I agree with virtually every word you say, except where you say, more or less explicitly, that cycling is dangerous. It is not, relatively speaking and relatively is the only way you can speak of any type of risk. Cycling is no more dangerous than many other activities or pastimes, and indeed in some respects is less so...Though, from how his comment develops later, I think in fact he has no real disagreement with me,
Just as people falsely assume that flying is dangerous (although it doesn't seem to stop them doing it) when in fact they are at far greater risk driving to the airport, people fear the danger in cycling, and their fear is not so irrational - a truck passing you at 30 or 40 with only a couple of feet to spare feels dangerous when of course "a miss is as good as a mile", and even if you are coldly rational about the true danger, it feels bloody unpleasant.I thought I would take up this point. So, here, rather than saying it "more or less explicitly", I'll say it so there is no doubt. Cycling is dangerous. What do I mean? I mean that by any realistic, useful definition of the word, cycling on UK roads is dangerous. So dangerous that the vast majority of people will never do it under current conditions. I will expand on this point.
I'll reveal first of all that, these days, I don't cycle that frequently. Last week, the only days I used my bike were Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Tuesday was a journey of only a total length of a mile, so hardly counts. On Wednesday I did a suburban trip through the Borough of Brent that totalled 12 miles, and on Sunday I was on a ride in the Hertfordshire lanes with a group of 10 others that totalled 25 miles. I recall two incidents with traffic clearly from this week of 38 miles cycling in town and country.
On the Wednesday trip I was cycling at about 15mph northbound on Honeypot Lane, Kingsbury NW9, the A4140, at 8:45pm. This is a main road, but it only has one fairly narrow carriageway in either direction at this point. It is further narrowed by pedestrian islands and sporadic parking. It is an extremely unpleasant road to cycle on, with most of the traffic exceeding the 30mph limit, and it carries a lot of heavy freight vehicles. I avoid it as much as I can, and recommend others to avoid it too. As I was passing through on of the pinch points created by a pedestrian island, I was overtaken by a truck travelling at about 30mph, which squeezed through the gap and passed me with about a foot clearance. I was shaken.
The second incident I recall from this week occurred on the ride in the Hertfordshire. On a narrow woodland unclassified lane, an impatient motorist in a small red car forced his way past the group, passing the cyclist at the front of the group, who had not moved in as far as the others, who were cycling in single file, with one foot clearance. As he passed he shouted "Get out of the way!"
Now on the suburban trip I was no doubt passed by many other lorries, whose drivers gave me safe clearance. And on the rural trip, the vast majority of drivers on the lanes of Hertfordshire were courteous to the group of cyclists. But the bad incidents remain in my mind. They could both have turned out very different. Because "a miss" is not "as good as a mile". That is a patently stupid saying, as it is retrospective and therefore totally unhelpful in the context of risk is that is random and statistical. You need an adequate margin for error in a lift-and-death situation. These drivers did not allow sufficient margin for error. Had something been slightly different, has something been wrong with the road surface, or the cyclists been less well in control, the margin for error would have disappeared and they could have been knocked off. Those drivers, without thinking, risked serious injury or death to those cyclists for the sake of a few seconds off their journey.
And this is the typical result of a typical week's cycling. For every 10 to 20 miles cycling, I reckon I witness at least one very close call for me or someone with whom I am cycling, irrespective of the environment. These are incidents that stick in the mind. They are incidents that, occurring to a new cyclist, as they inevitably will, trained or not, are very likely to make them say to themselves, "This is stupid. This is too dangerous. I'm not going to do that again." I believe that most people who try cycling on our roads quickly give it up, and this is the reason. Cycling is dangerous.
Now I am not interested in people giving me statistics on how many deaths per mile there are from various forms of transport. These are totally beside the point. Why? Because they don't measure the real danger of cycling on our roads. Because the cyclists on our roads now are an unrepresentative, self-selected group. Measuring their casualty rate per mile does not measure the true danger of cycling, it measures the risks to a group who are peculiarly able to mitigate the risks of cycling in fast motorised traffic though their speed, athleticism, confidence and assertiveness. This group consists predominantly of young to middle-aged men – for good reason. Their ability to mitigate the risk through their athleticism and assertiveness and does not change the fact, that, fundamentally, cycling in the motorised environment is dangerous. It is, simply, objectively dangerous to have metal boxes weighing up to several tons moving at speeds from 20 to 70 mph in the same space as unenclosed human beings. I find this such a blindingly obvious fact that I cannot for the life of me see why we have argument about it.
Paul Gannon was, as well as a cycle campaigner, a keen hillwalker and mountaineer. To pursue that avocation in Wales he left cycle campaigning and London. He would make an analogy between cycling in traffic and mountaineering. Mountaineers have all sorts of equipment that they use to mitigate the risks of their sport. Ropes, crampons, axes, whatever (I have no idea, it's not my field). The point is that their equipment and their skill is able to mitigate the risk to them, but it does not remove the basic danger of what they are doing. Mountain-climbing is without doubt an objectively dangerous activity, in the same way that cycling in fast traffic is.
Let me conduct a Thought Experiment. Thought-experiments are used by physicists, most famously by Einstein, who used them to develop the (now well-proven) Theories of Special and General Relativity. They are used to explore possibilities of reality that cannot be tested by real, practical experiments. Thought Experiments involve suspending certain aspects of reality in order to test others, which is why they are not real experiments. Let us suppose, in this spirit, that we could magically create, in an instant, a million new cyclists on the roads of Britain, distributed all over the non-motorway road system, all on their bikes at once, all appearing from nowhere in the spaces between the moving motor vehicles. Let us further suppose that they are all children and pensioners. What would happen?
Well according to the CTC's theory of "Safety in Numbers", because (they think) there is a necessary relationship between cycling numbers and cycling safety, cycling would, in that moment, suddenly become very safe, and everything would be great – lovely. But I think differently (or different as Steve Jobs might have it). I think they would all be killed. Cycling in traffic is fundamentally dangerous.
Why am I going on in this nonsensical way? Why am I writing all this rubbish about experiments that break the laws of physics that can prove nothing? My point is simply this. Whether I say that cycling is dangerous, or where the CTC or anyone else say that cycling is not dangerous, does not matter two twigs. If I say cycling is dangerous, it will not make one single cyclist stop cycling, nor prevent one single non-cyclist from starting to cycle. If CTC says cycling is not dangerous, it will not make one single non-cyclist cycle. Not of itself. For people make decisions about actions that involve physical risk on he basis of their physical perceptions. They fly in planes because it feels physically safe, not because they have studied the statistics. Similarly for travelling in cars and trains and buses.
Human beings long ago evolved the capability to measure instinctively how dangerous any activity is to themselves; they all have it – it is a visceral feeling, a feeling in their guts, and you will not argue them out of it using statistics, which are a form of abstract thought. That is just not how human beings work, not how they have evolved. A fit young person will be quite happy to jump from a river bank into a boat lying unteathered a couple of feet away, because they know their physical ability and instinctive reactions allow them to do this safely. Someone like my partner, Helen, who has multiple sclerosis, which inhibits the balance and messes up muscular reactions to complex physical situations, will not do this, because they know they can't – it would be too dangerous for them. People know their capabilities and they know what is physically dangerous to them. (Some people might be born who lack this ability, but they will tend to die young.) People make these judgements accurately for themselves. These correct, accurate, personal judgements are what lies at the root of the 1% transport modal share cycling has in Britain. People are calling the danger of cycling correctly for themselves, and all the propaganda that TfL, CTC, or anyone else can put out will never make a blind bit of difference.
In our modern industrialised society we have become risk-averse. Most, even possibly, slightly risky activities (even something as ordinary as organising any public event which might attract more than a handful of people) are institutionally and legally surrounded by the culture of Heath and Safety and risk assessment and control, often to the ludicrous, Nth degree. In this context, cycling on the roads has become a total anomaly. It is legal and uncontrolled, yet totally outside "Heath and Safety" culture – an expression of utterly the reverse, in fact.
People who get on bikes in traffic quickly realise they have no protection other than their own physical capabilities and wits. They discover that they are totally on their own. Nobody and nothing will protect them, not the Highway Code, not the police, not the Crown Prosecution Service, not the courts. And the roads are often designed to make things as dangerous as possible for them. This utterly uncontrolled, socially anomalous danger of cycling is what makes it unique as a legal activity. Being a pedestrian can sometimes have a similar character, but not for so long, as pedestrians are mostly segregated from traffic. Cycling, for a normal activity, that we would hope would be an everyday one, as opposed to a special one like mountaineering or skydiving, is tolerated by our society as uniquely dangerous.
If we want more cycling, we have to reduce the danger of the cycling environment first. We don't do this by trying to alter the cyclists – either by making them more visible, or by giving them plastic hats, or by trying to train them to fit in with the roads as they are. These approaches all fail through ignoring a basic fact of human nature: people don't want to be altered to be made more suitable for doing what others want them to do. People want what they want.
If we want more cycling we have to reduce the danger on the roads. There are many ways in which to do this. But it starts with not denying the danger. It starts with accepting the fact that, currently, cycling is dangerous.