Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?

“Isn’t it dangerous?” This is the ultimate question regarding cycling in London. Almost everyone asks me this when I tell them that I get around here almost exclusively by bike. I know a significant number of people who do not cycle in London because they consider it utterly unsafe.

My standard  reply to questions on cycling safety is: “Of course it’s dangerous. As life is in general.” I then explain that if you respect certain rules (“Never ever get on the left side of  lorry” being the most important one), safety is not an issue.

Afterwards I usually rave for five minutes about the benefits of cycling. I never forget to mention that, according to studies frequently cited by the CTC, the health benefits of cycling massively outweigh the risks.

Deep inside, however, I always feel a little bit queasy because I ask myself if I’m talking  somebody into cycling who might  end up under a car….

Hence I wanted to get a deeper understanding of cycling safety in London. This is why I’ve started to collect data on severe and fatal cycling accidents in London since 2006. The results are this spreadsheet on Google Docs and this map. Currently they list 59 fatal cycling accidents that have happened in Greater London since  2006.

Collecting this information was heartbreaking and a very emotional thing. I got sad, angry and frustrated by the carelessness and ruthlessness of some drivers; the errors and callousness of city planners  and the verdicts of coroners who were at least sometimes showing an astonishing degree of leniency.

For example, a lorry driver who killed Eilidh Jake Cairns in 2009 admitted in court that  his eyesight was not good enough for him to be driving. He  was fined £200.

Several deaths occurred at junctions which had been criticised by cycling activists beforehand. For instance, in 2007 Rosie Wright was killed by a lorry on Pentonville Road at the junction of Penton Rise. In the inquest,  TfL conceded that there had been a number of “slight collisions” at the junction before. However, changing the layout of the road was not deemed a high priority. According the “Islington Tribune”,  TfL confessed that changes were not made due to budget constraints. Two years after Rosie’s death,  a 14 year old girl on a bicycle was hit by a TfL bus at the same junction. (Miraculously, she suffered only minor head injuries.) After that incident TfL supposedly changed the design of that junction again.

I was hesitating to publish  this information. On the one hand, this kind of transparency puts pressure on politicians to improve cycling safety. They also might help cyclists to avoid accident hot spots. ( I’ve personally learned a number of lessons. I’m going to write about them later on.)

On the other hand, this kind of information easily available in one place might fuel the notion that cycling is too dangerous. I don’t want to do the same kind of fear mongering that I’ve just recently criticised.

Hence, I’m trying to put those figures into context.

Absolute number of deaths is very low.

In absolute terms, the number of cyclists who die on London streets is very low.  According to TfL figures, in 2009 there were 13 fatal accidents in Greater London. Many more pedestrians (88 in 2009), car passengers (41) and motor cyclists (39) died on London’s streets.

Cycling in London has increased significantly in the last few years. The number of  riders killed per year, however, did not increase. Between 1986 and  2009, around  17.5  cyclists were killed on London roads each year.  The most fatalities occurred 1989 (33), the fewest in 2004 (8).

In recent years, the absolute number of fatal crashes decreased slightly. Between 2000 to 2009 around 16.5 riders were killed every year.  Between 1986 to 1999, however, the  average was 18.3.

There is more good news in the data. In the new millennium, the yearly average of seriously injured riders  dropped by 31% (1986-1999: 585  per year, 2000-2009: 401).

Relative numbers

In a sense, the absolute numbers of deaths and serious injuries are misleading. You have to put them into perspective with regard to the number of cycles on the road. The absolute number of bike journeys has roughly doubled since the 1990s. 15 years ago, 300,000 daily journeys were made by bicycle. Nowadays we have around 500,000 journeys.

There is an interesting academic paper by Andrei Morgan et al. (“Deaths of Cyclists in London: trends from 1992 to 2006″) which has been published in BMC Public Health, an academic peer-reviewed journal. Morgan et al.  analyse this relationship thoroughly. One basic conclusion of this paper is:

Despite evidence for increases in the amount of cycling in London over the last 15 years, the number of cyclists who have been killed has remained constant.

They estimate a “death rate  per 100,000 cyclists per kilometre per year”. This number came down significantly in recent years: In 2006 it was 11.1, while the average between 1992 and 1999 was 15.5. Morgan et. al. estimate that this figure declined by 2.7% per year.

However, since the absolute numbers of dead cyclists  are very small (fortunately!) they tend to  fluctuate quite massively from year to year. This makes it difficult to detect any reliable pattern. Morgan et al. put it this way:

… the number of cyclists killed in London remains small, meaning that even if trends were present, they may not have been detected. Our estimates of fatality rates are likely to be over-estimates.

The bad news is that cyclists are more likely to be the victim of a severe crash than most other road users. 1.8% of all daily journeys in London  are being made by bike. However, 7% of all people killed in traffic accidents are cyclists. (The same is true for walking, by the way: 20% of all trips are made by foot but  48% of all killed people are pedestrians.)

Ban the lorries

For cyclists, by far the biggest danger is  lorries. As Morgan et al. conclude:

The biggest threat remains freight vehicles, involved in more than 4 out of 10 incidents, with over half turning left at the time of the crash.

This is even more striking given the fact that freight vehicles account for only 4% of traffic flows.

I’ll write more about lorries and cycles in the next weeks. For the time being I just want to quote the conclusions by Morgan et al. who are getting it absolutely right, from my point of view:

… freight vehicles are not designed for urban environments such as London, instead being intended for transporting goods on large, suburban roads and motorways with free-flowing traffic and few vulnerable road users. (…) To prevent cyclists being killed by HGVs, large freight vehicles (> 3.5 tonnes maximum laden weight) should be removed from urban roads and more appropriate means of delivery of essential goods found. (bold font added)

So, finally, how dangerous is it? My own personal answer to this question – and the way I’m riding my bike in London – has slightly changed. In what respect? I’ll explain this soon in another blog post.

Some technical notes about the map and the spreadsheet

Unfortunately the data on severe cycling accidents in London I was able to collect is incomplete: According to official statistics between 2006 and 2009 62 cyclists died in London. On the internet I was able to find information about 44 of those crashes (maybe only 42 or 43, because 2 fatalities happened outside the M25 and I don’t know if they are included in the TfL statistics).

The “Evening Standard” was a major source, as well as local papers like the “Islington Gazette” and the “Hackney Gazette”. Additionally, “Moving Target”“Ghost Bikes” and the LCC website were very helpful. I not only tried to collect information about the actual accidents but also – when available – on the inquests. I will try to get in touch with TfL and LCC regarding the missing cases. If you have additional information, please let me know.

The whole project was also inspired by this map by Brian Jones showing collisions in Hackney and Tower Hamlets in 2010-11. (I copied his idea to use icons which indicate what kind of vehicle was involved. I just noticed that Brian changed the title  to “London collisions”. His map, however, shows also minor crashes and those including pedestrians. I was interested in severe accidents involving cyclists because I think you soon would get an information overflow if you included the other things as well) After I had nearly finished  I realised that there is another map showing collisions  with large vehicles. Unfortunately that map seems not to be up to date anymore and the information is quite patchy.

If you want to link to the map, the short link is http://bit.ly/cycle-crash-map-london

The spreadsheet on Google Docs has the following short link: http://bit.ly/cycling-london

I’ve also created a bundle on Bit.ly which collects links to interesting  statistics and studies regarding cycling safety in London and in general. It’s available here.

My intention is to keep the data current. Please help me all that I don’t have any work at all!

Comments, suggestions and additional information are highly appreciated.

Note: Many thanks to Helen Hancox whose help regarding proofreading the spreadsheet and a lot of my blog posts. I highly appreciate your help, Helen (I particularly love your relentless effort to nudge me towards British English…)! After reading the spreadsheet she told me: “My sense of justice irritated that drivers get away with it if the cyclist is in the blind spot. What about designing  cars without blind spots?”

Update (I): Thanky to AlexB from yacf.co.uk I was able to add details of another 2008 crash to the database.

11 thoughts on “Cycling in London – How dangerous is it?

  1. Pingback: The Economics of Bike Lanes – How can John Cassidy get it so wrong? | Economics Intelligence

  2. Aslak

    Thank you for this post. Even though it is vary sad, it is very informative and interesting to make the information available in this manner.

    The Norwegian Daily Aftenposten today brought an overview/ map of traffic accidents in Norway from 2000 to 2010. It can easily be filtered for bicycling (“Sykkel”).

    http://www.aftenposten.no/spesial/trafikkulykker/

    A.

  3. You get it right about not overtaking a lorry on the left. But you might give more emphasis to the ability of cyclists to look out for their own safety. Cyclists often naively place themselves in situations where motorists can not see them, or can not see them until too late to avoid a collision. Many special bicycle facilities encourage or force this behaviour. The issue is more acute with large lorries because of their size and the large blind areas around them, but avoiding the hazards is a question of being aware of the characteristics of different vehicles, and acting accordingly.

    May I recommend my online tutorial, in its left-hand-drive version:

    http://bikexprt.com/streetsmarts/lhd/index.htm

    and also John Franklin’s Book Cyclecraft:

    http://www.cyclecraft.co.uk/book.html

    As to banning large lorries in cities? Certainly, they can be restricted to specific routes, except when it it is necessary to pick up or leave off goods. A city-wide ban is unlikely because of the cost of transfer of goods to smaller lorries, and that some loads can only be carried on larger lorries. Buses, also, pose the same issues with size and blind areas, and there’s no way they are about to be banned in cities!

    1. John, many thanks for your comment. I (mostly) agree with regards to the behavior of cyclists. Road positioning is an important aspect. Another one is the routes you choose. I try to avoid busy roads as much as possible and use small streets instead. I plan to write some posts about these issues, soon. (It’s an intricate topic, however, because there is the risk of blaming the victims…)
      With regard to lorries: I wand to do some research how this issue is dealt with in Germany. My gut feeling is that here in Central London much more heavy trucks are on the road than in any German town I know. Interestingly, busses apparantly are not as dangerous for cyclists as lorries. In recent years, only 3 cyclists were killed by public busses in London, while dozens were killed by lorries. Partly this may be due to the fact that bus drivers get much better cyclist awareness training than lorry drivers. LCC’s print magazine “London Cyclist” has recently published an impressive story about that.

  4. I started to cycle in London this spring and I was actually surprised how considerate most drivers are. They give me enough space, they let me pass, they are not aggressive, although I have to admit to breaking the rules of the road quite a bit when I am on a bike.
    I have the feeling that drivers are more afraid of killing a cyclist (or maybe of their cars getting scratched) than I am of being run over by a car.

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