Time for motorists to get on their bike

Emma* is an expert cyclist. Cycling has been her main mode of transport for 15 years – long before it became fashionable. It’s not because she’s necessarily a tree-hugger she just loves cycling.

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Almost two weeks ago, Emma was knocked off her bike, leaving her with a serious head injury. She’s just been discharged from hospital, and is making fantastic progress. Emma is also one of my oldest and closest friends. As I left the hospital late last week, I  started thinking. Given that cycling has so many benefits – environmental, social, and economic – why is it that cars still trump all other modes of personal transport whilst endangering other road users like Emma?

In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy first broadcast as a series of radio plays in the late 1970s, Douglas Adams derides the UK’s growing car-centric society. One of the leading characters, extra-terrestrial Ford Prefect (also a British car manufactured in the 1950s), we are told has chosen his name carefully to blend in with Earth society. But in fact, Ford Prefect had simply mistaken the car as the dominant life form – and who could blame him?

From the 1950s onwards we began our grand love affair with cars and cycling fell out of favour. But as car ownership exploded, our landscape evolved into sprawling cities and burgeoning asphalt networks. Sprawl reduced social capital, destroyed local economies, fostered greater dependency on energy-intensive transport systems, and increased social segregation.

Alongside the well-known environmental impacts of motorized transport, health impacts also grew. We became less active leading to an increase in the incidence in heart disease, diabetes, colon cancers, strokes and breast cancer. At the same time, risk of physical injury or death from collisions with other road users increased – and it is this change I find particularly interesting.

Road transport safety research is fascinating. It describes the delicate balance between motorist, cyclist and pedestrian with a pinch of behavioural economics for added flavour.

Take the  ‘safety in numbers effect’ for example. This well observed ‘effect’ is the inverse relationship between the number of people walking or cycling and the frequency of collisions between motorists and walkers or cyclists. In other words, the more people walk and cycle, the safer it gets for everyone else. But this also works in the opposite direction.

As the UK moved towards a car-centric society, the total number of miles cycled decreased; yet this was accompanied by an increase in fatalities per mile. This counterintuitive trend was temporarily reversed as cycling became popular again during the 1970s oil crises, but on introduction of the seat-belt law in 1983, the inverse relationship was restored. One epidemiological study suggests that seat belts made motorists feel safer, and therefore more likely to drive faster, more aggressively and further. This had the effect of transferring risk to other road users such as cyclists and pedestrians. This is a manifestation of the moral hazard – a well-known concept in behavioral economics, which holds that people and organizations behave differently when protected against risk than they would when fully exposed to that risk.

Now, I love road cycling on quiet country lanes with a group of other ‘roadies’, but taking on London traffic terrifies me to the bone. And for all Ken and Boris’s efforts (which are debatable) it still does. Apparently, I’m not alone. Perceived danger of cycling is a significant deterrent to more widespread cycling.

So we are, in effect, a nation of repressed cyclists with only fear holding us back. Women and the elderly tend to be particularly sensitive to this perceived traffic danger. This perhaps also explains the demographics of cycling in the UK – men make up over 70% of cyclists. While this is changing with the promotion of cycling in a number of the UK’s cities, including London, the gender and age distribution of cyclists is still skewed.

Improving cycle safety would, therefore, not only increase the number of cyclists, but as perceived safety improved, there would also be a positive feedback effect too – what we might call an ‘induced cyclist effect’. We’d also have a better chance of meeting our Climate Change Act targets in 10 years time. Oh and wait, there are a number of positive social benefits too.

Cycling is cheap and therefore inclusive. This means that it could potentially reduce social exclusion and lift some low-income groups out of transport poverty. Second, the public health benefits are enormous. One study due to be published in the American Journal of Public Health in October found a statistically significant negative relationship between active travel and self-reported obesity in the US at the state and cities levels. This is just one of a growing number of studies that report significant health and wellbeing benefits of active transport.

So how can we make cycling safer and therefore irresistible?

An interesting observation is that the Netherlands has the safest cycling of any country – yet only 1% of adults and 3-5% of children wear helmets. The Dutch tend to oppose legislation for helmets because they believe it discourages cycling making it more inconvenient and less fashionable. Some transport policy experts also argue that helmets may give the cyclist a false sense of security, and therefore encourage more risky riding (the moral hazard again). Furthermore, one infamous study carried out by academic Ian Walker from the University of Bath found that motorists have a strange behavioural sensitivity to the appearance cyclist. This means that when motorists overtake cyclists, the more vulnerable you look (e.g. sitting upright on a generic bike, female, no helmet) the more space you are given and therefore reducing the likelihood of a collision.

It is worth noting at this point that in the UK, research does show that wearing a cycle helmet has a significant impact on reducing serious head injuries and fatalities. I am not contesting this. My point is simply that encouraging cyclists to wear helmets isn’t the only factor that will improve cycling safety.

Demark, Germany and the Netherlands are all currently top of the OECD nations cycling safety league table. By unraveling the evolution of cycling in these nations it becomes clear that the conditions for safe cycling have, very simply, been achieved by putting the pedestrian and cyclist at the heart of transport policy.

In an excellent review published in Transport Reviews, two academics from Rutgers University in the US summarised key policies and initiatives that were used to promote cycling in Dutch, Danish and German cities. These included development of an extensive integrated network of well-maintained, separate cycle paths, intersection modifications and priority traffic signals, traffic calming, secure bike parking, coordination and integration with public transport, cyclist and motorist education and training and changes to traffic laws. These are hardly high-tech initiatives, but they work.

A combination of these cycling policies now means in a number of European cities, almost any trip can be taken on a completely separate path, lane or lightly travelled, traffic calmed residential street.

The good news is that our urban infrastructure is adaptable; it’s just a case of readjusting our perceptions of who the primary user should be (and taking on the car-interest groups). Cycling paths separated by a raised kerb (not thick blue lines painted in bus-lanes) especially around roundabouts which can be particularly hazardous, bicycle streets (where bikes have priority over cars) and advanced green lights of cyclists at most intersections are handful of the many creative modifications that could be made to our urban infrastructure.

Even more tantalising in the current age of austerity – it’s cheap too. Take for example Portland, Oregon. Their 300km of cycle networks cost the same as a single mile of urban freeway.  Plus the fall in chronic illness from physical inactivity and physical injury from road traffic accidents will save the NHS a few million too. The wins just keep coming.

This weekend was London’s Sky Ride. For one day, 85,000 cyclists enjoyed a completely traffic-free city. This was part of the Mayor of London’s attempt to promote cycling in London. We’re going to need more than political gestures to transform us in to a cycle-friendly society, and I’m not necessarily declaring that all cities should be completely traffic-free, but putting cyclists and pedestrians first in transport policy would be a start. And then, perhaps with time, this could happen all by itself…

*Emma’s name has been changed

Comments
4 Responses to “Time for motorists to get on their bike”
  1. Really nice article. I’m moving to London in just under a couple of weeks and will be cycling over 5 miles each way across Central London everyday. It scares me a little. I was thinking about nice ideas to encourage more people to cycle – you’ve come up with or mentioned some great ideas. I wonder how hard it would be to get two main cycle-only arteries that cross over Central London. It really annoys me that cars are still given priority in traffic and town planning.

    • John Starbuck says:

      What’s missing from this analysis is another reason why the magic bullet misses: it’s aimed at too limited a target. Last year I was driving on the East Lancs Road for the first time in a decade and saw that a cycle lane had been added to the dual carriageway, but was empty. It had the effect of squeezing together the cars (many of them big 4x4s) and restricting overtaking.
      However, on the single-side pedestrian footpath for many miles there were almost no pedestrians, but plenty of cyclists, evidently voting with their wheels. They didn’t trust the cycle lane and quite rightly.
      This raises a possible solution: where there are long roads with footpaths (i.e. not in crowded sections of cities) the footpaths should be officially opened to cyclists, providing they observe a Not the Highway Code. This would give precedence to 1) buggies and toddlers, 2) wheelchair users, 3) pedestrians, 4) mobility scooters and 5) cyclists.
      This would be a pretty inexpensive approach as it only requires a few signs and education. It wouldn’t need the lengthy planning process of instituting cycle lanes everywhere in a crowded island, though that’s not to say they would not be required in some instances.
      Time to campaign for some areas to pilot this approach, perhaps?

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  1. […] more from the original source: Time to tell motorists to get on their bike « Why the Magic Bullet … By admin | category: University of BATH | tags: appearance, means, one-infamous, […]

  2. […] one of my closest friends was involved in a serious cycling accident, I wrote this blog. Fortunately, she’s made a miraculous recovery. Even thinking about that phone call from our […]



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