Sunday 29 November 2009

Safety and cycling

(Above) Unsegregated infrastructure doesn't work: the cycle lane on Leyton Green Road, E10.

The Copenhagenize website:

The European Cyclists' Federation - one of's heroes - published their position paper in response to the European Union's Road Safety Action Programme 2011-2020 today.

"We want to underline the fact that unsafe traffic conditions and the individual perception that it is not safe to travel do limit people in their mobility or in their choice of transport mode. This is in particular true for "unprotected" (pedestrians, cyclists) and vulnerable road users (children, elderly).These fears need to be tackled. There is good evidence to support the idea that cycling gets safer the more people do it. This is called the “Safety in Numbers” principle."

Those last two sentences are garbage, poppycock, piffle and balderdash. Let me quote in full the relevant bit:

There is good evidence to support the idea that cycling gets safer the more people do it. This is called the “Safety in Numbers” principle. Countries with high levels of cycle use like the Netherlands or Denmark are less risky for cyclists than countries with low cycle use, such as Portugal or Spain.

That’s a completely fatuous comparison. Dutch and Danish cyclists are safer and cycle more because they enjoy better cycling infrastructure and more segregation from motor traffic (and the Dutch infrastructure is far superior to the Danish, incidentally, with a corresponding superiority of modal share). Where there is safe, segregated, convenient cycling infrastructure many people choose to cycle. Where there isn’t, and where they feel that cycling is a dangerous and unpleasant activity, they won’t and don’t. Easy-peasy.

The European Cyclists' Federation:

Also comparative statistics within certain EU member states support this concept. Therefore we need positive campaigns promoting the use of the bicycle, such as “Kopf an, Motor aus” (“Turn on your brain, turn off your engine”) financed by the German Federal Ministry of Transport.

This is the same strategy pursued by the London Cycling Campaign. Let’s all be positive about cycling and everyone will cycle! Let’s pay celebrities to promote cycling! Hey, everybody, cycling is cool!

Take a look at this video of Koy Thompson standing by the Wellington Arch on a lovely sunny day, with cyclists flitting by all the time. Koy’s strategy appears to be that we must encourage more people to cycle, and this will create its own unstoppable momentum. He foresees the time when “cycling will accelerate to levels that will create a Copenhagen effect in London”

Firstly, I don’t believe there will ever be a significant switch to mass cycling in London without supplying the kind of safe infrastructure which at present is signally lacking, and which is not even on the horizon (unless you are suckered by the hyperbolic 'Cycle Super Highways'). Who really wants to cycle on streets like Cann Hall Road E11 or on cycle lanes like this one on Forest Road E17 or in conditions like this? What’s more, out here in Waltham Forest cycling is about to get worse not better.

Secondly, what’s so great about Copenhagen? If Copenhagen was in the Netherlands it would actually receive additional funds due to its low cycling rate (there, that shocked you, didn’t it?). Vulnerable groups – the elderly and unaccompanied children - don't seem to cycle much in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is not quite the cycling paradise that it is marketed as:

A 2006 DanishTransport Research Institute poll found that 47 percent of cyclists feel unsafe riding on Copenhagen streets. A decade prior, 40 percent expressed such concerns. 'More parents don't want their children to ride,' Lindholm acknowledged.

As far as I’m aware, Copenhagen last published "all trips" figures in 2002 (why is that I wonder?) when 33% of commutes were by bike and 19% of journeys overall by bike. For the last few years only the more spectacular sounding commuting figure has been published, which has grown to 37%.

The problem with Copenhagen is that it doesn’t have a comprehensive cycling infrastructure. A city of 1.8 million people has just 25 km of properly segregated cycle path. That might seem like paradise compared to a backward, cycling-hostile city like London, but is risible compared to, say, Groningen in the Netherlands, where modal share is 59 per cent cycling and 36.8 per cent car. Copenhagen is being marketed as an example of best practice in the world, which it is not. So why is Koy Thompson talking about “a Copenhagen effect” and not “a Groningen effect”?

Even Copenhagen’s infrastructure, such as it is, was accomplished by removing parked cars from city streets – something which is anathema to London’s transport planners. Restraining the parking of vehicles on streets is an important first step in civilising streets and in making them more attractive for cycling on, yet when the Greater London Assembly ran a consulation exercise on parking controls, just two road user groups couldn’t be bothered to express an opinion:

Other road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists groups were written to for their views on parking enforcement. No evidence was received from the first two groups, however three submissions were received from the motorcyclist (powered two wheeler – PTW) lobby.

Because they don’t take a holistic approach to cycling and walking, neither the London Cycling Campaign nor Living Streets could be bothered to express an opinion (four hundred Londoners wrote in as individuals, including me).

I believe you will only ever attract a small number of people to cycling by marketing strategies alone. And if you attract them to cycling for them only to discover that cycling is a rubbish experience (unsafe, stressful, full of delays, lacking direct routes, with no cycle parking and a high risk of bike theft) then you will simply lose them again. I’ve witnessed this happen to novice cyclists I've known in London. Yes, there is massive potential to make London into a mass cycling city but that potential is being strangled both by politicians from the three main parties and by transport planners, who still prefer to put the motorist first. Pretending that that's not the reality doesn't help cycling one little bit.

Back to that European Cyclists' Federation position paper:

Research suggests that a doubling of cycling would lead to a reduction in the risks of cycling by around a third, i.e. the increase in cycle use is far higher than the increase in cyclists’ casualties. UK: London has seen a 91% increase in cycling since 2000 and a 33% fall in cycle casualties since 1994-98. This means that cycling in the city is 2.9 times safer than it was previously.

This blatantly derives (even the wording is identical) from Britain's Cyclists Touring Club. As I never tire of pointing out, it’s quite untrue that “London has seen a 91% increase in cycling since 2000”. That figure refers to measured cycling on just 40 main roads in London, nothing more. It has nothing to do with modal share, which is the only statistic that really matters.

I also think as an index of danger it’s untrue. What is left out of the equation is exposure to risk, which I believe is enormous and growing. Far from being “2.9 times safer than it was previously” London is in reality becoming a more and more dangerous city to cycle in. It is objectively more dangerous, because its streets are full of large numbers of drivers steering with one hand while distracted by conversations on handheld mobile phones. That was not the situation in 1994-1998.

Cycling in London is becoming objectively more dangerous in other ways. Two recent examples: firstly, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap the Met Police’s lorry safety unit… The unit reportedly costs under £1 million per year to operate, funded by the Metropolitan Police Service and Transport for London. and secondly Cuts to the unit responsible for dealing with speeding and red light jumping

Koy Thompson’s enthusiasm for ‘a cycling mayor’ seems naïve in the light of Boris Johnson’s transport policies, which favour car ownership and use, ownership of Chelsea tractors (that's SUVs, if you are North American), and the worst kind of lawless driving.

The European Cyclists' Federation breezily says

We can promote cycling without worrying that this will lead to more casualties. It is clear that ‘more’ and ‘safer’ cycling are perfectly compatible. The challenge is not to worry that more cyclists mean more casualties, but to tackle the fears that deter people from cycling in the first place.

But this is tautological. Every survey reiterates the basic reality that people are afraid to cycle because they perceive roads to be very dangerous places for cycling on. Telling them that their perceptions are false and that statistically and scientifically London’s roads are almost three times safer than they used to be, does not strike me as being a marketing strategy that is going to work. More cyclists on dangerous roads is likely to result in more fatalities and injuries, which further works to suppress cycling:

My own daughter sometimes cycles to the Embankment to work, but has decided to lock up her bike now until the lighter days and evenings next year thank goodness.

The European Cyclists' Federation says

Authorities at all levels need to take responsible action. This includes traffic management, safe cycling infrastructure, traffic code enforcement (speed limits!), education and awareness raising campaigns and technical solutions and standards.

Which is an odd mish-mash. If you provide “safe cycling infrastructure” of the Dutch kind you don’t by and large need to worry about the other stuff in so far as it won’t affect cycling. Those other aspects only matter if cyclists have to share roads with motor vehicles – the integrationist approach.

Needless to say The European Cyclists' Federation is anxious to position itself as a moderate and responsible organisation, hence claptrap like this:

Cyclists as well as motorised road users should be educated on how to behave safely in traffic.

Cyclists should be targeted with public information on respecting the traffic code (not
riding through red lights, for example), and be informed on how to avoid accidents.

Once again we see a cycling organisation totally out of touch with the reality of cycling and the reality of how cyclists actually behave. Huge numbers of London cyclists ignore pious advice to stop at red lights, simply because (i) cycling only works if it is a quick way of getting around a city (ii) it is often perfectly safe for a cyclist to ride through a red light, provided this affects no other road user, especially pedestrians – this is probably truer in outer London where there are less people walking than in the dense West End, where pedestrians rightly object to being harassed by cyclists cutting through (iii) it may well be safer to cycle through a red light than obey the law and be crushed to death by a lorry driver [we still don’t know why so many women cyclists die on London’s roads, but the theory that they are at risk because they are more cautious, law-abiding and less assertive is certainly plausible] (iv) red lights are there to control motor vehicle flow, and almost no junctions in London have dedicated cycling lights.

The problem with The European Cyclists' Federation is that it accepts the status quo as a given. If red lights are there, cyclists must obey them. If cars are built to break the speed limit, we must accept this and not express a squeak of dissent.

‘Road safety’ is a concept engineered by the road lobby to divert attention from its own lethal products. And instead of addressing such central issues as vehicles designed to break the law, the criminally negligent operation of dangerous machinery, and the indulgent treatment of criminally dangerous behaviour by European legal and judicial systems, we end up with techno-fix stuff like this:

One of the measures that would lessen serious and fatal injuries to cyclists considerably is an airbag on the windscreen.

Personally, I’d rather not be hit by a criminally negligent motorist in the first place.

(Below) A scene you are unlikely to see in London. Two small unaccompanied children cycle side by side in a safe cycling environment. Amsterdam. Photo credit: Amsterdamize.