Monday, 13 October 2008
Subjective safety in the English speaking world
It isn't only in the Netherlands that subjective safety matters. Here it's been dealt with to a greater extent than in most other countries. People already cycle in large numbers. It's a rather bigger problem in English speaking countries which have amongst the lowest levels of cycling, and the lowest levels of both subjective and actual safety for cyclists.
The huge numbers that turn out for one day only events like London's Freewheel demonstrate how safer conditions create cyclists. How people will cycle if the surroundings are pleasant enough. However, single day events don't give an opportunity for people to grow a habit of cycling.
There are a number of responses to the lack of subjective safety in the English speaking world. Things that people do in an attempt to increase their subjective and actual safety for at least a part of some of their journeys. Often cyclists make use of relatively indirect back roads (making journeys slower and less direct than they would be in the Netherlands where you can take direct routes without fear for your safety). Cyclists wear fluorescent clothing and can get quite obsessive about lighting because they fear they won't be seen. Helmets are common due to a perception than it makes cycling safer.
Occasionally there are organised efforts such as the "bike bus" in Sydney, Australia. This gives an improvement in the level of subjective safety felt by a cyclist riding alone on hostile streets. It's great if they get people to cycle, however, the existence of such a thing is symptomatic of a problem. The people using the "bike bus" don't feel safe enough to ride on their own, and even in the "bike bus" they don't feel safe enough to do away with helmets and fluorescents. Many more people will remain unconvinced that it's safe even with a "bike bus".
Ultimately this is the wrong approach. If cities in English speaking countries (Sydney included) had proper cycling infrastructure which made cyclists feel safe and improved the efficiency of their journeys, there would be no such thing as a bike bus. There would also be a much higher rate of cycling in the much more attractive conditions, people wouldn't feel the need to wear protective clothing, and the injury rate would fall.
The English speaking world needs to start looking for advice not amongst other English speaking countries, but to those countries where cycling is truly a part of everyday life. The Netherlands leads in this and Denmark is in second place. This is where you find the experts who have proven success in raising rates of cycling.
15th October Update
Via Amsterdamize, a story which shows that Australia is perhaps also starting to do the right thing. Let's hope it is successful.
We organise Study Tours in the Netherlands for campaigners, planners and others interested in experiencing for themselves the highest quality cycling infrastructure in the world. The Dutch cycling experts group is the Fietsberaad.