The safety of cycling in the UK has become a hot topic recently. Even the parliament discussed the dangers for cyclists. This debate was triggered by an impressive campaign “The Times” has launched several weeks ago entitled “Cities fit for cycling”.
Should cyclists welcome this debate?
Traditionally, the cycling community is very wary about openly discussing the safety issue. A lot of cycling campaigners fear that too much focus on the (perceived) dangers of cycling do more harm than good because this might reinforce a misguided perception that cycling is a dangerous endeavour.
This could turn off potential cyclists and harm our interests. It is generally assumed that the more riders are on the road, the safer cycling gets for everyone – this effect is called “safety in numbers”. Hence Andrew Gilligan, the “Daily Telegraphs” London editor and a cyclist himself, recently raised concerns about “The Times'” campaign.
When I started to collect detailed statistics about killed and severely injured riders in London last year, I had similar qualms.
In the meantime, however, I’ve become sure that such worries are misguided. Most of the people who haven’t started to cycle yet do this because they consider it unsafe anyway. They look at the traffic and the road infrastructure of this country and just don’t have the guts get on their bike in such an environment. If you want to turn them into cyclists, you have to increase the actual and the perceived safety first.
Roger Geller, the cycling coordinator of Portland Oregon, has developed a very convincing taxonomy of cyclists that I think can be adopted to London. Roger divides the citizens into four groups: “The Strong and the Fearless”, “The Enthused and the Confident”, “The Interested but Concerned” and “No Way No How”.
“The Strong and the Fearless”
The first group consists of a few diehards : People who cycle not matter what. As Roger puts it:
“They are ‘bicyclists;’ riding is a strong part of their identity and they are generally undeterred by roadway conditions regardless of road conditions. (…) Messengers immediately came to mind. Those “type” of people— generally young, predominantly male, fit — are an important and perhaps dominant subset of those who will ride regardless of conditions.”
According to Rogers estimates, this group equals less than 1 percent of the population.
“The Enthused and the Confident”
These riders can be easily attracted by better cycling infrastructure. In Roger’s terms:
“They are comfortable sharing the roadway with automotive traffic, but they prefer to do so operating on their own facilities. (…) They appreciate bicycle lanes and bicycle boulevards.”
Roger estimates 7% of the population belong to this group.
“The Interested but Concerned”
This is the biggest group: About 60% of the residents who are curious about cycling but scared of at the moment. Hence, they use the bike only very rarely in their local area. Roger describes them like this:
“They like riding a bicycle, remembering back to their youths, or to the ride they took last summer. (…) But, they are afraid to ride. They don’t like the cars speeding down their streets.
They get nervous thinking about what would happen to them on a bicycle when a driver runs a red light, or guns their cars around them, or passes too closely and too fast. (…)
They would ride if they felt safer on the roadways—if cars were slower and less frequent, and if there were more quiet streets with few cars and paths without any cars at all.”
“No Way No How”
Well, the Jeremy Clarkson’s of this world, you know. About a third of the population who cannot fathom to use a bike: People that are “currently not interested in bicycling at all, for reasons of topography, inability, or simply a complete and utter lack of interest”
The four types of cyclist and London
My hypothesis is that in London, currently only the “strong and fearless” and a small part of the “Enthused and the Confident” cycle frequently. The large surge in cycling in the last ten years probably can be explained by the fact that more “enthuse and confident” riders decided to cycle. However, I would predict that given the current road layout and planning priorities in London, this effect will soon peter out.
According to the latest figures in the “Travel in London 4” report that was published in January, the typical cyclist in London is male.
Across all age groups, there is a striking sex gap: Males are much more prone to cycling as females are. According to the numbers, 64 per cent of cyclists are men. If you look at the numbers of journeys, the difference is even bigger: 72 per cent of cycle journeys are done by men.
Especially striking is the difference in the age group 25 and 44 years: Males outnumber females in a ratio of almost 1 to 3.
Psychological research shows that men are more prone to overconficence than women. I think it’s a sure bet to say that women are just scared off by the conditions on the road.
I’m convinced that without a major transformation of the transport policies in London, cycling is about to stagnate in the future because nobody will be able to convince the “Interested but Concerned” to hop on their bike in today’s London. Probably the stagnation of cycling in London has already begun.
According to the “Travel in London” report, the number of daily cycling journey in London in 2010 has risen by about 40000 to 54000. In relative terms, this is an impressive gain of 6.4 per cent. However, about 25 000 of the new journey were due to the new cycle hire scheme which was a major investment. Without the Boris Bikes, the number of journeys would only have increased by 15000. This would have been the weakest increase for a number of years.
The big spike in cycling in London happened between 2002 and 2005, as this chart confirms. Ever since, cycling seems to have reached a new plateau.
Since 2008, the increases were so tiny that they disappear in the statistics if you round to the first digit after the comma.
In the last three years, the numbers of daily bus journeys increased by 300.000 from 3.4 to 3.7 million journey while the number of daily journeys by bike only increased by less than a third.
Seen from this perspective, London is experiencing a bus revolution rather than a cycling revolution.
This is even more appalling given the fact that using the bus is much slower and more expensive than cycling. Busses in London on average travel at a speed of about 12.5 Kilometers an hour, at the same time bus fares increased massively.
So why don’t more people cycle?
Interestingly, this question isn’t asked by Transport for London (presumably because they would not like to hear the answer).
Let’s turn to Portland’s Roger Geller instead. He asserts:
“Despite all the considerable advances Portland and the region have made in facilitating bicycling, concerns about the safety of bicycling still loom large.
Riding a bicycle should not require bravery. Yet, all too often, that is the perception among cyclists and noncyclists alike. No person should have to be “brave” to ride a bicycle; unfortunately, this is a sentiment commonly expressed to those who regularly ride bicycles by those who do not.
There are many cities in modern, industrialized nations around the world with a high bicycle mode split. They have achieved these high levels of bicycle use through adherence to various cycling-promoting policies and practices.
But, one thing they share in common is they have substantially removed the element of fear associated with bicycling in an urban environment. They have created transportation systems in which bicycling is often the most logical, enjoyable and attainable choice for trips of a certain length for a wide swath—if not the majority—of their populace.
For residents of these cities, concern about personal safety associated with bicycling is rarely a consideration, and certainly not to the levels we experience here. In these “fearless” cities septuagenarians are able to ride alongside seven-year-olds safely, comfortably, and with confidence throughout the breadth of the cities.
Making bicycling a more widespread and mainstream means of transportation in Portland will require substantially addressing concerns about personal safety.”
Compare this assessment to the statements of Boris Johnson and Transport for London. They are constantly stating that cycling in London is safe and has become safer.
It’s a small wonder that most Londoners remain sceptical with regards to cycling.