Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cycling in recessions

Mark King has written a very unfortunate, ill-researched piece in The Guardian, this week, titled Cyclist deaths rise during recessions, figures suggest.

The article tells us:
The DfT's 2011 annual report on UK road casualties shows that cyclist deaths across the UK rose by 7% last year, up from 104 in 2009 to 111 in 2010, just as many of the government austerity measures were kicking in. In the first half of this year the number of cyclists killed or seriously hurt on UK roads rose 12% year-on-year. Cycle deaths also rose by 58% between 1930 and 1935 and by 14% between 1980 and 1984. After both the 1930s and the 1980s recessions, the number of cycle fatalities fell back once again.

The idea that cyclist deaths automatically rise when cycling numbers rise seems a very crude one, ignoring all the factors around danger and the sources of it, and it is also the direct reverse of what the CTC is always telling us, which is that cycling should get safer the more people that do it: the safety in numbers effect. I have argued that the safety in numbers effect is not true, in the way the CTC means it, but it is also patently foolish to regard the background of risks to cyclists as a fixed given, the number of casualties then only being related to the rate of cycling.

To deal with the early 1930s: the period mentioned saw a huge expansion of motor traffic on the roads. All speed limits were removed by the Labour government's Road Traffic Act of 1930. 1934 was the record year for UK road casualties, with 7,343 deaths and 231,603 injuries, half of these being suffered by pedestrians. The new Conservative transport minister in 1934, Leslie Hore-Belisha, described this as "mass murder", and introduced the 30mph limit in towns, plus the driving test and other reforms, which had a big effect in reducing casualties from 1934. So, although there was a depression in the early 1930s, there were a lot of more relevant things going on from the point of view of cycle casualties.

And there have been a lot more relevant things going on recently, as anybody who follows this and similar blogs will realise. Such as the previous transport secretary, Philip Hammond's, War on the motorist rhetoric, his talk of raising speed limits on motorways, his cuts in road safety spending, his sidekick Mike Penning's Daily Mail driven anti-speed camera rhetoric and policy, Boris Johnson's "smoothing the traffic flow" policy, his massive cutting of expenditure on cycle safety, despite rising numbers of cyclists in London, his creation of disastrous new cycle facilities on the cycle Superhighways which have already claimed lives, and poorly-judged anti-cycling street changes elsewhere in London. And so it goes on.

Apart from all this, Mark King has completely misinterpreted Department for Transport casualty statistics, as they record contributory factors to "accidents" (based only on an arbitrary opinion of a police officer at the time, a critical piece of information King does not mention). His mistakes are pointed out by Jim Gleeson:
[King's article] gives the impression that errors by cyclists themselves are the dominant factors contributing to cyclist deaths. And that would be the wrong impression, because (a) the figures quoted refer to all accidents, not just fatal ones, and (b) by definition they exclude any actions of motorists or other non-cyclist.
As the TRL report says, "attribution is split fairly equally between the cyclist and driver/rider of the motorised vehicle". 
The worst aspect of this article, however, is its overall thrust that cyclist casualties are generally the cyclists' own fault, for somehow riding incorrectly. So there is no discussion of the basic, endemic UK problem of purely car-centric road design, except for passages quoted from a cyclist called Paul Codd, emphasising the problems created by cycle lanes, from a vehicular cycling perspective:
"Cycle lanes in some cases can be part of the problem, the seemingly random lanes imposed on older roads. These lanes encourage cyclists to 'ride in the gutter' which in itself is a very dangerous riding position – especially on busy congested roads as it places the cyclist right in a motorist's blind spot."
Such issues (as this blog is always saying) are problems of badly-designed cycle lanes, not of cycle lanes fundamentally. There is no discussion of how our European neighbours manage cycle infrastructure, nor of the differences in real and subjective safety between their roads and ours. There is no discussion of how those places achieve far higher cycling rates with far lower casualty rates. There is also no discussion of motor speed or enforcement.

The closest King gets to the critical subject of infrastructure is where he writes:
Of the more recent high-profile fatalities in the capital, poor navigation at hotspots, such as Bow roundabout and Blackfriars bridge, as well as irresponsible driving by lorry drivers have been cited as key contributors.
Navigation? Hotspots? What the heck is he on about? Everybody knows that the problem is fatally-flawed, car-centric road designs that Transport for London refuses to change because its number one priority is getting cars through junctions. Particularly, of course, the killer gyratory systems like King's Cross and Bow. Can we call a spade a spade please, Mr King?

There is mention of training for cyclists (of course, because the emphasis here is all on what cyclists do wrong):
Lloyd said improved awareness of cycling safety training might help reduce the number of deaths, along with better education for younger cyclists.
This is Charlie Lloyd of LCC, but I suspect he has been very selectively quoted, as I am pretty sure that Charlie would not agree with an emphasis on cycle training while ignoring all that is wrong with our road system that is contributing to the appalling casualty level for cyclists.

The Guardian's article is somewhat analogous to a discussion of the "causes" of rape that analyses how many women are "responsible" themselves for becoming victims through wearing short skirts or high heels at the time. It is not possible to comment on the article on The Guardian's website. I hope, however, they will allow a right of reply. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain would certainly be willing to correct the lamentably inaccurate view of the subject given by Mark King's article.

1 comment:

  1. A very good analysis of a poor newspaper article. I spoke with Mark King a few weeks before Christmas, he was clearly preparing an article for publication over the holiday season when there would be a dearth of real news.

    As you say, I was selectively quoted, I pointed out that his statistical analysis did not hold for all recessions and that it was meaningless without reliable information on the changes in the number of cyclists.

    The comments about cycle training and bikeability were in response to his comments on cycle-proficiency. I do feel we have to promote Bikeability as much as possible, it is excellent training but is only available in a minority of schools. In the Netherlands all children have cycle training and have to take a written and practical exam at about 11 years old. It is an essential pre-requisite for learning to drive a motor.