The Times’ ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ campaign, was launched last Thursday with the front page headline ‘Save Our Cyclists‘. That’s good news. There is – for example – some moving testimony from Cynthia Barlow, in the clip on this page. She talks, not just about her daughter, who was killed while cycling, but about the generalised and usually unmentionable cost of motor-dependence. ‘Cities fit for Cycling’ is inspired by the sorry fate of Mary Bowers – who works for The Times – and suffered near-fatal injuries, when run-down by someone operating a truck. It’s interesting, and progressive, that motor-slaughter is now on the national agenda, but an awkward difficulty with naming the problem remains.
Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business in particular, kills people. They kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible. A more sensible headline could have been ‘Tame Our Trucks’. The story is of death and life-changing injury consequent on hyper-mobility of goods and people. Focusing only on the hazards of cycle-travel distracts from this.
How dangerous is it to ride a bike? Epidemiological statistics are slippery. Every day I see people riding down the road. They see a bus parked at the kerb. I guess their unconscious thought process is something like – ‘I can see that bus. Anyone behind can see me and that bus. Everybody knows what I’m going to do next’. Then they pull-out and overtake the bus, relying on others to take care of them. Such behaviour isn’t the monopoly of the stereotypically reckless or foolish, some people who act that way are middle-aged, probably in salaried employment and riding well-worn bikes of investment quality. Their strategy clearly works. These people will almost all live long, healthy lives and die – in due course – in their beds. But it wouldn’t cost them anything to glance over their shoulders when they see that bus.
In bald statistical terms riding a bike is a safe activity. A typical individual has to cover millions of kilometres before being involved in a serious crash. These figures include teenage boys and also those who’ve been riding their Claud Butlers round North London since 1981, without once looking over their shoulder. If you take the trouble to ride in a considered and conscious style you are – in Inner London at least – super safe. The difficulty is how do we campaign to make travelling by bike even less hazardous, even more pleasurable, without reinforcing the widespread misconception that it’s somehow lethal.
In the 1970’s and 80’s if you ever mentioned cycling for practical travel to a politician, a planner or a highway engineer it was a sure-fire, certainty that the first sentence of their reply would contain a word from this short menu…
During those comparatively lean years – in a pathetic personal quest for balance and logic – I refused to discuss bicycle travel in the context of ‘road-safety’. The vow lapsed with the publication, in 1992, of Mayer Hillman’s game-changing work ‘Cycling: Towards Health and Safety’, which put the cycling-is-much-too-dangerous-to-encourage argument underground with a stake through its heart. Cycles might bring some risks but not nearly as many as sofas and fried potatoes. What’s really deadly is not cycling.
There’s a counter-position, that cycling might really be very dangerous, and the figures for death and serious injury are suppressed because people don’t do it. Establishing causality in the reflexive fluidity of human motivation can only be a theoretical approximation. Is cycling in England considered dangerous because people don’t do it? Do English people not cycle because they think it’s dangerous? Why does anyone ride a motor-cycle? That’s really dangerous.
The risks of travelling by bike in London are not massively greater than the risks of walking the same streets. They may even be less. They are certainly of the same order of magnitude. Why does The Times choose to focus only on dead pedallers and ignore those slaughtered while walking?
In Inner London – in certain demographics – cycle travel has become normal. Here in West Hackney it’s getting close to compulsory.
While the typical pedestrian victim of the metal plague is poor, a school-kid or a pensioner, those culled while riding bikes are much more likely to be young adults in high status employment. In evolutionary terms individuals of peak reproductive age are much more valuable, but let’s aspire to rise above such crude atavistic bias. And also to remind anyone drawn into this renewed debate, that – although very occasionally cyclists die while travelling – they’re not being killed by bikes.