Taking responsibility for social safety

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, iniichael Dugher, gave an interview with the Mirror in December, which attracted a fair bit of attention, principally because it resembles a transparent attempt to court the ‘motorist vote’ (whatever that may be) – presenting Labour as being on the side of ‘the motorist’. It included all the usual antique soundbites – ‘cash cows’, ‘war on the motorist’, and so on – as well as the miserably unambitious suggestion

If car drivers switched just one car journey a month

Switched not to walking or cycling, but to buses or coaches. Walking and cycling were entirely absent in this interview, as Caroline Russell pointed out in this excellent response piece.

But there was one detail in the Mirror interview with Dugher that I confess I missed when it first appeared, and I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for pointing it out. Dugher argued –

When people demonise the motorist it’s ­offensive. Look at the huge increase in women drivers. That’s been a great thing. It’s about women’s independence and it’s about safety. Often women choose to drive when it’s dark because they feel safer.”

Now it is true that many women will opt for the car to make trips when it is dark, because they feel safer within a motor vehicle, than outside it. (Indeed, I suspect this is true for a number of men too).

But absent from this analysis is the role of government in designing, building, maintaining (and policing) environments in which people feel safe when they travel. The role of ministers (and potential ministers) like Michael Dugher. I don’t think it’s a ‘great thing’ that women who may not even want to drive are forced to do so because the streets on which they should be able to walk or cycle are socially unsafe. In fact I think that’s a pretty appalling thing.

To take an example, is it a surprise that many women might drive to and from Dorking railway station, when the pedestrian underpass beneath the A24 – connecting the station to the town – looks like this?

I wouldn't go in there at night.

I wouldn’t go in there at night.

Is it a surprise that people might not want to cycle or walk through badly-designed underpasses like this one in Stevenage?

DSCN9788I’m sure there are countless examples across the towns and cities of Britain of walking and cycling routes like this – poorly-designed, barely used, not overlooked, and frankly scary. Not to mention the standard stingy walking paths between British housing developments, that almost seem an invitation to a mugging.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 12.44.35

If people feel the need to drive because they don’t feel socially safe walking and cycling, that is a very bad thing, and certainly not something to be welcomed, especially by the people who should be taking responsibility for addressing those issues. The social safety of the environments we walk and cycle in – how safe they feel to us is the responsibility of councils and government.

Social safety is recognised in the Netherlands as being an important element of whether or not people choose to walk or cycle, as this excellent post from David Hembrow explains.

For social safety:

  • You should always be able to see out of any tunnel as you enter it
  • Blind corners on paths are not acceptable
  • Cycle paths should be wide to allow cyclists to move out of the way of others
  • A low crime rate and a good conviction rate are needed. Cyclists should not feel that the police do not take their complaints seriously.
  • Cycle paths should be lit at night so that you can see potential muggers, obstacles on the path etc.
  • Areas that are clean, litter free, graffiti free, where grass is mowed and plants are not allowed to overhang the cycle path have a better feeling of social safety.

So the walking and cycling environment in the Netherlands is designed to feel safe. ‘Attractiveness’ – which covers social safety – is one of the five main elements considered in designing cycling infrastructure. That means that cycling infrastructure is built to a high standard, to ensure that wherever people are walking and cycling about, they feel safe, regardless of the context.

That means underpasses that are open and wide.


It also means that cycle routes should be well-lit, overlooked and (perhaps most importantly) good enough to be used in sufficiently high numbers.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 12.57.50If there are issues of social safety at night, enough to force people into driving cars for short trips, is that really something to be welcomed?

I’d like to think our Secretary of State for Transport would take action to address the root cause of the problem, not applaud people having to resort to a mode of transport that will often make absolutely no sense in urban areas, in order to ensure their own safety.

This entry was posted in Absurd transport solutions, Infrastructure, Social safety, The Netherlands, Transport policy, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Taking responsibility for social safety

  1. Paul says:

    People driving “for safety” compromise the safety of other people.

  2. As a female cyclist I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s why I moved back to holland. I didn’t want to learn to drive, but there was diddly squat else to do in Cambridshire. There are many many women who can’t drive, be it for medical or financial reasons. I chose not to because it’s dangerous, stressful, unhealthy and smelly.
    As a result my only option was to move where I do feel safe to cycle and there is usually a bus or a train, the Netherlands!
    While the government are practically saying drive your car to save the oil industry (BBC news a few nights ago), I don’t see the situation improving unless we can get the greens some more power.

  3. @angus_fx says:

    Parallels could be drawn to the gun rights movement in the US

    “It’s about women’s independence and it’s about safety. Women choose to carry a pistol when it’s dark because they feel safer.”

    These *exact* arguments are used by the NRA, with needless tragedies like this as a consequence


    When you look at the role the car is fulfilling here – that of a secure, protective metal barrier around its owner – a closer analogy might be body armour.

    “Look at the huge increase in women wearing body armour. That’s been a great thing. It’s about women’s independence and it’s about safety. Often women choose to wear body armour when it’s dark because they feel safer.”

    Had any politician, even of the UKIP variety, said that, there would be a massive outcry and rightly so. Yet here, his comments pass unremarked. I wonder why?

    • Brits must think the Americans are batshit crazy on guns, unfortunately one of my uncles in Minneapolis fell for the NRA’s bad arguments. The Brits don’t often hunt and not even the cops have them for the most part. Although even from Canada where I live, the mother country of the UK is doing something more right than Canada on guns and the law enforcement.

  4. geoffrone says:

    I’m not sure if you have the equivalent in England but here in Wales we have, so called, “Safe Routes In the Community”. Sadly they can end up anything but with the consequence that the route is under used and neglected.
    Locally we have NCN Route 4 part of which forms such a route. the “safe route” is totally unlit, prone to flooding, has obscured sight lines, is allowed to get overgrown in summer and is frequently splattered with dog shit and broken glass, I wouldn’t be happy for a woman to ride or walk it at dusk never mind after dark.
    Planners singularly fail to understand the simple mantra “Safe, Secure, Direct”.SAFE from traffic, personally SECURE and DIRECT to your destination and if any of these are missing, the route fails.

  5. Excellent posting. Just on a point of accuracy though: Michael Dugher MP is a *shadow* minister (para 5) and the *shadow* SoS for Transport (final para). He may be an opinion-former, but he’s not in Government. He’s on the opposition front-bench and doesn’t (yet) have ministerial responsibilities.

  6. rdrf says:

    I have been told – by more than a few defenders of motorist privilege – for some 30 years that women HAVE to drive and not cycle because they will be assaulted if they walk/cycle. And that view applies to areas which tend to meet the criteria you mention. In fact I have been told by the same people that cars driven by said women have to be parkable immediately outside front doors as otherwise there will be an unacceptable level of danger to them. In any area or time of day.

    There is no doubt that some women feel that way – as do some men. It morphs into a general feeling of fear of the wider social environment. And while the basic point you make has validity – the environment should be adequate for women and men to be able to cycle and walk without fear – I’m not sure how much of this line of argument is an excuse, nor how much it will continue to be used WHATEVER kind of environment exists.

    In other words, call me a cynic but I suggest that an awful lot of reference to safety – whether from motor danger or from mugging/rape/assault etc. – will be made come what may. In fact, when I first heard this argument in favour of women having a basic need to drive some 30 years ago it was used before any reference to motor danger.

    To get away from this basic point about safety being used as an excuse, I am interested in angus_fx argument. It is a good analogy and a thing which needs to be stressed is that it is general use of cars which exacerbates not just motor danger, but which often also denudes footways and walking environments of people, making those environments more scary for the pedestrians left.

    Having said that, I do think that this area should be discussed first and foremost by women cyclist campaigners. And of course, it is our duty to reduce danger to all actual or potential users from motor danger and anti-social/criminal behaviour.

    • Large White male says:

      I now see my wife’s point of view; she feels endangered by ALL vehicles, whether (legally) on the road or (illegally, but habitually) on zebra crossings or the pavement, where pedestrains used to have the chance to walk without interruption or threat.

      This was not the “good old days”, but an era when riders rode carefully, and went side saddle when they saw a walker coming along the path: even coppers did it.

      When cyclists acheive freedom to roam, they should also accept that this “right” goes with responsbililities towards the rest of society. It is irresponsible to take the “get out of my way” attitude of some cyclists who claim pedestrian zones and public footpaths as their own.

      You may have noticed that the UK has a baby boom right now: lots of young mums with buggies and toddlers, doing that most vital of jobs – bringing up a family. It is also a time of “ageing population” – meaning more of us who are no longer agile enough to jump aside like stunt men. Spare a thought, those of you who regard pedestrian space as your right.

      I haven’t even mentioned the law.

  7. Notak says:

    I think that with personal safety, as with traffic safety, the reality is much better than the perception – but it is the perception that counts, because that’s what puts people off cycling (or walking down the street at night or waiting for a bus, etc). To a large extent the news media are the drivers of this perception, and shock, obviously, sells. Perhaps we can also blame politicians using (fear of) crime as an election tool.

    But certainly the design of paths, and their routing – many sections of NCN, for instance, deviate away from busy, well lit, routes with public and police presence, into dark, narrow, underused “sink estates”, just in order to avoid traffic – adds to the impression of lack of safety. Beyond that, it is simply depressing. Why choose to be underground?

  8. disgruntled says:

    Having raised the issue of underpasses on the Women’s Cycle Forum on Facebook a few weeks ago, the overwhelming response was that women (obviously, a self-selecting sample of women who are already committed and self-identified cyclists) felt much safer on their bikes than on foot – but only where they knew they weren’t going to be slowed down by steps, chicanes, or sharp corners.

  9. Sarah Swift says:

    Speaking as as a woman who can’t and won’t drive, I would definitely echo that I feel safe enough on the bike when I know I’m not going to be slowed by chicanes, blind corners, sharp bends, steep hills, muck, gravel and so on.

    But I sometimes avoid cycle tracks at night for reasons that have very little to do with social safety in the sense of a fear of criminality and more to do with the sort of sightlines that make it easier to doge rabbits and the like: on a road, I can usually stay 1.5 metres out from the edge at night, and there will often be some sort of ditch between the edge of the road and the trees, parkland or farmland behind. So I can keep a good four metres or so between my bike and the nearest thick vegetation.

    On a 2.5 metre-wide cycle path with no real buffer between the edge of the cycle path and fairly thick vegetation, riding what feels like a safe distance from one verge would leave me jammed up against the other. That leaves cyclists on downhill stretches have minimal time to react when an animal bursts out of the undergrowth. My last emergency stop was to accomodate two rabbits crossing a cycle path at exactly the same time as their cousin had decided to cross it in the other direction. I was going relatively slowly because I was on a route close to home and I know it goes through a big colony of rabbits, but it was still slightly unnerving to have three of them converging on the path from different directions almost right under my wheels.

    My biggest two night cycling scares in the past year or so came from a deer and a hare.

  10. James Lovelace says:

    I found this blog by accident, but the issues are so interesting, I’ve been zig-zagging through past entries.

    “the standard stingy walking paths between British housing developments, that almost seem an invitation to a mugging.”

    30 years ago, I was offered a flat in a council estate in London. As a single young man who had only been in London for a year or so, I only got offered this flat because nobody wanted to live on this estate. The estate was only a few years old, it overlooked a park, it was only about 2 miles south of Westminster Bridge. But so much of it was badly designed, that the area was unliveable.

    The rubbish chutes were so small, that people would leave bin bags in the (wide) stairwell, until after days of this, someone would simply set fire to them in order to clear a path so that they could use the stairwell. Each flat (really a maisonette) had a fire-escape which took the occupants out to the floor above; these were so badly designed that burglars used to break into the flats through these fire escapes, so most people had used bricks & mortar to seal up the fire escapes (remember that every few days, a fire was being deliberately started in the stairwells!)

    When I first moved to that estate I walked through the labyrinthine walkways of the estate to the local shops precisely 1 time: I could not believe that these pedestrian routes had been designed apparently to make a life of mugging as easy as possible: one could walk into a courtyard to discover that the entrance and the exit of it had gates made of metal railings, which muggers could close while one was in the courtyard trapping one inside a concrete square (about 60 feet x 60 feet) – it was as if the estate had been designed with the idea of marauding invaders being trapped where the occupants of a medieval castle could then kill them once confined.

    I lived there for 2 years, and it was cycling that enabled me to do that. I would cycle directly into the lift, minimising the time I spent in the vicinity of aggressive evil men. That cyclists are able to move at speed and quietly along roads, means that in such dangerous environments the cyclist has often whizzed past before a potential mugger has even had the opportunity to consider mugging the victim. I had no fear of muggers when cycling on an open road, even in the dark. But I would not want to walk or cycle through any subway where someone could lie in wait.

    I’m now in my 50s and no longer cycle. I find the vehicle traffic on the roads just too alarming. Whilst cycling in London feels fraught, it was living in Birmingham for a few years that put an end to my cycling.

    I agree with your views on cycling in Holland, and how things could be so much better with the correct design. IMO legislation should require that urban planners and architect receive a large part of their payment based on results: for example, if the number of accidents/crimes goes down then they get paid. The architects of that council estate should have been (partly) paid by being given property in the estate which they could rent out for, say, 20 years. When such idiots find that their designs are so bad that they cannot recoup the money they are owed, then they might start to care about how their designs affect the lives of people.

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  12. Eric D says:

    … and what about the children ?
    [Trigger warning – Troll alert – Angela Epstein !]
    “Why spend 15 minutes walking my eight-year-old to school, lumbering along the fume-filled streets …, when we could nail the journey by car in just five?”
    Not a trace of irony, or logic, or self-awareness !


  13. To give you an idea about just how safe the Dutch cycle routes are, David (Hembrow) told me this on the phone:

    When we had just moved to Assen 2 weeks ago, my 13 year old daughter had a nighttime disco at school. So we cycled to the school, and I was the only parent there. No other children came with theirs. And at midnight, when it was time for everyone to go home, one girl who was the same age (13) cycled 10 km home, at midnight, partly through the forest, no parent.

    I’m paraphrasing, but you can go and ask him and he’ll tell you this story if you ask. Now does this seem like something that you should need to be in a car to do safely? And given her age (then, it’s been about 9 years since that happened), she would have needed a parent or adult relative to go and pick her up.

    How young is too young is something I didn’t get the chance to ask him, but certainly not even adult women are often willing to do that in Britain. The Dutch model made it much easier for his kids to date (when they were old enough of course) and go around and have a more independent life to pursue what they wanted, and David and Judy could do what they like to do best on routes they most enjoy, and they don’t have to be a taxi for their children.

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