Cycle safety campaigns: do they do more harm than good?

Safety in numbers

I was interested in the reactions to my post, last week, challenging the urban myth that there is growing cyclist “carnage” on the streets of London. Cycling in London is, of course, less safe than most of the alternatives. It is less safe than it should be. But as the figures show, it is still pretty safe – and getting safer.

Perhaps the key reason why London cycling has become less risky is that there are so many more cyclists on its roads. Motorists have become more conditioned to us. At danger junctions, the very presence of large numbers of cyclists gives us collective, protective physical bulk. We are easier to spot, harder to clip past.

The data strongly supports this view. Between 2002 and 2010, the latest available year, the number of cycle trips in London rose by 63 per cent. But the number of cyclists killed and seriously injured rose by only 12.8 per cent.

Contrast this with the miserable situation in Britain as a whole. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of cycle trips fell by 10 per cent. Yet the number of cyclists killed and seriously injured rose by 14 per cent. The trend gap between London and the country as a whole, already substantial, has become a chasm.

There are other factors behind this remarkable contrast – the congestion charge, for instance, which reduced traffic in London, albeit only in a small part of the city. But I bet I’m right about the main cause.

That’s why I’ve got such mixed feelings about The Times’ recent campaign to “save our cyclists.” Of course I agree with most of its aims – better segregation, improvements to junctions and the rest. I’ve been banging on about them myself for years. I love the verve the paper has brought to the issue. But its fondness for gruesome tales of death, injury or near-mishap is mistaken.

It’s still not clear whether The Times’ coverage will bring about many, if any, of the improvements it seeks. What it certainly will do, however, is make several hundred thousand Times readers think twice before they get on a bicycle. And if fewer people cycle, or take up cycling, the casualty rates will suffer.

Five years ago my old paper, the Standard, did a “safer cycling” campaign of its own. I didn’t choose the slogan – I wanted “easier cycling” – but I did a lot of the pieces. In them I actually tried to avoid writing too much about safety, frightening potential cyclists off, or dwelling on what are still very rare tragedies.

In the end, though, we stopped the campaign – partly because I was worried that we were indeed doing more harm than good, and partly also because we got absolutely zero support for our efforts from the cycling establishment and the Ken Livingstone City Hall.

In those days, the main lobby groups, the CTC and the London Cycling Campaign, were firmly against one of our and The Times’ key aims, a network of Dutch-style segregated cycle routes. Good to see they’re finally catching up! Ken’s Transport for London was ideologically in favour of communal, rather than individual, forms of transport. Apart from the congestion charge, in which greater cycling was an incidental, Ken did little for bikes – which is why it makes me smile to see him hitching a ride on the crossbar now.

Responding to my last post on this subject, one cycling blogger claimed that the 27,000 cyclists killed or seriously injured in Britain over the last ten years (1,270 of whom were killed) did, indeed, constitute “carnage.” If 1,270 violent deaths occur in, say, a day, perhaps even a week or a month, in a single place, it’s carnage. If they occur over the course of an entire decade across an entire country of 60 million people it’s, well, not. I see real carnage sometimes in my day job, and I promise you can tell the difference.

Another blogger accused me of “missing the point” when I said that some people were using the issue of cyclist safety to attack Boris Johnson. That wasn’t my point, as it happens – it was one line at the end of the piece – but I couldn’t help noticing that that same cycling blogger’s previous three posts had consisted of… er… attacks on Boris Johnson. The pre-election period has also seen a new pop-up lobby group called “Londoners on Bikes” which, alas, blew its cover a little too early, issuing its first recommendation to vote for Ken before he’d actually unveiled any cycling policies!

Of course, most of the people writing about cyclist safety, The Times included, aren’t doing it for party political reasons. But I’d make this broader point to anyone hoping that the bike will play a key part in the mayoral election: don’t overestimate cycling’s political salience. Cycling may get a lot of media attention, but that’s because so many media folk cycle. Bikes are the transport of a small, disproportionately wealthy and privileged minority.

When I planned our cycling campaign at the Standard, I tried to put myself in the head of a non-cyclist or politician, most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange road junctions for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus. (I’m not saying I agree with this view, by the way; I just tried to put myself in their position.) That was why I tried to stress what better cycle facilities could do for London as a whole – reducing crowding on the Tube, for example – rather than just for cyclists, who are not the world’s most popular people.

If we are to get the improvements we need, we need to avoid coming across as shrill or entitled. Not all cycle safety campaigners manage this, frankly. And if cycling is to become a genuinely mass means of travel, as it is in Germany or the Netherlands, with the mass political clout that entails, we mustn’t needlessly scare off the parents and the grannies and all those people you see cycling over there, but never over here.

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