Dangerisation

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.

And

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.

Is it protests that are discouraging people from riding bikes here? Or something else?

Is it protests that are discouraging people from riding bikes here? Or something else?

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.

This entry was posted in HGVs, Infrastructure, London, Safety, Subjective safety, The media, Transport for London, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Dangerisation

  1. Mark Hughes says:

    I agree with you that the thing that puts people off cycling is a combination of their own eyes and things like three Evening Standard front page splashes of dead cyclists in less than a week, and that the actions of us lot campaigning rarely reaches anyone outside the cycling bubble to any significant degree.

    However, I’m not so certain about the effect on existing cyclists. It’s not the campaigning so much as the stark realisation of the danger involved in the activity of riding a bike on many London roads, highlighted by the spate of recent deaths. It’s made me think about giving up cycling in London, or certainly reduce it. I’m well aware of the statistics and know that it is a relatively low risk, but calculating out my average annual mileage from now until retirement gives me an approximately 10% chance of being KSI’d. Am I confident that, with my training, significant awareness of the risks and how to mitigate them that I’m that much better than the “average” cyclist? I’d like to think so, but probably everyone does. Difficult.

    My broader point is that if I’m thinking of reducing or stopping cycling in London, I don’t suppose I’m the only one thinking that way. Regardless of what I end up doing, some thinking like this will carry on, some will reduce, and some will actually stop. But this is a reaction to the roads as we find them, and possibly the media coverage of roads we don’t use, not campaigning for safer cycling.

  2. congokid says:

    Good points well made.

    I think it’s always important to focus on improving safety for ALL vulnerable road users – pedestrians, people on bikes and that great uncounted body of people who would love to cycle but don’t dare. This last group were afraid to get on their bikes in London years before the Die-Ins, the recent cluster of deaths, and the growing awareness of the dangers presented by HGVs.

    However, I’m often surprised at how many people – including habitual pedestrians who exhibit a deep antipathy to people on bikes – are resigned to the status quo where car is king, the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists on the roads are somehow inevitable or ‘their own fault’, and providing safe cycling infrastructure is perceived as giving in to the interests of the cycling lobby.

    In AViewFromTheCyclePath David Hembrow makes the point that safe infrastructure benefits all vulnerable road users. Unfortunately the prospect of us having something in the UK that backs this up still looks extremely distant.

  3. To your point about why people might have said they’ve stopped cycling, I noted in the data tables you linked to on Twitter yesterday that over two-thirds of those who said they had stopped were classified as “Those who cycle less than once a week in London”, suggesting that weather (casual?) and inexperience (thus increased fear, maybe?) could have been factors. Without them the figure saying they have stopped drops from 20% to 6%.

  4. dave lambert says:

    Why does it really matter anyway if people give up cycling? We’ve got more people cycling in London at the moment than we have had for decades and we still have totally crap infrastructure. Increased cycling levels don’t mean better cycling facilities. It just means more bereaved families. Let’s get the facilities first before we insist on persuading vulnerable people onto the roads by pretending we live in fairy land where cycling is a wonderful dreamy experience.

  5. Whilst getting people to cycle relies more on stressing the positive rather than eliminating the negative, campaigning on the safety angle is of paramount importance when persuading governments at all levels to actually provide cycling infrastructure (“Selling Biking: the Safety Paradox”: http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/selling-biking-the-safety-paradox).

  6. Be prepared for a counter argument.
    To be fair, I was in favour of the die in but at the same time I would prefer us to be organising a huge family ride in London next Easter Sunday, which was my suggestion. I think we should be illustrating who exactly IS NOT able to cycle in London or the rest of the country.
    An afternoon riding round Thetford Forest with your kids won’t teach them any road sense, nor will walking on the pavement while your kids rip it up ahead of you. These are the next generation of bad cyclists – their parents won’t ride because it’s “too dangerous” on the roads but of course every kid needs a bike, well at least until they are old enough to drive themselves. These parents buy a bike from Halfords with no lights and tell their kids to stay on the pavement at all costs. These kids are now adults, and are still on the pavement.
    The romance of a bike for a child has been limited to something you do until you are old enough to afford something with a motor.
    So how can we make cycling attractive for families again? How can we extend the romance back to a bike is heaven for anyone, any age? I think playing the marketing card, getting talented script writers to put cycling into the conciousness in a romantic, liberating way. Films romanticise driving, they could do the same for cycling. It would do more than a few hundred people at the die-in. It’s not fair but it’s likely to be the case.
    I am a pessimist. I used to be an optimist. I will be moving to Holland in Summer 2014 with my family because I selfishly can’t see the situation improving to make any difference to my kids, even if we got the changes we want now. It would take a generation to take effect. I speak Dutch, but my husband and kids will need to learn it, we will be taking a massive drop home comforts, I imagine it will be a 2 bed maisonette on the outskirts rented with no garden or garage, not our generous 4 bed semi with garage we now have. It might take years to get a mortgage.
    It’s not just for the roads in the Netherlands, it’s education, public transport, culture, health – all things that don’t get the attention they deserve in the UK. The Netherlands are facing cuts but I have faith that the fundamental structure is fairer. I’m looking forward to getting myself on a waiting list for an eco-home, something that’s not so rare in NL as in the UK.
    The way the media as a whole have chosen to ignore the work of the All Party Cycling Enquiry, the Die-in, the issue as a whole is even a surprise to me. Now I know that it’s not just Texas that has a media blackout. We have it here too, it’s well hidden but it’s there. It won’t disappear either.
    If somehow we could get every household who has a house with 1.5 parking space, but who as to run at least two cars to realise that it’s because all other alternatives have gone. That we need to appeal to everyone who travels and ask them if they would rather pay thousands to run an extra car or have access to cycling and integrated public transport. It may be cheaper than ever to run a car but it’s never going to be as cheap as a bike.
    We need to reach out to the UK without the media, in ways that they don’t control. Make cycling sexy, fun, preferred by your kids, better for your bank balance than a beaten up stinky MPV and above all attractive to women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
    If I were Rachel Aldred or Jullian Huppert or Mark Treasure, I’d be looking for ways to get cycling on telly through romantic drama and film.

    • Rebecca says:

      I too, will be moving to the Netherlands, in 2017, precisely for the bicycling and the way of life that accompanies it. The designs for bicycle infrastructure here in Boston, Massachusetts, continue to include narrow bikeways useful for reaching a destination, but do not allow people on bicycles to chat while riding side by side or to slowly ride while examining the architecture of the city. I will be very old once the proposed plan of narrow bikeways for the city is built.

    • Neil says:

      If you are in a blogging mood or can share any of the preparation or experiences, I am sure lots of people would be interested in what’s involved in moving to NL. Even if it is just idle fantasy for most.

  7. Paul M says:

    Perceptions of risk or danger, and their reality, frequently fail to co-incide. So for example people who are nervous about the risk of flying in an airliner don’t appreciate that they are far more likely to be killed on the drive to the airport, when they feel perfectly safe, than in any air accident.

    The recent tragedy in Glasgow is quite telling. A helicopter falls out of the sky, for as-yet unascertained reasons, and nine people die as a result. There follows a great outpouring of shock, grief, and to some extent anger. Flags fly at half-mast. The dangers presented by helicopters in particular are widely aired on TV and radio, referring to the accident record of this particular type of helicopter and to other accidents, many of which involve transfer to North Sea production platforms.

    And yet, you will not hear any accusations of “dangerising” helicopters in the public or media reaction to this event. Helicopters are, inherently, very dangerous machines. They are kept in the air, basically, by a bolt holding the rotor assembly to the fuselage which is sometime nicknamed “the Jesus bolt”. If something goes wrong with a helicopter, there is very little time indeed to manage the situation and often time runs out and lives are lost.

    But of course fatalities in the operation of helicopters are rare. This is no accident – the inherent danger of aircraft generally is managed by a very strict regime of maintenance, inspection and testing, of both pilot and machine. The machine itself will undergo a complete strip-down inspection, probably taking a few man-weeks of qualified mechanics time, every year, and an inspection more thorough than car’s annual MOT every 50 operating hours – that is probably at least once a fortnight. The pilot will be tested every six months for competence, and will undergo regular medical checks, frequency depending on age, which will include eyesight, hearing, electrocardiogram and a host of other measurements. Failure to uphold the standards demanded by aviation law lead to sever penalty for individuals, including hefty fines, imprisonment, and permanent withdrawal of licences. That is why aviation accidents are so rare.

    The outpouring of grief and questioning, the flags at half-mast, was entirely right and proper and justifiable, but it would not have occurred if nine people died in a smash on the M8. Why? The Clutha accident is very rare, and multi-fatality road smashes, while not a daily occurrence, are wearily familiar. Do we “tolerate” road casualties because they are so common, or is because they are so common that we “tolerate” them? Because tolerate them we do. At the official level, the collective consciousness, at any rate. Until it is ourselves who are personally touched.

    The participants, of whom I am proud to count myself one, at the die-in last Friday, ironically only hours before the Glasgow tragedy, were not “dangerising” cycling and walking, and they were not trying to discourage others from joining them in the cycling/walking fraternity. They were simply saying that it is time we stopped tolerating death and serious injury for vulnerable road users, stopped shrugging it off as inevitable, a necessary evil. We don’t tolerate this in any field of public transport, whether airborne or ground-based. Why should we tolerate it here?

  8. Watdabni says:

    I have been cycling in London for forty years. It has always been dangerous. Modern badly designed cycle infrastructure is not helping. I love my bike and cycle all the time. However I would never encourage anyone to follow my example. I do not want to feel responsible if they are hurt as a result. However, if they really want to cycle (like my wife) I will give them all the guidance I can. What I will not, and will never, do is minimise the risk. This argument about ‘dangerisation’ (is that even a word??) is utterly spurious. I will not minimise the risks to – especially inexperienced cyclists – for anyone’s benefit. I would rather they did not take to the road at all – at least that way they are more likely to stay safe.

  9. Good to see that we were on the same lines today. It’s not cyclists who cause the danger and it’s not cyclists who are putting off other cyclists. It’s the traffic. Sadly, there are people in this world who think they can achieve everything just by talking, but this is not a marketing problem.

    As you know from your own experience, cycling simply doesn’t feel the same in London as it does in a Dutch city. This feeling of a lack of safety is the problem. Not just “a part” of the problem, but almost all of the problem. People don’t ride in Britain without thinking of the danger of doing so, while people do ride in the Netherlands without a second thought about it. The infrastructural differences are the reason for this:

    A simple diagram:

    Bikes here Cars here

    There are no two ways about it. Get the cars away from people and they both feel and are safer. That creates the environment within which people will cycle without thinking about danger.

    This is the lesson that London continues not to learn from, and that’s the reason why they continue not to be successful. The last thing that they need is a self-promoting marketing guy trying to push himself by sending a message which will not help cyclists in London at all, but may fall more easily on the ears of people like Boris Johnson than those of us who try to tell him the truth. This isn’t a marketing problem, it’s an infrastructure problem.

  10. beezodog says:

    Reblogged this on Beezodog's Place.

  11. paul gannon says:

    I agree that Copenhagenize and others have got this seriously wrong. The prime reason for this, as AEARAB says, is that they have overestimated the reach of our voice. We aren’t talking, yet, to the public at large, but playing a political game with politicians, civil servants and engineers.

    It is true that so far we haven’t even had much influence on this limited audience and at times it can seem as if we never will – several postings on web publications following the ‘die-in’ make the point, indeed, that we will never be able to change the views of these people.

    However, I’m not convinced that things are as bad as the critics of the die-in claim. Change can come about when there is a crisis of confidence among those with power and/or influence and a powerful, persistent, incisive campaign can help precipitate that crisis of confidence.

    The die-in was a good opening shot in such a campaign. The effect of the demo will have been quite powerful within TfL at various levels, though probably not yet at the top. The die-in will be much harder for them to ignore than a more traditional demo.

    What we need is the organisational capability to keep up relentless pressure with this and similar types of powerful demo. For example, it would be good if a die-in could be arranged every time someone is killed on our roads, perhaps even every time there is a serious injury, or a crash at a known black spot (and not just outside TfL, but also DoT and Met police hq when appropriate). The effect on confidence among decision-makers will build over time. We should note that the ‘stop de kindermoord’ demos had exactly this type of confidence-sapping effect on the then keenly ‘modernising’ (ie car promoting) politicians in the Netherlands.

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  13. Dermot says:

    My suspicion is that, as I think of ghost bikes, the “Die-in” is overall a negative, associating cycling still further with death in the public mind. I think the reasoning here is that the general public can’t possibly have a worse opinion of the safety of cycling, especially after the shocking spate of deaths. I can understand that, especially with cycling journeys standing at about 2% of all journeys. However, it is possible to go all the way back to 1%, which I believe is where it was a few years ago, or lower.

    On the other hand, it might shame TfL into doing something actually useful. The latter might outweigh the former.

    On a related topic, what’s the betting the police claim a stunning success for operation hi-viz-and-helmet nagging when the death rate regresses to the mean, as it surely will?

  14. Dermot says:

    Also, “dangerisation” might be an inelegant word, but it serves a purpose so I suspect it will catch on. How else would you succinctly express the phenomenon of making some appear dangerous by always referring to it as dangerous even when objectively it is not especially dangerous?

  15. Dermot says:

    Ah, I see from your next post that opinions such as mine about ghost bikes annoy you. I should have read ahead.

    Well, I guess maybe some scientific study is required to see who’s right. Has anyone ever investigated these? Might be one for an Ian Walker figure, with a background in psychology and traffic.

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  17. Pingback: Talking about ‘danger’, again | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  18. Sometimes the path for pedestrians is also used for cycling. It would be very dangerous to pedestrians. It would be nice in every way also provide a special lane for cycling.

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