Saturday 7 December 2013

Investigation into cycle safety

This week has seen a Commons transport select committee investigation into cycle safety. Writing in The Guardian, Sarah Champion MP felt it gave "the panel the opportunity to refute common myths and prejudices and really explore the issues as they unfold." Not everyone saw it that way, however. Indeed, for some it was the quality of the questions which rattled cages, rather than the quality of the answers.

Is there a war ongoing between cars and bikes? Should cyclists be obliged by law to wear helmets? Should cyclists be licensed? Should cyclists be required to contribute financially to the upkeep of roads?

The answer to all of these questions is—no. But in a democracy—a democracy which is largely indifferent to the appeal of the bicycle, it must be said—probably it is necessary that these questions be asked. (Besides which, these questions were answered well and with good humour, so no harm done.)

The reaction of the media put me in mind of an episode of The Now Show from several weeks ago. Steve Punt noted how people have a tendency to jump to extremes very quickly. You can see this, he said, if you look at Twitter during a big football match. The other week, for example, first-half ...
England rubbish as usual!
Embarrassing, boring England! #snore
But then, second half ...
Brilliant! Loving it! Come on! Three lions!
Yes, Rooney! Bring on Brazil!
Punt went on to explain that the news is negative regardless of the story. If, say, the government gave everyone in the country a choc-ice, the headline in the papers would be:
Government hand-out encourages obesity, critics warn. 
If the government announced they were going to build every family in the country a heated swimming pool, it would be:
Pool scheme increases drowning risk, say experts.
The thing is—as then newsreader Martin Lewis got pilloried for pointing out years ago—only bad news is news.

And he was right. This warping of perception has a name. Psychologists call it 'availability error'—as in a tendency to base judgments on information available to us—and it has a profound effect.

And this is important because when governments decide policy, they have to take into account that voters have completely wrong ideas about lots of things.

As Hetan Shah, the executive director of The Royal Statistical Society, put it:
How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence?
Or to rephrase that in more technical language:
How can the government not talk bollocks when the voters know precisely sod all about anything? 
The answer is, they can't. So what happens is that governments constantly say one thing and do another, or they say one thing to one audience and another to another, and it's not because they're liars or hypocrites, it's because they're constantly balancing between facts and the random guesswork that passes for facts among us voters.

Would you say that it's safe to cycle in London?

Ashok Sinha: In general, yes. I would still say to people that with care and attention it is a safe way of getting about. But I think my answer would need to be nuanced. I think there are places in London at times in London where you are not protected as well as you should be as a cyclist, and you will face real risks, such as at major junctions. I advise people that it is safe to cycle in London, but at the same time, I am very wary about my children cycling in London, because I know that a mistake that can easily be made by a young person could lead to their death and serious injury.

So my answer has to be nuanced. I would say to people, "Yes, keep cycling, it is a safe way of getting around; but there are dangers in particular places and particular circumstances."

Is it better to cycle where there are lots of cyclists, or is it safer where there are fewer?

Ashok Sinha: Again, it depends. There are lots of cyclists crossing London's bridges during the rush hour these days, and there is, I think, a Safety in Numbers effect, where motor-vehicles see lots of cyclists together crossing those bridges and realise this is actually a normal mode of transport, people are just going about their business, going to work, and give them a wide berth. There are also places where it's safe to cycle, such as back streets, where there may not be very many other cyclists around, but the motor traffic levels are relatively low. So again, the circumstances will very much determine the level of safety that you experience.

Do you think there has been a panic about the recent spate of deaths and accidents in London, or is it a cause for real concern?

David Davies: I think it has certainly come to the forefront of everyone's attention. The Evening Standard has put each death on the front page [...] The Times campaign 'Cities fit for Cyclists'—so it has certainly come to the media's attention. If you look at it in a wider context, over a longer period of time, as I'm sure you know, this year there have been tragically fourteen cyclists' deaths, that is the same number as there was last year. And it is also worth pointing out that in London, and across the UK as a whole, there were considerably more pedestrians, considerably more motorcyclists, vehicle occupants as well, who die. So the number of cyclist deaths, although it's had huge attention, is quite a small minority. It's very welcome that cycling is getting this safety attention, but in some ways it's a shame that every time a pedestrian is run over in London, it doesn't merit similar attention.

How safe do you think cycling is in London compared to walking around the streets or actually going in a car?

David Davies: If you measure it in terms of casualties per mile travelled, then walking and cycling is broadly comparable, which perhaps shows walking is not as safe as people think it might be.

The health experts tell us that you will absolutely live longer on average if you are a cyclist than if you are inactive, so that public health benefit is very strong. There are different ways of looking at safety, though. The government monitors how many people consider it safe to cycle on the roads, and actually that figure went down last year, from 50% to 48% across the UK. If you compared that with Copenhagen, apparently 75% of cyclists considered it safe, and only 5% considered it unsafe. So we do not have a safe system, and I very much agree with Mr Sinha that you have to be competent, and you have to take care, and the safety record in London does depend on the skills of the road users, rather than segregation and the system.


How would the London Assembly encourage people to wear a helmet whilst riding a Boris Bike?

Val Shawcross: In fact the London Assembly transport committee—although it's done two reports now on cycling, Pedal Power and Gearing Up, and we're about to take our third look at cycling—didn't take a particular view on helmets, because I think there are arguments either way. Personally I would very much prefer people to wear helmets, and I think the head injury charities feel that too, but in terms of the cycling accidents we've had, and safety issues on cycling in London generally, I don't think it is the crucial issue. I think the crucial issue is very much more about road layout and space for cyclists.


I would just like to ask, to start with, the kinds of questions that actually perhaps sit with us having five different voices here today. This is a very hot topic, it's current, it's controversial, there is advice either way floating around, multiple arguments about the kind of engineering or education or enforcement that we need around cycling. It is also highly emotional, with fatalities recently. What in your view is the way to get a unified, and then persuasive, and then action-packed campaign from this situation?

Ashok Sinha: If I may offer a suggestion. I think first if I may clarify my comments. David, I do believe that user-behaviour can only go so far, and actually the greatest dangers that cyclists experience on the roads are presented to them by the poor quality of infrastructure and the poor quality of—sometimes driving standards. As I say, somebody makes a perfectly innocent mistake, and our infrastructure lets them down, and the net result is somebody being killed or seriously injured.

So any campaign of the kind that you describe has to look at the root sources of danger. Now, we don't have to re-invent the wheel. They've done this in other countries: they've done this in the Netherlands, they've done this in parts of Denmark and Copenhagen, they're doing it in Berlin, they're doing it in Seville, New York, elsewhere. And they've said, "What are the principal sources of danger?" And they've identified:
  • poor quality cycle lanes, and these need to be offering proper protection to cyclists along busy and fast roads;
  • the lack of access to good routes away from major thoroughfares, that cyclists can use, that are quiet and convenient;
  • speeds that are too high—motor-traffic speeds that are too high—that don't give people enough time to react to the situation that they're experiencing or react to unexpected circumstances. And of course the high speed of motor traffic means—simple physics means—that the collision is likely to cause more damage;
  • too much through-traffic in residential areas—by cutting out through-traffic in residential areas you can make it much more attractive and safer for people to cycle.
So this is not to say that we shouldn't be looking at behaviour and we shouldn't be looking at training. I myself have had cycle training. But we do need to look at where the root causes of the danger come from and ameliorate them.

Miss Shawcross, do you want to say something?

Val Shawcross: Yes, if I can take one small step back and comment on the issue of the statistics and the dangers in general ... (The data shows that cycling and walking has become more 'dangerous' over recent years.)

I feel that there is relatively little mystery and a lot of consensus in London around what does need to be done, and I would certainly agree with colleagues from London Cycling Campaign that road infrastructure, particularly the treatment of junctions, speed, the presence of HGVs which may not be properly [...] fitted and could be—that kind of issue are the things that need to be dealt with.

And I think looking back over the period of time where we've had the latest programme—since the current Mayor has been in City Hall—of trying to promote the cycling revolution—for which there is great enthusiasm in London—I mean, this is seen as an enormously positive thing for our health and environment. But I think the early infrastructure was poor and was weak, and did not offer the appropriate levels of protection in the most dangerous environments. So I think we're on a journey ...

When you say cycling infrastructure, do you mean the cycling superhighways?

Val Shawcross: I do mean the cycling superhighways in particular ... (The reaction of cyclists to the first two cycle superhighways shows that many of them did not feel safe enough: the lines of blue paint disappeared at the most dangerous points. The point is also made that the design of the CS2X probably represents the type of infrastructure that should have been installed in the first place.)


I think the issue—if you're asking me to put my finger on the issue—it has been the issue of the balance of interests in sharing the road space. London is a congested city, we have a medieval road pattern in the centre of London: the issue has always been who gets the space on the roads, and who gets the time at the junctions? And I think if we are to achieve a cycling revolution, a safe cycling revolution, and the two go together [...] for the broader demographic to pick up, for women, for older people to pick up cycling, it will need to be much safer, and that's how we're going to achieve a cycling revolution.

May I just close with the same consensus campaign question, but with a non-London perspective.

Katja Leyendecker: I think—having listened to what people are saying here—I think the question might actually be a completely different one, and not so much about safety at all. I think it's about the future of our cities, and how we want to run our cities. We were talking beforehand about education and enforcement—I think we've done that. We've done that in London, and we've done that outside of London, and it's actually the engineering bit that is missing. It has been done in bits and pieces, but not in a continuous, and certainly not in a holistic look at the city—or at the city of Newcastle, for example.

Mr Davies.

David Davies: Having been involved with cycle infrastructure for quite a long time, I think as Val Shawcross said, it's not really a matter of the costs of the extra kerb, it's very much about the balance of interests, and it is not easy for local authorities to simply say, "We will have a continuous cycle route and ban parking all the way along this route—or take out a whole lane of traffic." These are really tough decisions for local politicians and the officers working for them. The technical designs are there, probably the money is there, but you've got to weigh up the pros and cons.

If I could say another thing. I think there's not been—I would say—emphasised enough so far. I think we have a very specific problem, certainly in London, and I think wider than that, in that it is large vehicles that have been responsible for most of the deaths in London this year, and there are opportunities to tackle that through the design of vehicles, the cabs, through the training of drivers, and a whole range of measures focused very much on that. And if you were to take out the deaths in London which involved large vehicles—tripper trucks specifically—so I think there are some very specific problems, and they could be tackled, and there are some discussions going on in Europe about the design of lengths and weights of large vehicles that could be—as an opportunity to modify these things.

Have we given the Cycle Superhighways too elaborate a title, and given people the impression that they are something more than they are? Which vehicles present the greatest danger to cyclists, and therefore make that the priority focus of doing something about it?

Ashok Sinha: David is quite right. If we look at the number of—let's say deaths—focussing on those rather than on serious injuries—which are of course terrible and awful. About half of the deaths in London are due to collisions with HGVs, most of those being collisions with tipper trucks. I am sure there is a lot that can be done to improve vehicle design. We ourselves published about a year ago a sort of concept design for lorries that would make them safer on London's streets, that was produced by our senior campaigner, who is a former truck driver of many decades' experience.

But I go back to the point that even with the best equipped trucks—and of course the best trained drivers, who are obeying the rules and not driving for too long, and aren't tired, and so on—there will be occasions—especially around junctions and intersections—there's a possibility for collisions between cyclists and these large vehicles. And that is where you also need an engineering solution, especially at those locations.

But even more broadly, imagine trying to take your children to school. Do you really want to be mixing it with the lorries on the main road, even if you knew they were the best equipped lorries in the world? You probably don't, or you would probably be fairly wary of doing that.  So it goes back in a sense to what Katja was saying: what kind of city do we want to have? And if we want to encourage a cycling revolution—and I think we all do on this panel and around London—then we also have to look at enabling people to be less fearful and [more] confident about their cycling experience.


Mr Sinha, you spoke of a number of black spots in London. When you speak to the local authority, and no doubt make recommendations about engineering modifications, what sort of response do you get?

Ashok Sinha: Oh, I'm very glad you asked that question. We're often told that when we suggest that international best practice should be adopted for the re-engineering or re-modelling of those junctions—which are often not safe enough for pedestrians and cyclists to get across—we're told that that kind of re-modelling is not feasible because of the negative impact that would have on traffic flows. Essentially there isn't enough capacity on the roads for that to be permissible. We're told that, because the modelling work that is undertaken by the traffic authorities says that London will go into gridlock. But first of all, these models are poorly validated, from everything that we can establish. Secondly, countries around the world—I go back to the examples on the continent—put safety first, and find out actually that the behaviour of people on the roads adapts, so with well-designed schemes you don't get gridlock. And thirdly, of course, there's modal shift. The better the facilitation for cycling and walking, the more people will walk and cycle and then the fewer people will drive for short distances. So we feel there's a straw man being put up against, high-quality, safe re-modelling of our urban spaces, and that straw man is the idea that London will grind to a halt, and I don't believe that to be true.

Would you say that it's safe to cycle in London? What in your view is the way to get a unified, and then persuasive, and then action-packed campaign from this situation? Have we given the Cycle Superhighways too elaborate a title, and given people the impression that they are something more than they are? Which vehicles present the greatest danger to cyclists? Tell us how we can protect cyclists.

About half of these questions were not even answered!

I got the sense that Ashok, Katja, Val, even Peter, would probably have preferred it if the select committee had gathered to talk about a cycling revolution. How do we encourage more people to take up cycling?

But this was an inquiry into cycle safety. Specifically, what can be done now to make cycling safer?

I like this recent comment from the aseasyasriding blog: "Why does it really matter anyway if people give up cycling? We’ve got more people cycling in London at the moment than we have had for decades and we still have totally crap infrastructure. Increased cycling levels don’t mean better cycling facilities. It just means more bereaved families. Let’s get the facilities first before we insist on persuading vulnerable people onto the roads by pretending we live in a fairyland where cycling is a wonderful dreamy experience."

Mr Gilligan, is it safe to cycle in London?

Andrew Gilligan: Yes it is safe. We've seen a dramatic fall in the number and the proportion of cyclists dying on the roads. In 2002, there were 118 million cycle journeys in London, of which twenty ended in death; last year there were 209 million cycle journeys of which fourteen ended in death. So the death rate per journey has more than halved. Serious injuries have come down as well. One journey in every 299 000 ended in serious injury in 2002; it's one in every 320 000 last year.

But I think there's two issues here: there's actual safety and there's perceived safety. On actual safety as I mentioned things are relatively encouraging, with one important caveat, which is that the serious injury rate has started to rise again. That is not to say, of course, that we couldn't and shouldn't do more, and we are doing a great deal more. We've invested a billion pounds in a major cycling programme: new roads, new junctions. But that's actual safety.

Then there's perceived safety—the issue of fear—and that is much more of a problem, we saw the poll today. Even though the figures I've quoted you objectively show that cycling is substantially safer than it was, 68% of Londoners do not believe the roads are safe. And the problem with that is that perceptions are much less in our control, than are, for instance, the physical state of the roads. We can do something about the roads, perceptions are largely in control of others, such as the media and cycle campaigners.

I'm worried about the debate on safety. We need to strike a balance between the understandable anger and concern that people feel about these deaths, and also the risk that we are scaring people away from cycling, that we are giving succour to those people who want to discourage cycling, and also that we are deterring future politicians from getting involved in this. One of the slight frustrations is that my boss, the Mayor, is actually probably doing more than any other politician in Britain for cycling, and yet he also gets more criticism than any other politician in Britain for cycling. And he doesn't mind that—neither he nor I mind that—we've both been in plenty of media storms in our time. But I think the risk might be that future politicians might say, "If that's the reward you get for spending a billion pounds, what is the point in getting involved in this area?"


The intention in this all-consuming focus on deaths we've seen recently is right: people want to create pressure for action to get more people cycling. But the execution is at risk of causing the opposite.

So in view of what you've said, where each of the fourteen deaths of cyclists in London this year is a great tragedy for every family involved, but you don't see it as a trend—in view of what you've said, what do you think the Mayor ought to be doing now in relation to cycling safety?

Andrew Gilligan: He needs to be doing what he is doing, and that is—we have a gigantic investment programme—it's, I think, two-and-a-half times bigger than the government is spending on the whole of the rest of the country put together. It £913m over ten years, it's front-loaded in the first three or four years, it includes a very large programme of segregated cycleways, superhighways, including two right across the heart of central London [...] and there's going to be a whole load of upgraded superhighways which are also going to be built to a much higher standard than the current ones.

The other thing we're doing is a lot about junctions, because essentially 85% of accidents resulting in injury or death happen at junctions in London, and we've just rolled out a new template cycle-segregated junction. We've issued pictures and drawings of it—ironically enough on the very day that the first of these spate of deaths happened [...]

Mr Fitzpatrick.

Jim Fitzpatrick MP: Mr Gilligan, you make some persuasive points about perception, and I certainly agree that Mayor Johnson's raised the profile, and some of the criticism he does get is unfair. But we wouldn't be seeing the pace of change that we are seeing now if it hadn't been for the recent—over the past two, three years—the recent deaths and injuries. And sad as that is, that's what's given the momentum to the changes, and the roundabout at the Bow flyover is a classic example ...

The Jubilee line route (shown in blue) is over 70% further 
than the direct route (shown in red). Why? Andrew Gilligan
and Ashok Sinha both think cycling is safe in London.

The other thing to have happened this week is that Westminster have launched their draft Cycling Strategy. Their 'vision', seemingly, is "to make Westminster a national leader in cycling provision, making it safer and more attractive for a greater number of people, from all backgrounds, to cycle more frequently." This is very encouraging.

Closing remarks

The difficulty that I have with cycle campaigners is not so much that they are unduly influencing the public's perception of cycling. As another commentator on the aseasyasriding blog has noted: "The actions of us lot campaigning rarely reaches anyone outside the cycling bubble to any significant degree."

No, the difficulty I have is that within the cycling bubble, these cycle campaigners have a great deal of influence.

I have spoken to two cycling officers based outside of London who have never even heard of Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities. Never even heard of it! The only publication out of Europe to answer the question how to begin, and they've never even heard of it!

This book "suggests some simple, inexpensive and popular measures, which could be implemented immediately." Sure, the impact of these measures is not likely to be massive. However, according to Cycling: the way ahead, "it will be real".

Had these cycling officers heard of Space4Cycling? Oh yes! It's all anyone talks about!

I can very well see how Space4Cycling excites campaigners' passions. It's a very compelling theme after all. In comparison, a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network introduced to a minimum level of functioning must sound utterly mundane. No, it's worse even than that. As more or less everyone within the cycling bubble will tell you, all that stuff has been tried before.

Except that it hasn't. At least, there isn't a town or city in this country which has a functioning cycle network.

One of the main features of the network-first approach is in fact the improvement of cyclists' safety. In the short-term, this is based on the implementation of 'soft' (easy-to-deliver) measures.

Comparatively, one of the main features of the Space4Cycling approach—maybe even the most important feature—is the development of a cycling environment which would encourage more people to cycle. This is based on the implementation of 'hard' (difficult-to-deliver) measures.

I don't know for certain, but my sense is that the main reason cycle routes such as the wiggly bit of the Jubilee line continue to be proposed is because it is just too troublesome for the authorities to "introduce" this route to a minimum level of functioning.

I hope not to have misunderstood Katja Leyenbecker when she says: "Laying firm foundations by getting the things right that have a big impact (policy, strategy, plans and engineering road design and layouts) is vital, because only then should we wonder about the small stuff (and that's where the current debate is stuck in a vicious victim-blaming circle)."

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