Thursday, 8 October 2009

Fear of cycling: why Dave Horton is wrong

(Above) Subjectively dangerous. But also objectively dangerous. The cycle lane on the A503, on a bend, and on a section of road with a high level of recorded injuries and fatalities, and where many drivers break the 30 mph speed limit.

Sociologist and cyclist Dave Horton has written five articles about cycling for the Copenhagenize blog. They are well worth reading, and you can see them here, here, here, here and here.

I think he’s fundamentally wrong in his argument and in his conclusion. If I’ve read him right, he’s basically arguing that ‘fear of cycling’ is what puts people off cycling, that these fears are socially constructed and largely bogus, and ‘cycling is objectively safer than horse-riding, or white-water rafting, or golf, or gardening… Besides, not cycling is much more dangerous for your health than cycling.’ We must therefore

stop communicating, however inadvertently, the dangers of cycling, and instead provide people with very many, very diverse, positive and affirming representations of both cycling practice and cycling identities.

One basic problem is that whether or not cycling is objectively safe is irrelevant if people subjectively perceive it as dangerous. Those perceptions cannot be changed by arguments drawn from statistics or from comparisons with other activities. As David Hembrow argues, they can only be changed by the provision of a coherent, joined-up, attractive cycling infrastructure – the one course Britain refuses to take. In place of an organic infrastructure we get, at best, piecemeal provision. There is no vision on the Dutch model, and not the slightest sign of the political will to implement such an infrastructure.

Persuading people to take up cycling because it is a safe activity and a very positive one is a strategy doomed to failure not simply because the cycling infrastructure is mediocre but because cycling is an activity where the negative presence of cars and drivers is overwhelming. Cycling campaigners rarely take a holistic approach: such matters as on-street parking and enforcement are regarded as outside the remit, even though the liberation of road space for cycling is just one aspect of improving the experience. Thus when the Greater London Assembly did a consultation on parking enforcement in London, every transport lobby group responded except for two. Neither the London Cycling Campaign nor Living Streets could be bothered to make the effort. The voice of cycling and walking went unheard in the London Assembly, because of the silence of the two organisations which purportedly best represent it.

Cycling ought to be a healthy and positive experience. In practice, it isn’t – at least, not for me. The very real pleasures of cycling are cancelled by the need to be constantly on the alert for danger, the monopoly of road space by vehicles, and the regular manifestations of poor or dangerous driving which impinge on my space and safety as a vulnerable road user. Reinforce this with a mediocre cycling infrastructure – badly designed and maintained cycle lanes, Advanced Stop Lines which are either non-existent or occupied by motor vehicles, cycle parking which is non-existent, inadequate or obstructed, and the neglected poorly-maintained state of such scrappy cycling infrastructure as there is – and you have major barriers to mass participation in cycling. You can be an optimist (as I think Rob Ainsley is) and argue that each little improvement will get us there in the end. I don’t myself believe that it will. I think the undoubted rise in cycling in London will level off (just as it did in York) and, at best, cycling will remain a fringe transport mode for most Londoners. And in a city where most drivers don’t cycle, cyclists are never going to be treated with consideration.

I think Dave Horton fudges the central issue of road danger. He says

Fear of cycling is sensible. But advocates of cycling are also sensible in trying to persuade people otherwise.

He appears to be suggesting that fear of cycling is exaggerated. He then examines how

cycling becomes constructed as dangerous and to be feared

Fear of cycling belongs to a fearful culture (Glassner 2000; Massumi 1993). UK sociologist Frank Furedi (2002) argues that western societies have become dominated by a ‘culture of fear’. We have never been so safe, yet never have we been so fearful. ‘“Be careful” dominates our cultural imagination’ (ibid.). We belong to ‘a culture that continually inflates the danger and risks facing people’ (ibid.). ‘Activities that were hitherto seen as healthy and fun … are now declared to be major health risks’ (ibid.). What is more, ‘to ignore safety advice is to transgress the new moral consensus’ (ibid.).

Now it’s true that the mass media promotes fear (but then bad news sells – if it bleeds, it leads) and that this sometimes has a political agenda (remember Iraq’s fearful weapons of mass destruction). That said, alarm bells started ringing when Horton cites Frank Furedi. Furedi has form and among many other things is a climate-change denier. If you’ve never heard of Frank Furedi I can only suggest you take a look at this. Furedi sees climate-change deniers as heroic truth-tellers who are demonized and persecuted (which suggests he doesn’t read the Daily Telegraph, which regularly features Christopher Booker’s climate change denial articles).

It is of course reasonable to be sceptical when scare stories appear in the media – CANCER RISK OF ANTI-AGEING CREAMS screams the headline in today’s Daily Express, not a newspaper any sensible person would choose as a guide to an understanding of anything. But some fears are justified. If you smoke sixty cigarettes a day you are right to fear the health consequences of that activity. When scientists tell us that human activity is changing the planet’s climate and there will be deleterious consequences, it’s reasonable to be concerned that predictions coming from many different sources and based on hard science will turn out to be true. And it’s entirely understandable that people’s experience of British roads makes them afraid of cycling.

The problem with Horton’s articles, it seems to me, is that he evades the central issue of road danger. Surely the central question is: how real is it? He argues that

people’s fears of these (im)probabilities of injury and death are culturally constructed.

Well they may be, in the ways he describes. But they can equally be founded on experience. Horton’s concept of danger is fatally flawed because he implicitly bases it on road casualty figures. Horton devotes much of his argument to the road safety industry (none of his criticisms of which I would disagree with). The problem I have with the industry is that it transfers the responsibility for road danger from the perpetrators to the victims. Horton accepts that but he overlooks the central argument of the road danger reduction school that casualty figures, apart from their unreliability concerning recorded injuries, are a poor index of danger.

He approvingly cites this source:

cycling tends to be safest where there are many cyclists (Jacobsen 2003)

That’s not true. Cyclists are safest where the cycling environment is safe. Since Britain does not provide a safe cycling environment for cyclists

Increasing their numbers will lead to the UK's overall casualty rate worsening.

This is what already appears to be happening in the USA. More people cycling in a very unsafe environment results not in safer cycling but in more cyclists run down. Similarly, the undoubted rise in the number of people cycling in London is likely to result both in more near-misses (think of Boris Johnson and the lorry driver) and in a rise in recorded casualties. We’ll find out in 2010.

The rotten foundations of Dave Horton’s thesis are most glaring here, I think:

Meanwhile, riding on the road becomes an ever more fearful prospect for ever more people. Without any necessary objective change in the conditions prevailing on the roads, the provision of off-road routes increases people's fear of on-road cycling.

No objective change in the conditions prevailing on the roads? That seems to me quite wrong. Car dependency and traffic volume continues to increase (there may be a slight dip with the recession but the basic trend in London is more and more motor traffic on the roads). Apart from the basic problem of traffic volume and the way in which it is accommodated (vehicle flow is prioritised over walking and cycling flow, and on-street parking gobbles up space which might otherwise be reserved for cycling), I think cycling is getting more dangerous. But then I base my concept of danger not simply on road casualty statistics but on exposure to risk.

As road danger reduction activists point out, if you want to get a true picture of the danger on Britain’s roads, look not simply at casualty statistics but also at insurance claims for non-injury crashes, which run into the millions. Motorists crash into each other on a phenomenal scale but unless someone is injured or killed, these crashes are not recorded by the state. Add to that the number of crashes which simply never get recorded in any way. As I’ve pointed out on this blog, my local streets are full of evidence of collisions. Drivers crash into inanimate objects with great regularity and if they don’t put in an insurance claim, that crash goes unrecorded. And as far as I’m concerned, every single crash is an index of bad, dangerous driving on somebody’s part.

(Above) Tangible evidence of road danger is everywhere.

Let me identify some of those objective changes in the conditions prevailing which have increased a cyclist’s exposure to risk in Greater London:

(1) A reduction road traffic policing by the Metropolitan Police. In 1980 the Metropolitan Police had 1063 Traffic Officers; the current establishment (2007) is 690 officers.

(2) The number of hit and run collisions in London rose from 3,055 (7.9% of total collisions) in 1994 to 4,379 (15.2% of total collisions) in 2004.

(3) An estimated 1 in 8 drivers on London’s roads are uninsured. (We know that Uninsured drivers have more accidents.)

(4) The proportion of drivers using mobile phones (either hand-held or hands-free) increased in London in 2008.

(5) Side junctions with mandatory STOP signs have been extensively replaced by GIVE WAY signs.

(6) Seatbelts, rigid steel safety cages and air bags – a standard feature of most new cars - promote reckless risk-taking because drivers are now personally protected from its consequences. Drivers can now walk away uninjured from crashes which would once have killed them. The consequent reduction in driver fatalities permits the interpretation that this means our roads are getting safer, when they are actually getting more dangerous.

(7) Cars continue to be built with more and more powerful engines. The ordinary person in the average car now has access to engine power formerly only available to motor racing drivers. There are no political constraints on the manufacture and sale of increasingly fast and powerful motor vehicles explicitly designed to break the 70 mph speed limit by 100 per cent or more.

(8) The installation of railings at major road junctions, designed to pen pedestrians and force them to cross the road at designated crossing points, serves to trap cyclists, with no means of escape if a vehicle impinges on their space, and, if hit, causes them to bounce back under the wheels of vehicles.

That’s just eight objective changes making cycling more dangerous, which are valid for the whole of Greater London. There are numerous other ways in which cycling is getting worse locally. One-way streets are proliferating as highway engineers seek to manage traffic flow on streets choked with on-street parking. The inconvenience caused to cycling routes is disregarded, as are the increased risks to cyclists (impatient drivers hate to get stuck behind a cyclist on a one-way street, blow their horns, and aggressively and dangerously attempt to force their way past).

In Waltham Forest, the provision of rubber speed cushions in the centre of the carriageway has both dismally failed to curb drivers’ speeds and encouraged them to approach oncoming cyclists head-on as they seek to get their wheels round the cushion. The Council has no intention whatsoever of removing these cycling-hostile devices.

The Council continues to exempt pavements from the footway parking ban in order to accommodate parking demand, including parking demand from those who choose to acquire large 4X4s. Putting vehicles on pavements results in an increase in vehicle speeds.

On the A503, a road which suffers from lawless speeding, a high crash rate and significant numbers of fatalities and serious injuries, the Council decided that the provision of parking bays was more important than the safety of cyclists. The cycle lane was moved out into the middle of the road (my first and last photos). Because the new parking bays are by a cafe, they attract lorry drivers, whose vehicles are too large for the marked bays.

Horton concludes:

Both the conditions for cycling practice and representations of the cyclist can change and be changed, and thereby produce different effects

But the only condition he mentions is this:

Cycle lanes have been introduced across the length and breadth of Britain. Many cycle lanes are ‘on-road’; the use of white lines and coloured paint is intended to mark a boundary between space for motorised traffic and space for cyclists.

Although often criticised and sometimes ridiculed, at its best this infrastructure aims to make cycling journeys more attractive; quicker, easier, safer, more pleasant.

This is a very inadequate account of something as contentious as cycle lanes, yet Horton has nothing else to suggest. Even when my council tries something on the Dutch model, the results are dismal.

Horton concludes by clutching at straws:

UK Government transport policy (most notably Transport for London) is recognising cycling as ‘a good thing’, and making it clear that people should give cycling a go.

This is delusional stuff. Yes, Transport for London (TfL) has plastered London with posters showing cool, attractive young people on bicycles (you see these posters at bus shelters and on the tube but of course not by garages or car showrooms). But when London cycling groups put forward practical, concrete proposals for improving the cycling infrastructure, TfL blocks them. There’s a big difference between Green rhetoric and reality (as I relentlessly illustrate at a parochial level on this blog). Recent examples of TfL obstruction: the King’s Cross gyratory and the Stoke Newington gyratory. More scepticism about TfL’s commitment to safe cycling here.

Advertising telling people that cycling is a fun, cool thing to do isn’t going to lead anywhere if people who sample the product then find it contains broken glass, a dead rat and is as squalid and unpleasant as this. Where facilities do exist for cyclists they are either unlawfully routinely abused or simply handed over for car parking.

David Hembrow has sardonically observed that

London has made a lot of bold claims, but when you look at the details on the TFL website you find that their idea of a "cycling superhighway" is a strip of blue tarmac on the road as shown to the left. They're not exactly aiming high. Even the artist's impression shows a bus in the cycle lane. This ought to be the "before" photo of a set of "before" and "after" photos, not what is being aimed at. It's really not remotely enough to attract mass cycling.

David Hembrow has also cleverly spotted something that I don’t think anyone else has.

I noticed something else very odd about the fake photo from London. The cyclist is scaled down relative to everything else and is no taller than the gray car which is about the same distance away. This gives the impression that the cycle lane is wider than it is.

In other words, it’s all about spin and image, not substance. And in their desperation to get more people cycling, cycling campaigners are just as guilty of that as policy makers, and by colluding in it they help to perpetuate the marginalisation of cycling.

Dave Horton asserts

we can in varied ways promote a pro-cycling culture. At the level of representation, our task is to generate and continuously reaffirm positive representations of cycling as an ordinary and enjoyable practice.

This is the same strategy pursued by the London Cycling Campaign. It combines ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ with ‘If ye cannot bring good news, then don’t bring any’. Yet there is simply no point in pushing the message that cycling is ‘an ordinary and enjoyable practice’ when it blatantly isn’t.

Let me sum up. London’s cycling infrastructure is mediocre, incoherent, poorly maintained, frequently obstructed and unpleasant. But worst of all, cyclists have to share the roads with large numbers of aggressive, risk-taking drivers who are contemptuous of the safety of cyclists, contemptuous of facilities which are provided for them, and, at worst, abusive and dangerously aggressive. Far from cycling being good for my health, I find it exposes me to risk and is increasingly stressful. My disenchantment is increasing by the day. Too many bad experiences, too frequently. More and more, I’d rather walk, use public transport or drive a car in order to evade and protect myself from the primary source of my stress: risk-taking drivers.

And it is this growing exposure to risk, combined with the malign aggression of some drivers, which I’m afraid will one day put an end to my cycling. That’s right, Dave. Fear. But fear based on experience, not social constructions.