Enabling and encouraging people to cycle

John Franklin

A paper presented to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign AGM on 5th October 1999

This paper considers the best way to provide for cyclists, in the context of encouraging cycle use and achieving modal shift from car to bike.

Great Britain: a history of high cycle use

People think especially of the Netherlands and Denmark as cycling countries and use these as models for how to encourage cycling. In particular they assume that the special cycle facilities present in those countries are necessary in order to achieve high cycle use.

However, Great Britain, too, had high cycle use for more than half of this century. In 1956, cycles accounted for 17 per cent of total vehicle mileage, and in many towns a quarter or more of journeys were made by bike, as still is the case in Cambridge. These are similar figures to many Dutch and Danish towns. Britain does not, therefore, necessarily have to emulate other countries to increase cycling.

Cycle use was high in the 1950s because many people had to cycle. Most people couldn’t afford a car and public transport was unsuitable or too costly. Cycling was the most practical way to travel within the constraints of the time.

What special provision was there when cycling was popular in Britain? Hardly any. 99.9% of cyclists used the general roads, mixing freely with other traffic. Many towns were as congested then as now, although the traffic mix was different and streets were often narrower. There were extra problems for cyclists, such as tramlines, horses, cobbles and other rough surfaces. In Britain, precedent has already been established that you don’t need special facilities to get high cycle use.

A few cycle tracks were available, but they were rare. In 1938, in a ‘Report on Accidents to Cyclists’, the Ministry of Transport noted that cycle tracks increase danger at every junction. In due course, most tracks fell into disuse, not just because of the decline in cycling but because those who continued to ride chose not to use them.

Risk and the decline of cycling

From the 1950s cycling declined as car use increased. People purchased cars because of greater affluence and the declining cost of car ownership; the speed, comfort and convenience of cars; the ability of a car to carry more easily the increasing purchases of a booming consumer society; fashion and social trends; and the challenge, excitement and skill of controlling so powerful a vehicle.

All these reasons for car ownership were positive from the point of view of the person making the decision. Most people didn’t choose to stop cycling – they chose to start driving. In particular, most people did not stop cycling because of negative reasons, such as danger. If danger had been a major concern, people would never have migrated to a car, but to public transport. When cycling was commonplace in Britain, most people did not worry unduly about danger, just as confident cyclists don’t now.

Since the 50s, risk when cycling has increased – but not by much! Statistically a cyclist is about twice as likely to be seriously injured now as in 1955. That sounds bad, but even now the average cyclist can expect serious injury only once in every 80 lifetimes, and death due to cycling in more than 4,500 lifetimes. Cycling is 20 times more likely to lengthen life than shorten it, and cycling is safer than many sports and common activities. Is that level of risk something to lose sleep about?

Furthermore, some of the increase in risk is a direct consequence of fewer people cycling. As more people cycle, so individual risk goes down.

Just three developments have, I believe, led to real increases in danger:

  1. Large roundabouts on high-speed roads, which can be a problem even for skilled riders. However, these are relatively uncommon in most urban areas and most people do not need to use them for their daily journeys.
  2. Slip roads, which are even rarer, and where it is easy to take counter-action if you understand the problem.
  3. Car performance: fast acceleration and braking more than absolute speed. This is a particular problem for other road users, which special facilities do little to mitigate.

A new era for cycling, but will it be realised?

Today it is widely recognised that increasing car use is bad for society. Cycling is seen as environmentally more attractive, and part of the solution to transport problems. Government transport plans have targets for more people to cycle. At present, however, there’s no hope of them being met.

For cycling is now widely perceived as being ‘dangerous’, and policies to promote cycle use are nearly all ‘danger’ based, believing that it is necessary to be seen to reduce danger in order to encourage more people to cycle. Hence the widespread emphasis on segregated cycle facilities, so that people can cycle away from traffic, and the promotion of cycle helmets.

However, if you keep telling people that special arrangements are necessary to cycle in safety, they are bound to construe that cycling is inherently an unsafe activity and thus to be avoided. You don’t encourage people to do something by emphasising – indeed exaggerating – its danger.

As previously said, in the 1950s when cycling was common, people were relatively little concerned about cycling safety, but now there is an obsession with it. Why, and whose fault is it? I believe that there are three principal culprits:

  1. Road safety practitioners who, for years, compared cycle and car safety on the basis of mileage travelled alone (a fairer basis is exposure, or time). This showed cycling in a comparatively poor light, which was widely publicised, in part in order to deter people from cycling.
  2. Doctors and other health professionals, who in recent years have put great emphasis on the risk of head injury when cycling in order to encourage cycle helmet use. They have tried to solve a perceived problem without looking at it in context to relative risk or the wider health benefits of cycling.
  3. Cycle campaign groups. I include myself in this criticism, for I have been involved in cycle campaigning for more than 20 years. Like others, I have often emphasised danger to get the attention of decision makers and in order to get the support of the media. I now believe, however, that the cycling lobby is guilty of a massive own goal.

The effect of these actions has been to create a problem over cycling safety where previously it scarcely existed, and to scare thousands of people from cycling. It has led people to believe that they can’t cope with even simple traffic situations; the belief that cycling is only feasible away from traffic under ideal conditions that in practice cannot be realised. It has lowered the public’s expectations of cycling as a practical means of transport.

Are present policies to improve safety effective?

There is a mass of literature about cycle facilities, and most of it is not supportive of segregating cyclists from other traffic. In Berlin, cyclists are four times more likely to crash off-road. In Denmark – frequently cited as having a cycling safety record 10 times better than the UK, although I believe this to be exaggerated – the creation of 105 new cycle paths led to an increase of 48 per cent in cyclist casualties, as well as more injuries to pedestrians, mopedists and car occupants. In Sweden, cycle lanes were found to increase danger by 10 per cent and cycle tracks 3 to 12 fold. There are many other examples.

I have tracked cycle casualties in Milton Keynes for 20 years, where the extensive cycle path network has a crash rate more than five times worse (relative to mileage cycled) than the unrestricted main roads, which have large roundabouts at most junctions. In 11 years there have been 7 deaths on the cycle paths, against one on the roads.

In other places in Britain cycle facility crashes are becoming significant, although most go unreported. For a long time, ‘riding off footway’ has been one of the commonest crash causes for children; now it is becoming so for adults. Many facilities are of poor quality. Uneven or unpaved surfaces, which give particular difficulty to novice cyclists, are common.

Cycle tracks originated in Germany. There and in the Netherlands, the first tracks were sponsored by car companies to get cyclists out of way of other traffic so that cars could go faster. They were not introduced for the benefit of cyclists’ safety.

Cycle helmets, too, have an unproven record of fulfilling promises of better safety. A study of cycling casualties in Greater London from 1984 to 1996 – during which time helmet use rose from virtually nil to just under 40 per cent – reveals no reduction in any severity of injury to reflect increased helmet wearing. Indeed, crashes were on average more severe at the end of the period than at the beginning. Research in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has similarly failed to show a positive helmet effect.

Where we are now

Despite no improvement in cycling safety, present policies are having a marked effect. The result has been:

  1. A mass of low-quality cycle ‘facilities’, many of which make cycling more difficult even for the competent cyclist. Narrow cycle lanes, confusing junctions, calming humps and centre islands are leading many cyclists to avoid particular roads in a way that traffic alone never did.
  2. A huge increase in pavement cycling, a direct consequence, I believe, of the promotion of special facilities in general and of shared cycle/pedestrian paths in particular. Cycle facilities increase fear of cycling elsewhere, and people lose the confidence to use even low-trafficked roads.
  3. Standards of cycling and the competence of cyclists have declined, especially where there are many facilities. Fewer cyclists now seem to understand the basic principles of road sharing, including such fundamental concepts as keeping left and stopping at red lights.
  4. Increased aggravation between cyclists, pedestrians and community groups.
  5. An increase in the commitment needed to cycle voluntarily as conditions have become worse.

At the same time, present policies seem to be having a negligible effect on getting more people to cycle (or at least to cycle regularly). In the last few years, coinciding with the most widespread introduction of cycle facilities ever seen, cycle use has again declined, following a rise for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The decline is currently about 7 per cent per year. If I had to use the facilities now being provided, I, too, would probably stop cycling.

A positive way ahead

Efficiency and comfort are probably more important in getting people to cycle than safety, whatever opinion surveys may suggest. People won’t swap the comfort of a car to ride on a shoddy, narrow, converted footway, with difficulties at every junction, just because it avoids traffic most of the way.

It is time to stop the ‘blind leading the blind’. Many people who justify present policies by citing the special needs of people new to cycling haven’t a clue as to what novice cyclists require. Policies should seek to enable competent and skilful cycling, and be aimed at those most likely to change mode and cycle confidently. Too many strategies are aimed at the wrong target groups.

The following policies could enable more people to gain the confidence to cycle:

  1. Banish the words ‘danger’, ‘accident’ and ‘safe’. ‘Safe’ implies danger and is just as counter-productive. ‘Safe routes’ are seldom better than others.
  2. Take the emphasis off special facilities (except cycle parking) and stop the promotion of helmets.
  3. Emphasise the positive virtues of cycling: health and fitness, speed in towns, flexibility, easy parking … enjoyment!
  4. Put the engineering emphasis on fast, comfortable routes, especially using main roads (without segregation) and good surfaces. Remove access restrictions.
  5. Promote cycling as a skilled activity and help people to acquire the skills for basic competence. Cycling – like driving a car – should be a skill that people aspire to acquire.
  6. Regulate and restrict car performance.

Whilst such policies are unlikely in themselves to bring about a great increase in the number of people who cycle as a means of transport, they are much more likely than present policies to give more people the confidence and impetus to cycle when constraints to car use are imposed through sustainable transport policies. Cycling must, once again, become the most practical way to travel within the constraints of the day.

John Franklin, October 1999