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.


Ken Livingstone's problem is his judgment, not his supposed 'homophobia'

Ken and a close male friend

Occasionally Ken’s chief media groupie, the Guardian’s Dave Hill, writes something which makes up for having to read his blog. Today was one of those days. In urgent need of an excuse to spin why his hero had described the Tory party as “riddled with” people “indulging in” homosexuality, called Margaret Thatcher “clinically insane” and warned gay bankers that they would “get their penises chopped off” if they moved to Dubai, Dave pleaded that Ken was merely indulging in “absurdist satire.” Pure PR gold! If anyone’s being satirical here, Dave, I hope it’s you…

When I read Ken’s interview, I ignored his remarks about gay people and wrote about something else he said because I hate Lee Jasper-style professional offence-takers. It was also depressing to see Labour try to counter Ken’s gaffe with an outraged sectional interest of its own, Boris’s unconscionable slurs against those paragons, Sinn Fein.  We must resist this New York-like attempt to carve us all up into little interest-group ghettoes.

Ken is not a homophobe – though it also feels rather out of date to describe him as an active supporter of gay rights. The slightly more nuanced truth is that gay rights was one of several causes he has adopted, then relegated from favour as progressive fashion changed. Other interests, with rather more votes at their disposal and strong views on “sexual deviance” claim priority these days.

Ken, like the rest of us, has the right to be offensive. The real question – as with all his previous outbursts – is whether it is sensible for someone in his position to exercise that right. Was it sensible to call Boris Johnson’s chief of staff a mass murderer, to advocate hanging the Chancellor, wish that Tory councillors would “burn in hell,” compare Boris himself to Hitler? These remarks may not tell us much about what he really believes, but the fact that he chooses to keep making them every few weeks tells us a great deal about his judgment.

For a long time, Ken has presented himself as the serious, competent alternative to Boris, who he described on his eve-of-poll leaflet in 2008 as a “joke.” Yet it is in fact Boris who has shown far greater discipline – not just in what he says, but also in policy. Ken’s rhetorical incontinence has been matched by his apparent willingness to promise anyone that they can have whatever goodies they want, without much of an idea of how it will be paid for. It can’t be long before this starts to fall apart. Is it, perhaps, he who is the real joke?

Ken Livingstone: I have never told a lie

Quote of the year from Ken comes in tomorrow’s New Statesman, when the Greatest Living Londoner avers:  “I think I have gone through my entire public career never telling a lie. I have made mistakes but I never knowingly lied.” As one editor I worked for used to say, faced with a particularly preposterous statement by a public figure: “This one I frame.”

I know Ken’s a keen reader of this blog – he even mentions it in his memoirs – so I’m sure he’ll have noticed my recent “truth audit” which found that he or his official campaign materials, for which he is responsible, told at least 12 direct lies in the month of January alone. Six of those lies came from Ken’s own lips.

In a single BBC appearance during the last election, Ken said 36 things that were untrue in the course of a 35-minute interview.

You might also care to read this piece I did in 2008 summarising some of his most egregious departures from the straight and narrow (including a claim that London kids were safer under him than they had been since the 1950s, and a fierce, but alas totally false, denial that he had a secret son.)

That doesn’t include countless other examples of personal dodginess which don’t amount to lying – such as repeatedly breaking promises, or condemning Boris Johnson for saying the same things as you’ve said yourself in the past.

As a newspaper reporter I am of course accountable to the PCC and the law of libel. Calling someone a liar when they are not is plainly defamatory – but Ken has never complained to the PCC or taken libel action against me. It is in fact Ken who has at least once been forced to pay libel damages and apologise for lying about someone else.

Cyclist deaths and casualties in London – the facts

There’s been growing heat in recent months about London’s alleged cyclist “carnage” and calls for radical action by the authorities. It’s certainly hard to think of any policy area where official interventions have been so inept.

The vast majority of British cycle lanes are either totally pointless or actively dangerous. There also appears to be a rule that new cycle stands can only be erected in places where no-one wants to use them. TfL, custodian of Britain’s biggest cycling budget, somehow managed to blow £23 million of it on just the first two “cycle superhighways.” Blue paint is only £5 a can at B&Q, guys!

As a 100-mile a week London cyclist myself, I travel every day through places where TfL should do more. But “carnage” there is not. Here are the figures for cycling in London:


Year                Deaths           Serious injuries       Bike trips*     Rate**

2002               20                    394                              300                  0.36

2003               19                    421                              320                   0.36

2004               8                      332                              330                  0.28

2005               21                    351                              390                  0.25

2006               19                    373                             420                  0.24

2007               15                    446                             420                  0.29

2008               15                    430                             440                  0.27

2009               13                    420                             470                  0.24

2010               10                    457                             490                  0.26

2011                16                    Not available yet      Not available yet

* Thousands per day. Source TfL Travel Report 2011, p63

** Serious injuries per 100,000 trips.

The source for the death and injury figures is TfL’s annual road safety reports.

Cycling in London has risen by at least 63 per cent since 2002, or by 150 per cent if you only count cycling flows on the main roads (the measure the Ken Livingstone regime used to use). In practice it will have risen by more than 63 per cent: it kept on growing strongly in 2011, but that figure hasn’t been reported yet. The number of deaths, however, is 20 per cent less than it was in 2002.

So I suppose that if  I wanted to, I could claim that cycling is about 80 per cent safer than it was ten years ago. I wouldn’t, of course. It is statistically dodgy to compare two years in isolation. And the number of deaths, on which so much attention has been focused in recent months, is simply far too small to tell us anything about anything. Changes on such a low base are unreliable indicators of trends, because they are disproportionately influenced by random variables.

So to say that the deaths “went up by 60 per cent” last year, as various bloggers and journalists keep doing, is narrowly right – but broadly misleading.

The serious injury figure, however, is big enough to take trends from. Allowing for the rising number of trips, the trend is, as you can see, clearly down. I’m sorry if that doesn’t help the people trying to diss Boris Johnson, but there it is.

Ken Livingstone v Boris Johnson: who has cost you more?

The cut of 1 per cent in the council tax which Boris Johnson announced today isn’t, to be sure, very much. Labour has enjoyed saying that it will save you £3.10 a year compared with a claimed £250 a year from Ken Livingstone’s promised “fare cut.”

But as I’ve said before, Ken’s actual actions on fares offer a better guide to the future than his promises – which he has always broken in the past. Both Ken and Boris have raised fares by almost exactly the same amounts.

And what I haven’t done, until now, is added in the effect of the council tax for a total “cost of Ken.” This makes a serious difference. Between 2004 and 2008, Ken raised his part of the council tax by 28%. Between 2008 and 2012, Boris has reduced his council tax.

Therefore, when you compare how much the mayoralty’s “annual cost to Londoners” increased under Boris and under Ken, Johnson almost always emerges the winner. Not that that’s stopped the Livingstone campaign putting a banner on its website saying “Tories make you less well off,” of course.

Four typical examples (per year):

Single person in zone 2, living in a Band-D house, travelling daily to central London by public transport.

2004: £989               2008: £1200.36       2012: £1398.04

Increase under Ken: 21.4%

Increase under Boris: 16.5%

Couple in zone 3, living in a Band-D house, both commuting to central London by public transport.

2004: £2145.33        2008: £2581.82       2012:  £3042.72

Increase under Ken: 20.3%

Increase under Boris: 17.9%

Couple in zone 5, living in a Band-D house, one commuting to central London by train, one travelling daily in the local area by bus.

2004: £2025.33          2008: £2485.82         2012: £3050.72

Increase under Ken: 22.8%

Increase under Boris: 22.8%

Couple in zone 6, living in a Band-D house, one commuting to central London by train, one a tradesman with his own van, paying the congestion charge 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, using autopay if available.

2004: £2973.33        2008: £4013.82          2012: £4602.72

Increase under Ken: 35%

Increase under Boris: 14.7%


The figures are based on the following:

Mayor’s Band-D council tax (per household)

April 2004: £241.33

April 2008: £309.82   (change under Ken +28.1% )

April 2012: £306.72   (change under Boris -1%)

Single-person households get a 25% discount.


Annual zones 1-2 travelcard (per person)

2004: £808

2008: £968  (change under Ken +19.8%)

2012: £1168  (change under Boris +20.7%) 


Annual zones 1-3 travelcard (per person)

2004: £952

2008: £1136  (change under Ken +19.3%)

2012: £1368  (change under Boris +20.4%)


Annual zones 1-5 travelcard (per person)

2004: £1404

2008: £1656  (change under Ken +17.9%)

2012: £1992  (change under Boris +20.3%)


Annual bus pass (per person)

2004:  £380

2008:  £520  (change under Ken: 36.8%)

2012:  £752   (change under Boris: 44.6%)


Annual zones 1-6 travelcard (per person)

2004:  £1532

2008: £1784   (change under Ken +16.4%)

2012:  £2136  (change under Boris +19.8%)


Daily congestion charge

2004: £5

2008: £8  (change under Ken +60%)

2012: £10, or £9 with prepay  (change under Boris +25%, or +12.5% with prepay)


Ken Livingstone: Bob Crow's party will back him in the mayoral election, but oppose Labour in the Assembly election

Bob and Ken: a friendship rekindled

Ken’s friendship with the Tube unions – last seen rejecting as “inadequate” a £500 Olympic bribe for just doing their jobs – is unlikely to be a vote-winner. Ken has received about £140,000 from the TSSA, Aslef and Unite over the years, and has refused to oppose any of their recent strikes for even more outrageous pay and benefits than they already have (currently up to £61,000, even before the Olympic bribes.)

As the Standard reported yesterday, the TSSA, which provided Ken with his offices in the early stages of his campaign, voted to give him another £10,000 this month alone (internal TSSA documents seen by the paper say it may be as much as £25,000.) The TSSA is also funding a Livingstone front group, Sack Boris, to spread lies about the mayor’s record.

One thing Ken could say, however, was that he didn’t have much of a relationship with the most militant Tube union, Bob Crow’s RMT. Despite putting Crow on the TfL board, he fell out with them while he was mayor. The RMT, which is not affiliated to the Labour Party, was notably unhelpful to Livingstone in the run-up to  the 2008 election, threatening a strike only a month before polling day. Many of its London branches backed the hardline Left List mayoral candidate, Lindsey German, instead of Ken. Now, though, it looks like Bob and Ken are making up.

The Tories have been pushing a slightly old story that Ken’s running mate and newly-anointed nominee for TfL chair, Val Shawcross, joined an RMT protest at City Hall in 2010. Much more interesting, however, is that the RMT and far left’s newly-formed political party, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, decided at the weekend not to oppose Ken at May’s election – even though it will stand candidates against Labour for the London Assembly.

Those TUSC Assembly candidates include Alex Gordon, the RMT president, and Steve Hedley, the union’s London regional organiser – one of the key figures behind the recent strikes. Mr Crow himself does not appear to be standing, but is a member of the TUSC’s national steering committee.

The TUSC is standing against Labour because the party supports some cuts and did not back the mass public sector strikes on November 30. As it says, “TUSC will support trade unions in the struggle.” Presumably one of the reasons it is not standing against Ken is for his stance on the tube strikes. Mr Crow has also offered to fund Ken’s campaign, describing him as a “good bloke,” though it doesn’t appear that this offer has been accepted.