Recently I found myself digging for some statistics on the relative risks of modes of transport in Britain. It turns out that (according to Department for Transport statistics) cycling is approximately twice as ‘dangerous’ as walking, if we are looking at the casualty rate per distance travelled.
I use ‘dangerous’ in inverted commas because neither walking or cycling are, by themselves, intrinsically dangerous modes of transport – the risk involved comes almost entirely from exposure to motor traffic, rather than from just walking or cycling about in isolation.
Of course, by this metric, cycling (and walking) are both considerably more ‘dangerous’ than being a car driver, but to a large extent that’s because – to illustrate – it takes a very long time to walk 100 miles, and relatively little time to drive that distance. In the time it takes you to walk 100 miles, you will be exposed to many, many more hazards and dangers than you would be in the time it takes you to drive it. So it’s probably better to express the casualty rate as a function of time, rather than of distance, because then it would show more how much risk you were exposed to over that fixed period. In doing so we would find that being a car driver is less obviously ‘safe’ relative to walking and cycling, if we were considering casualty rates by time spent travelling – but the DfT doesn’t measure casualties like this.
However, whichever measure we choose to use, these statistics are still a very misleading measure of actual safety.
Why? Because they fail to account for the fact that the vast majority of the population simply won’t be cycling anywhere near Britain’s roads. They are too intimidating, hostile and dangerous for most of the population to even consider using cycling as a mode of transport. The ‘safety’ of cycling in Britain is therefore of a particularly curious form; much of it simply results from the fact that our roads are simply too terrifying for most people to cycle on. Our cycling safety statistics don’t account for the fact that the most dangerous roads and streets – which will in many cases be useful routes for ordinary journeys – are complete no-go areas for cycling. Nor do they account for the fact that what cycling that is taking place in Britain is heavily skewed away from children and the elderly in particular, both groups that are more vulnerable in different ways. Children are inexperienced, less able to judge speeds and distances, more likely to make mistakes, while the elderly are less able to react and avoid collisions, and more prone to suffering injury when they occur.
If we had a ‘neutral’ distribution of cycling, across all age ranges, combined with all these people cycling on the most direct routes – be that busy urban roads, or fast intra-urban routes, then our cycling casualty statistics would be appalling.
We can frame this another way. Let’s imagine a town with a bus service. All the buses in this town are fitted with shiny wooden bench seats, so well polished that they’re extremely slippery, and hard to stay seated on as the bus goes around sharp corners. There aren’t any seatbelts. And while these buses do have roofs to keep the sun and rain off…
… they don’t have any sides.
Obviously a tricky prospect, what with those slippery bench seats with no seat belts, and the twisty roads in the town.
For some reason, it turns out that only a very small number of people are prepared to use the town’s buses as they zoom around, from stop to stop. Maybe that’s because at least once a year someone gets killed or seriously injured as they fly sideways off the bus as it negotiates a corner. In any case, the elderly – who find it hard to cling onto the bus seats, to balance their weight and brace themselves – simply don’t get the bus. They use other modes of transport.
Likewise children – who most likely aren’t very aware of the risks of these kinds of buses, and find it hard to concentrate and stay focused on staying on the bus at all times – are also a rarity on the buses. Sadly, despite all the town’s primary schools offering free Busability lessons – including Busability Level 3! – only a handful of parents are prepared to let their children take the bus.
If our public transport was like this – too dangerous a prospect for most people to even consider using – I doubt we would even begin to think it was ‘safe’, or even use language like ‘statistically safe’. We wouldn’t be convinced that buses are safe to use, even if statistics showed that bus passengers were only slightly more likely to die than car drivers. We would say that that is a ridiculous metric, because so many potential bus passengers are simply too scared to use that mode of transport in the first place.
It doesn’t even have to be public transport. We could imagine a different town, one where all the pedestrian crossings only gave people walking a couple of seconds to cross the road, before motor traffic started speeding through again. Footways are also intermittent, giving up at random, forcing people to walk out into streams of heavy motor traffic.
Once again, as with the bus example, it turns out that in this town, only a small, fit and able minority are actually able to walk anywhere, those people who can sprint across the road in the short amount of time allocated to them, and are prepared to negotiate with motor traffic. Everyone else – again, most likely the elderly, people with disabilities, children – will either stay at home, or get ferried around by other modes of transport. Walking is simply too dangerous an option for them.
Under these circumstances, would we say that walking in the town is ‘safe’?
But I think the situation with cycling in Britain is almost directly analogous. We have a mode of transport that simply isn’t viable for most people – not for any intrinsic reason, but because of hostile conditions. Cycling in Britain is the equivalent of the bus that you’ll slide off of if you don’t keep paying attention, or have the strength and ability to cling onto. It’s the pedestrian crossing that only the fastest and the fittest are able to use (and even then with some degree of risk). And because these hostile conditions have existed for a very long time now – since the advent of mass motoring – we’ve grown extraordinarily complacent about them. Danger and risk are seen as almost innate elements of making journeys by bike. Yet if we introduced the level of hazard and risk involved in cycling for ordinary journeys in Britain onto public transport – the kind of hazard and risk that simply prevented most people from even using public transport in the first place – there would be a justifiable outcry.
This outcry is almost entirely absent when it comes to cycling because we’ve become completely accustomed to our road network being totally unfit for ordinary people to use. We even acknowledge this when we boast about a mere eight miles of ‘family-friendly’ cycling conditions, for just one day.
By direct implication, the other 364 days of the year, and the near totality of the capital’s road network, is entirely family-hostile.
Perhaps cycling is ‘safe’, but it’s certainly a very curious kind of safety.