the simple reason that people can already see for themselves that roads and streets are hostile for cycling. This is why – for the most part – they don’t ride bicycles on them. Protests like the Die In are, at the very worst, only confirming what people already believe, and just as importantly, the absence of Die Ins won’t change anyone’s mind about the attractiveness of cycling – we cannot market the unmarketable.
It is interesting to note that a significant part of the Die In was devoted to the issue of pedestrian safety, with several speakers, including Tom Kearney and Nazan Fennell, relating the consequences of death and serious injury while walking. Tom was hit by a bus on Oxford Street, and left in a coma with serious injuries. Nazan’s daughter Hope was killed by an HGV while crossing the road with her bicycle. Pedestrian safety is a serious issue, with pedestrians being killed or seriously injured in large numbers in London. It is entirely appropriate that the protest focused on this issue alongside that of cycling safety, because I think walking and cycling should have a great deal in common, and the way in which people walking and cycling are exposed to danger is very similar.
Crucially, however, I haven’t seen anyone complain that the Die In ‘dangerised’ walking, and discouraged people from walking.
This might be partially explained by the fact that the walking aspect of the protest was not really covered by the media, at least as much as the cycling aspect was. But the absence of concern about ‘dangerising’ of walking is probably more likely due to the fact that walking is a more robust mode, and cycling is currently inherently fragile. Everybody walks every day, and does so without real concern for their safety (despite the fact that danger is posed to pedestrians). By contrast, the danger experienced while cycling is subjectively much more real, and apparent. These issues – the difference between walking and cycling safety, and why we get concerned about dangerising cycling, but not about dangerising walking – are something I am going to explore in my next post.