If our roads were as safe for cycling as the roads in The Netherlands, around 80 of the people killed cycling in Britain last year might still be alive. Join the London Cycling Campaign’s protest ride this Friday 12th July, 6pm for 6:15, at Tower Hill – http://goo.gl/maps/8Czme
We don’t yet know exactly what happened in the collision that killed a twenty-year old French student riding a bicycle along Cycle Superhighway 2 at Aldgate last week. We do know that there have been warnings about Cycle Superhighway 2 from London Cycling Campaign and others, arguing that the mixing of cyclists with heavy motor traffic is inherently dangerous. In 2012, there were 1,199 HGVs per day on that stretch (out of 30,339 motor vehicles in total). That could easily mean around 120 per hour at peak – two every minute. This creates great potential for deadly conflict. Cyclists have no protection (apart from on a tiny stretch of the route), only a thin blue line on the carriageway indicating their space next to the gutter (or, as in the picture, running on the outside of loading bays or parked cars). At junctions the Superhighway route continues straight on, while many of those two HGVs per peak minute may be turning left across the path of cyclists.
The A11 – along which Cycle Superhighway 2 runs – is not a narrow, busy road. It is a wide road with 2-3 lanes in each direction. Putting in proper cycle infrastructure – wide, segregated, with priority at side roads and safe passage across major junctions – might have been harder than putting some blue paint down. But it was possible. It could have been done, and this could have dramatically reduced the potential for conflict between motor vehicles and cyclists. It didn’t happen. We got a route which I personally would not use, as I told the Greater London Authority in their Inquiry into Cycling in London last year. A Police and Community Support Officer apparently told the Evening Standard after the death that ‘It is so dangerous around here people should be aware.’
We wouldn’t think it was acceptable if Tube passengers had to cross a live rail to get to a platform, and were told to ‘be aware’. We wouldn’t accept a company putting up unsafe scaffolding, and the Police then acknowledging this by handing out leaflets nearby saying ‘be careful when you walk on this side of the road, you might be hit by falling planks’. We wouldn’t think it was acceptable for a hospital to use dirty equipment, raising the risk of having an operation, but then to tell us not to complain, because we’d still be better off than if we didn’t have the operation.
As advocates argue, road deaths are not an accident. They are predictable. They follow patterns and they are unjust: those who suffer most (such as children, older people, pedestrians, and cyclists) are generally least responsible for the trail of death and injury. So even without delving into specific causes for particular incidents, we can study cycling deaths as a social phenomenon, and think about how many deaths might be avoided if our politicians and policy-makers put their money where their mouths are – i.e., into making cycling safe.
If we look at The Netherlands, we can see some of the scale of avoidable tragedy on our roads (there are still avoidable Dutch cycle deaths, too). The Netherlands and the UK have similar overall risks of road deaths per citizen; so, we’re not comparing with some country that’s miles ahead of us in this area. We and the Dutch are in the same ballpark regarding keeping car drivers and passengers safe; but that’s not the case for cyclists.
In a recent paper, Jenny Mindell and her colleagues converted the Dutch and English cycling fatality rates to a time metric; deaths per million hours’ spent cycling. For the English, the rate is 0.42; for the Dutch, the rate is 0.11. In other words, for the time spent cycling, nearly four times as many English as Dutch cyclists are dying. Of course, the populations of English and Dutch cyclists aren’t the same. As Mindell et al point out, males are over-represented among English cyclists, and tend to have higher death rates for all forms of transport than females. ‘English males cycled four times the distance but had six times as many fatalities as women […while for the Netherlands…] cycling distance is equally split between males and females.’ If we adjusted the ratio for gender, then, assuming a male: female cycling ratio of 4:1 and a male: female risk ratio of 3:2, we might then expect to see an English fatality rate of 0.375 if there were similar numbers of men and women cycling (although in London, women don’t seem to be safer than men).
This is still 3.4 times the Dutch fatality rate. It arguably underestimates the real extra burden of risk here, because in The Netherlands so many people in relatively poor health cycle – precisely because it’s so safe in terms of motor vehicle risks. The Dutch are currently worrying a lot about ‘single vehicle collisions’ which are particularly problematic for this group.
Most British cyclists are pretty fit and healthy individuals, relatively robust if they take a corner badly and slam into the tarmac. (Yes, it’s happened to me, resulting in slight injuries and embarrassment, as I looked up to see twenty concerned strangers peering at me…) The same isn’t true for many older Dutch riders, for whom – although regular cycling may already have helped extend their healthy life expectancy – a similar ‘single vehicle’ incident might prove serious or even fatal. Obviously, the Dutch are keen to reduce single bicycle collisions, and it’s important to ensure older cyclists stay on their bikes and stay safe, but those tragedies are still somewhat different to the grim and steady toll of death-by-HGV that we see in London.
Mindell et al also produced a breakdown for age-related risks for English and Dutch cyclists, and it’s instructive to find for my age group – people in their thirties – the risk from cycling in England is a staggering 7.4 times higher than the risk for cycling in The Netherlands. Even with the gender adjustment previously made, this remains 6.6 times higher.
So many people have been killed who might still be alive if we made our road environments safer for cycling. In 2012, 118 cyclists died on Britain’s roads. If these were as safe for cycling as Dutch roads, even using the gender adjusted comparison, that figure might instead have only been around 35; with around 80 of those people still alive today. Or to put it another way round, we could have around one in eight people cycle to work, rather than around one in thirty, for the same number of deaths.
Serious train crashes that kill eighty people are shocking incidents, which lead to questions of responsibility and beyond that, to examinations of the systems that failed to prevent such a tragedy. Trains are high-speed, complex machines, and there are risks inherent to train travel, but we rightly believe there should be systems in place to manage these risks and prevent deaths and serious injury. Avoiding dying in a train crash is not seen as a responsibility of individual passengers. And yet every year, large numbers of people have been dying unnecessarily on Britain’s roads, and will continue to die, simply because our roads have not been made as safe as they could be. It’s not an issue for individuals to manage. It’s an issue for the politicians and the transport authorities at every level. This is why Londoners should support the LCC’s protest ride to demand safer streets, and respond to the latest Aldgate plans – which include a one metre cycle lane alongside an HGV loading bay. (See Danny Williams’ excellent summary here).