Some thoughts about ‘danger’ and ‘dangerising’ cycling had been floating around in my head, following recent local discussion about whether talking about ‘danger’ puts people off cycling, and whether we should refrain from talking about it all.
Speaking as she prepared to race today in a pop-up street velodrome in Broadgate, Glowinski told the Standard: “I think it can be quite damaging to talk about how ‘dangerous’ cycling is. I really don’t think it is that dangerous. The reason I think women are getting hit by lorries is because it’s an assertiveness thing. […]
“I think it’s good that cycle safety is taken seriously and highlighted so it’s high on the political agenda, and people care about road safety and think about how to make certain junctions safer,” Glowinski said. “But constant highlighting of cyclist accidents can be a bit misleading. I get told all the time: ‘You are taking your life in your own hands, you are crazy.’ It’s misleading. It’s putting people off.”
I’ve emphasised in bold the passages that I think exemplify the kinds of objections made by people who think we shouldn’t talk about ‘danger’. We’ve been here before, of course, and others have eloquently covered the same ground.
At face value Glowinski’s comments appear confused – on the one hand she thinks it’s good that safety is on the agenda, and that we are talking about how to make roads safer. But at the same time a ‘constant’ highlighting of these issues is a problem. Is it even possible or sensible to draw a line here? This leads me to believe she may have been selectively quoted, or was pushed for a quote on something she didn’t really consider.
But, more generally, I think an important distinction often gets missed here. It’s vital to stress that when people like me, who are interested in increasing cycling levels substantially in Britain, talk about danger – both in objective terms, and in the way perception of danger is a major barrier to cycling uptake – we are not arguing that cycling is an intrinsically dangerous mode of transport. We aren’t say that cycling itself is dangerous.
Instead, quite specifically, we are arguing that the design of certain roads and streets, and the nature of the motor traffic using them, presents an unacceptably high risk to people cycling on them. Cycling on a quiet residential street, with very low levels of motor traffic, is acceptably safe to anyone, but obviously very different from cycling around the Elephant and Castle, or Hyde Park Corner, or through Kings Cross, places where you have to make your way across multiple lanes of motor traffic travelling at higher speeds than you.
Exposure to this kind of motor traffic is unacceptable. It continues to baffle me why, in a country that (quite rightly) takes Health and Safety very seriously, these risks continue to be tolerated. Certain kinds of step ladders have to be used in the workplace, yet it is apparently fine and dandy for local authorities to build new roads where people cycling are expected to mix with heavy traffic, travelling at speeds of 50 or 60mph, ‘negotiating’ their way into the middle of the road to get around roundabouts.
The only way these roads even appear to be ‘safe’ is because next to no-one is using them on a bike. (Despite this, cycle KSIs on these kinds of roads form a considerable percentage of the total, even if the number of trips being made on them by bike is 1-2% of the total.)
The reasons so much of the British road network is dangerous for cycling are established reasons –
- speed differentials while sharing the same road space;
- major differences in mass while sharing the same road space;
- unforgiving road design;
- unpredictable or uncertain layouts;
- layouts that fail to account for human fallibility.
In short, all the attributes that are being designed out of Dutch roads and streets, thanks to Sustainable Safety.
Meanwhile Britain squeezes cycling onto roads that are simply not designed to accommodate it safely – with predictably tragic outcomes.
Does pointing this out really ‘put people off’ cycling? I think that’s a pretty far-fetched assertion. For one thing, we’ve been talking about road safety in general for decades in often quite vivid detail – in particular, car safety – without putting anyone off driving. And we have succeeded in greatly reduced the exposure drivers face while travelling around on roads and streets, by designing more forgiving environments for motoring, that tolerate minor mistakes, and reduce the seriousness of consequences when mistakes occur. (The problem is that cycling has largely been ignored in this process).
The implication of the ‘putting off’ claim, therefore, is that cycling is an especially fragile mode of transport, one that can collapse when people talk about the downsides of it; that exposure to risk and danger, and the perception of it, genuinely is a problem for cycling, compared to other modes of transport.
But even for the ‘putting off’ claim to stand up to scrutiny, there must exist some large cohort of the population that is willing to cycle on roads that have all the kinds of problems described here, yet will choose not do so simply because these problems are being talked about.
Is this really at all probable? Are they somehow blind to the hostility of these roads and the hazards they present, yet simultaneously so danger-sensitive that mere words will stop them cycling on them?1
The general public might not be particularly au fait with the principles of safe road and street design for cycling, but those principles will correspond closely with what we as human beings can instinctively judge to be unsafe. Faster motor traffic whizzing past us at close proximity feels unsafe. Being surrounded by HGVs feels unsafe. Junctions which present multiple potential conflicts and uncertainty about what other parties might be doing feel unsafe. And so on. These are the reasons most people don’t want to cycle on Britain’s roads.
I think most human beings are pretty good at assessing risk for themselves; they might not get it right all the time, but they can judge that it is safe enough for their children to pedal around in a park, or on a small section of pedestrianised street that rarely carries any motor traffic…
… while at the same time judging that allowing their children to cycle on the road with HGVs at the junction just yards away, in the background of the same photograph, presents an unacceptable level of risk.
This is exactly the point that David Arditti makes in the post I have already linked to –
I think the advocates of cycling need to stop treating the public like idiots who cannot correctly judge what is or is not an unacceptably dangerous activity for them to engage in. I think they can judge.
The public knows that cycling itself isn’t dangerous. That’s why families will wobble around parks, and up and down trails, and in those places they feel comfortable. But they do know that cycling on certain types of road presents a kind of risk – even a feeling of risk – that they simply aren’t prepared to tolerate.
Talking about addressing those risks isn’t going to stop anyone from venturing onto those roads on a bike, who wasn’t already prepared to do so.
1. [I am vaguely aware that statistics suggest there may have been a ‘dip’ in London cycling levels following the six fatalities in quick succession in late 2013; but this is surely attributable to the deaths themselves, rather than the people making the case for changing they way roads are designed to prevent these kinds of deaths from occurring in the future.]↩