Sunday 24 March 2013

Safety: a responsibility

I regard Cycling: the way ahead as a bit of a bible, I suppose, and like any good bible, every time I look into it, I discover something new.

This is from the fourth chapter of the handbook, and I hope people don't mind, but because it is not written by native English-speakers, I have abridged it somewhat.

Safety: a responsibility

The risk of an accident is the only theoretical drawback to cycling. But what is the true situation? It has now been proved that, for certain age groups, cars present a much more significant risk to an individual's safety than bicycles.

The certain benefits to health and quality of life that cycling brings far outweigh any possible risks to life and limb. However, be that as it may, any policy to promote cycling must minimise the risks to cyclists. By what means? Are cycle tracks the only byword for safety? Scientific research based on the experiences of many towns has shown that cyclists’ safety can also be guaranteed on the roadway. How?

Defending cycling is a rational choice

It is certainly true that there are too many accidents which involve cyclists. But a great number of errors are made when comparing statistics, and when taking measures which are supposed to improve cyclists’ safety.

Danger is a relative concept

Safety is a real problem for cyclists; as much, indeed, as it is for pedestrians.

Moving around among vehicles which are often travelling substantially faster, cyclists and pedestrians are at the mercy of car drivers. However, statistics show that received opinion is not always correct. For example, if you calculate risk by age group and make reasonable statistical corrections, you find that for cyclists aged between 18 and 50, the overall chance of an accident is low.

Of all road users in the built-up area, motorists are the best protected. They also present the most danger to pedestrians and cyclists. The threat which motorists impose on others increases in an exponential way with speed.

Cycle tracks offer one way of providing cycle safety.
Image from Cambridge Cycling Campaign

Integrating the notion of benefits for health

A BMA report which looked at all the various forms of physical exercise that people take part in on a daily basis (walking, jogging, swimming and cycling) concluded with a reproach to the authorities for not promoting cycling. The BMA claimed that the government was putting the health of the country at risk through its inaction.

The report noted that the advantages of cycling for public health (a healthy life through regular exercise) far outweigh its disadvantages (the risk of accidents). Indeed, for many people, the bicycle is the only practical way of regularly taking moderate exercise. (Shockingly, a person who takes no regular physical exercise is as much at risk of a coronary heart disease as a smoker on 20 a day.)

While it is as beneficial as swimming, cycling is much easier to do, as it does not require the setting aside of a particular hour, and the public equipment needed—roads—already exist everywhere, and require only a few adaptations. Encouragingly, two bike trips a day, each of about 15 minutes, are enough to guarantee a healthy heart! (As for pollution, we now know that motorists suffer from it a great deal more than cyclists.)

The BMA report advocates an increase in the provision of more cycle routes and parking areas for bicycles, the cutting down of traffic, the reducing of speed and the promotion of an awareness campaign aimed at making drivers more respectful of cyclists.

Combining safety measures

Providing for the safety of cyclists is a necessary prerequisite of any policy which seeks to  promote cycling as a daily mode of transport.

A large number of potential cyclists are already thinking about cycling today, but before they get back into their saddles, they want to see some movement from the public authorities: a message, perhaps, along the lines of: "It’s safe to ride a bike, and it's going to get safer—your area authority know what needs to be done, and is taking care of it."

Safety/speed ratio

Roads are multifunctional spaces, and as such, they need to be shared fairly among all users. The idea of moderating traffic is therefore a necessary consequence of adapting car traffic to other road users, and this means, for example, crossing facilities for pedestrians, commercial areas for shops and caf├ęs, places for people to socialise and chat, or for children to play, and above all, living spaces.

A speed of 20mph is compatible with all the many activities which have to coexist in a town. At this speed, trips in cars hardly take any longer than if they are made with occasional speed peaks. The sound level drops considerably. Motorists are better able to perceive their environment and can react more swiftly to unexpected events. Traffic accidents are less serious and the traffic is altogether calmer.

Speed moderation has a marked effect on the perception pedestrians and cyclists have of the urban space, but somewhat surprisingly, the negative impact on motorists is barely noticeable. On average, a trip by car which takes 15 minutes, say, in a town where the speed limit is 30mph is, in effect, simply lengthened by about a minute if the speed limit in the town is 20mph.

Safety training for cyclists and motorists

Cyclists are relatively slow, not very visible and somewhat vulnerable compared with other, heavier road users. Therefore, a cyclist’s safety depends on the physical features of his route (good road surface, clear signs and signals, possible separation from different types of traffic), and also, to a large extent, on his physical abilities, know-how and experience (ability to anticipate). It depends on the behaviour of motorists as well.

Motorists or the drivers of heavy vehicles should, when learning to drive, be taught how to take account of the behaviour of, and the specific problems associated with, cyclists.

The function of facilities

According to physical aptitude—balance, agility, rapidity of reflexes and clarity of perception—the adult cyclist will intuitively choose his or her own routes. Cyclists must therefore be enabled to circulate freely on both secondary roads and major routes.

Children are a different kettle of fish. Less capable than adults at choosing their own itinerary, they need guidance and various facilities all along their route. Routes leading to schools merit particular attention, therefore (parents and schoolchildren are very good at advising on possible improvements).

In the town of Courtrai in Belgium, the town council has paid special attention to these routes, particularly during peak traffic times. For example, some streets are now closed to traffic in one direction, and at other places, where no special facilities are in place, policemen are posted on duty. As a result of measures like these, 60% of the journeys to school are being made by bicycle.

The role of the police: applying the rules

When introducing facilities for cyclists, it is preferable to provide for a situation whereby motorists are not able to block said facilities through negligence. In situations where no protection against abuse is possible, however, the police have to intervene systematically to ensure that cycle tracks or lanes are respected, without which they become a loss-making investment. In cases where cycle tracks or lanes become unusable—through careless parking or through holes in the roadway—the loss may be heavy, both financially and in terms of image.


  1. Sent here by Cyclists in the City. The safety/risk argument that you reiterate here, mathematically correct or not, simply does not wash with most non-cyclists because risk is not wholly the issue. An unwillingness to subject oneself or one's family to threat is also part of the mix. Close passes, left hooks and the like produce a fight-or-flight shock in most people, as the angry outbursts from even the experienced dedicated few who ARE wlling to accept the threat testify (& as documented on YouTube), and no amount of arguing that they are not actually dangerous because no-one was hurt is going to convince most people that cycling on UK roads is worth doing. It is simply too unpleasant. To get more people cycling you have to reduce not just the actual danger but the threats and shocks, and that means reducing close passes, left hooks etc and the bunch of other things that you quite correctly document as being problems in your article.

    Hope that doesn't sound too aggressive.

  2. @3rdWorldCyclinginGB Thanks for your comment. It didn't sound at all aggressive.

    You're absolutely correct to emphasise how most people feel about riding bicycles in close proximity to heavy traffic, but it is important to be clear, Cycling: the way ahead is mostly concerned with 'that first step'. It's not a publication aimed at explaining where to end up, but at where to begin.

    "The development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network is a basic precondition of mass cycling." However, it is simply not possible, with just a click of the fingers, to develop such a network to an appropriately high standard, and that being so, it is important to prioritise.

    Analogies are always useful, and perhaps a good way to think about this is to consider those steps that you would need to take if you had several acres of land and permission to build a house thereon. The first thing you would need to decide is where the house is going to be built. Then perhaps you would spend some time thinking about what the house is going to look like when it's finished. Thereafter you might want to study the feasibility of bringing these various ideas to fruition. Once you had done all your planning, and started to build, you would then lay the foundations, all at once probably. Finally, working from this solid base, you would build upwards. A similar process could - indeed should - apply to the development of a city-wide cycle network. Which routes are going to make up the cycle network? This is the first thing that needs to be decided.

    When determining which routes should make up a network, I am largely guided by the existing network plans, but as I get more and more into it, I also find that it helps to design from patterns to details. To take a recent example, this map shows an uncoded version of a proposed cycle network for Cambridge (hovering the mouse over the button marked 'Map' reveals the terrain function). As you can see, most of the network is already functional (or is planned to be so).

    In the same way that you would lay the foundations all at once if you were building a house, so also, recommends Cycling: the way ahead, you would "introduce" the network all at once. In practice this amount to the implementation of interim measures, and as you make plain, it is abundantly obvious that such a network would not be suitable for most non-cyclists. Even so, as Andrew Davis from the Environmental Transport Association has pointed out, "It only needs people on the margin [to begin with]: the people who are more likely to do it, to encourage them. Of course there are people who won't do it whatever, but if enough people start to do it, it does make a change."

    1. This is a long-term plan, the key to which is sustained investment. "Certainly the task is ambitious," Ritt Bjerregaard explained in the Foreword to Cycling: the way ahead, "but the essential thing is to take that first step because, while use of the bicycle is a choice for the individual, in order to create a healthier, urban environment, it is essential to launch the process by which your city builds on the initiatives and habits of some of your fellow citizens."

      This process can be summed up as follows:

      1. Think in terms of a network.

      Only by studying a cycle route network will it be possible to truly grasp the situation. (p.40, Cycling: the way ahead)

      2. Plan the network.

      Analyse journeys — origin/destination (headcounts, statistics, interviews). (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)

      Design from patterns to details.

      3. Study the feasibility of the network.

      Studying the feasibility of a network is of a similar importance to setting up a cycling unit or appointing a cycling coordinator. (p.57, Cycling: the way ahead)

      4. Introduce the network.

      The level of minimum functioning is a prudent course to follow. (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)

      5. Develop the network.

      Develop the network further on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable. (p.56, Cycling: the way ahead)