At the end of my last post about ‘dangerising’, I mused about why, despite the presence of many pedestrians – and speeches from pedestrian campaigners – at the Die In last Friday, nobody appeared to voice any concern that people might be put off walking by talk of the deaths and serious injuries of pedestrians, unlike the concern expressed about people potentially being put off cycling.
Of course part of this is due to the fact that the pedestrian aspect of the protest did not feature much in the news bulletins at the time; it just didn’t seem to get the same amount of coverage. It was a ‘cycling’ protest, as far as the superficial observer was concerned. Nevertheless, there were interviews with Tom Kearney and Nazan Fennell on BBC News, and the danger posed to pedestrians was a major element in the material and publicity surrounding the Die In. The list of people killed in recent years, read out by Living Streets campaigners, included both people walking and cycling at the time of their death.
Now it would be quite odd, I think, to worry that protests about pedestrian safety are ‘dangerising’ walking, and making it seem like something unsafe; to worry that people might be put off walking to the shops because of protests like Die Ins. Indeed I noticed that Copenhagenize linked – apparently approvingly – to a splash about pedestrian death and danger in New York, barely 24 hours after he had criticised the Die In for putting people off cycling. The headline of the New York Post article is ‘Don’t Walk’, with the text reading ‘Looking both ways isn’t nearly enough when crossing Big Apple streets’. Pointing out the dangers posed to people walking in cities, it seems, does not require any angst about whether others might be discouraged from walking at all.
The complete opposite is true of cycling, where every British campaign or protest that mentions danger is nearly always accompanied by nagging concerns and doubts about whether we are ‘putting people off’. This policy of avoiding the negative seems to have a long history in Britain. David Arditti remarked during a conversation with me on Monday that the Tour du Danger in 2011 was the first time in a long while that the risks and dangers associated with cycling were explicitly referenced in a campaign. Danger was, traditionally, something not to be mentioned. Ghost bikes should to be tidied away quickly in case people were put off – an idea that got me a bit annoyed before the Tour du Danger. Sunny optimism about how ‘you’re better off cycling than not cycling’ was the way forward, with the familiar tired story of how, despite the casualties and deaths being reported, you are statistically likely to live two years longer if you cycle.
I think a decisive break has been made with that kind of approach, probably because of a recognition that it wasn’t getting us anywhere, and also a greater understanding of the reasons why people don’t cycle. Statistics about how safe cycling is, objectively, are not persuasive when you are faced with road environments that feel threatening and hostile. As I argued in my previous post, campaigning that focuses on danger is at worst merely repeating the way most people already feel about cycling – they don’t want to do it, but would do it if it felt and looked safer.
This gets to the heart of why nobody is really concerned about pedestrian safety campaigns putting people off walking. Unlike cycling in Britain, walking is (with notable exceptions in rural areas) a subjectively safe activity. Pavements do go pretty much everywhere, from door to door, and your interactions with motor vehicles are carefully controlled. Indeed, it is in places where there aren’t pavements, particularly in rural areas, where walking can feel as unsafe as cycling, if not more so.
This is not to say the pedestrians aren’t exposed to actual danger, both with and without pavements – the deaths and injuries documented recently demonstrate this – it’s just that walking is not an activity where you actually feel threatened by motor vehicles, in a way you do while cycling. You can walk along roads and streets that are incredibly unpleasant to cycle along in relative comfort, without concern for your own safety.
There is of course inconvenience involved in walking, particularly when you encounter junctions, or where there simply aren’t facilities or conditions that allow you to cross the road where you want to. But the threat you feel while cycling is rarely present, even if pedestrian casualties are a serious problem in reality. As David Arditti has written –
People who get on bikes in traffic quickly realise they have no protection other than their own physical capabilities and wits. They discover that they are totally on their own. Nobody and nothing will protect them, not the Highway Code, not the police, not the Crown Prosecution Service, not the courts. And the roads are often designed to make things as dangerous as possible for them. This utterly uncontrolled, socially anomalous danger of cycling is what makes it unique as a legal activity. Being a pedestrian can sometimes have a similar character, but not for so long, as pedestrians are mostly segregated from traffic. Cycling, for a normal activity, that we would hope would be an everyday one, as opposed to a special one like mountaineering or skydiving, is tolerated by our society as uniquely dangerous.
When we talk about the lack of subjective safety while cycling, what we are really driving at is that cycling does not feel as safe as walking in Britain. People will continue to walk even in the wake of hypothetical campaigns that highlight and focus on the dangers people walking face, because as a day-to-day activity, it does not seem dangerous. The concern about putting people off cycling stems from this discrepancy; we are implicitly acknowledging that cycling is something that is fragile, that can easily be discarded as people switch to other modes because it just isn’t very attractive or pleasant. Walking is, by contrast, a much more robust mode.
One of the main functions of Dutch-style infrastructure is to address this issue. Cycling in the Netherlands feels as safe as walking does here, if not more so, because you are insulated from interactions with motor traffic in precisely the same way you are while walking on pavements. I think a useful test (but obviously not the only test) for whether you are providing a genuinely suitable cycling environment is to ask whether you would be willing to walk where you are expecting people to cycle. If the cycling environment corresponds to a walkable one, then you are enabling cycling for all.
It is this difference between the way cycling and walking currently feel in Britain that explains why ‘dangerising’ is such a concern about the former mode of transport, but not for the latter. The difference suggests that talking about danger really isn’t the problem; it’s the physical environment, and the way people respond to it.
Post updated to reflect points made by Jack Thurston that walking feels particularly unsafe in many rural areas