Monday, 20 February 2012

MPs debate cycling this week, Prime Minister hosts cycling summit. 63% agreed that they would find cycling on the roads stressful. No wonder cycling is such a marginal activity in Britain.

Believe it or not, this is a bike lane.
No wonder most people drive.
MPs will be debating cycle safety this week, thanks - in part - to the CycleSafe campaign spearheaded by The Times. Tomorrow, the Prime Minister has announced, he will host a 'future cities' conference which may feature a flicker of discussion about cycling and the sorts of models used in other cities. The PM's debate sounds rather too futuristic for my liking when basic changes on the ground are what's needed, not apartment blocks where you can ride to the 10th floor.

Ahead of the debate, the House of Commons library has published a briefing note summarising official statistics on cycling safety. Here are the key points as shown on the intro page:

In Great Britain, in 2010:

• 3 billion vehicle miles were travelled on pedal cycles, 1% of all vehicle miles taken on the roads
• Males cycled more miles on average (66 miles per person) than females (19 miles per person
• 111 cyclists were killed on the roads; the second lowest number in the last 61 years
• 2,660 cyclists were seriously injured on the roads; the highest number this century
• Four-fifths of cyclists killed or seriously injured were male

The note is a decent summary of the bare facts, but is rather lacking when it comes to explaining them. And there's a risk that some MPs might draw completely the wrong conclusions. For example, at first glance it looks great that 2010 saw the lowest number of cyclist deaths in 61 years. On that basis, you might be forgiven for asking what the problem is supposed to be.

I think there are three crucial points which the Commons briefing note doesn't capture, and which MPs need to be aware of.

First, the low cycling rate (1% of traffic) and the low number of casualties are both due to the same phenomenon: most people don't cycle because most people don't think cycling is safe, so it has become the preserve of a small of minority of people on a small minority of roads. (Even the Daily Mail agrees with this point, for more see here). The disparity in serious injury rates between cycling and driving is huge, 553 per billion km for cycling versus 15 for driving. And as The Times has pointed out, the cyclist fatality rate in Britain is three times higher than in the Netherlands.

New York bike lane. Clear space to cycle in
People are well aware of the disproportionate risks cycling involves. A Department for Transport survey found that an overwhelming majority of people (86%) identified cycling as the least safe mode of transport. The same survey found that 60% of people who can ride a bike think the roads are too dangerous, while 63% agreed that they would find cycling on the roads stressful. Today's Guardian revealed a Sustrans poll which states emphatically that: 'The majority of Britons believe it remains unsafe to cycle on urban roads'. No wonder cycling is such a marginal activity in Britain.

Second, the reason cycling is so unsafe in Britain is because cyclists are so exposed to traffic. There is actually very little that is inherently dangerous about cycling, as shown by the fact that just 8% of the deaths or serious injuries to cyclists in 2010 were ‘single vehicle’ cases, compared to 26% of motorcyclist and 33% of car KSIs (see this table). That means that the overwhelming majority of deaths or serious injuries to cyclists are due to collisions with other traffic.

Third, the casualty rate is much lower now than it was in the 1950s, but since the early 2000s it's been fairly static (and in some places is getting worse). So as more people have taken up cycling, more cyclists have been getting killed or injured. You might wonder why more people are cycling if it’s so much riskier than the alternatives. I think it’s probably got a lot to do with the alternatives getting less attractive, as our roads and public transport get more crowded and/or more expensive. In any case, governments at all levels are constantly talking about trying to encourage people to cycle. If they succeed, are they willing to live with more casualties, or will they make the safety improvements required to make it safe for everyone?

Which brings me to the last point not covered by the Commons note. When you  ask people what would get them cycling, they are most likely to ask for safe, high quality cycle facilities – you know, like they have in the Netherlands. In that DfT survey, 52% of people agreed that they would cycle more if there were more dedicated cycle paths. And when the London Cycling Campaign recently asked people what single change would encourage them to cycle more, the two most popular suggestions were “Safe and convenient cycle lanes all over London” and “Making it safer to cycle across junctions and roundabouts”.
No doubt there will be challenges making cycling in places like central London safe. But it is do-able, providing we stop designing roads for cars and start designing them for people. Hopefully the debate in parliament this Thursday will be the start of that.

(Note, this piece is written by a contributor but one whose voice I agree with 100%)

You can see the two Early Day Motions that are up for discussion by clicking here and here. You can also see how MPs have been responding to their constituents in London, Scotland, Wales and elsewhere in England by clicking here.

It's not to late to write to your MP before Thursday's debate asking them to attend by clicking here and sending an email directly to them.Alternatively, attend the Flashride to Parliament on Wednesday night to remind MPs why we feel this is important.


  1. One way to address the impact of collisions with cyclists and pedestrians would be to adopt the "strict liability" code as much of Europe.Minimal cost, high speed delivery. Loads of other benefits, too.

    1. It's very noticeable how the politicians have been avoiding this: hardly surprising in view of the screams of rage from the Daily Mail and the motoring lobby when it was suggested back in 2005. The Mail in particular ran a virulent campaign of disinformation suggesting that cyclists would be virtually beyond the law, able to have themselves squashed by 40-tonners with complete impunity. Oh, and of course, it was an EU measure; a "Brussels Diktat" designed to bring UK traffic regulations into line with those on the continent. No mention, of course, that it was civil not criminal liability the legislators had in mind, nor that the presumption of liability in countries like Denmark is merely a starting point, and that liability may in the end be partly or wholly borne by the cyclist if they were at demonstrably at fault. Or that it would also apply when cyclists hit pedestrians.

      I agree that it would make a huge difference to attitudes and behaviour. But I can't see it happening: in the British context it's just too controversial and too capable of being wilfully misrepresented.

  2. Actually the casualty rate isn't much safer than it was in the 1950s. The risks are pretty similar to the 1950s, but are much lower than either the 1960s or 1970s. (See fig 1 from here:

    This just shows that people's perception of safety is very different to the actual risk. Of course, the former is - in the context of trying to persuade people to take up cycling - all important.

    The following sentence "So as more people have taken up cycling, more cyclists have been getting killed or injured" is in part true. However, if a major barrier is people's perceptions of safety you are creating a negative feedback loop if data is presented as numbers of injuries rather than risk. This is the essence of CTC's Safety in Numbers campaign: that the presentation of the data that needs to improve.

    Good cycle facilities aren't going to be provided if the focus is on safety alone - it needs to be about a conscious political decision to improve to competitive advantage of cycling, making it a faster, better and more socially acceptable means of transport. Local authorities agonising about a 10% increase in cycle casualties after a 15% increase in cycling isn't going to help.