Thursday 18 February 2010

Is cycling getting safer in Britain ?

Recent reports have pointed out that there is a welcome downward trend in cyclist deaths in the UK. The numbers come from Office of National Statistics report. However, some reporters have gone further, and claimed that this is evidence of a "safety in numbers" effect, in that fewer injuries are occurring because the number of cycle journeys made in the UK is growing.

Unfortunately, that conclusion is without any evidence to support it. For as long as I can remember, cycling organisations in the UK have made regular claims that cycling is booming. It may be more palatable news than reporting a decline, but actually there has been a downward trend since the 1950s, and cycling currently bumps along at probably the lowest figure it can reach. Currently about 1.6% of journeys in the UK are by bike - about the number you get anywhere where cycling is under stress. It will never be 0% because there are always bicycle fanatics1 who will cycle whatever the conditions, and always a few people for whom cycling is the only viable option due to its low cost.

So what is 1.6% ? Well, as you see above, the average British person makes 16 journeys per year by bike. That's as many as the average resident of Groningen makes in 11 days. Of course these journeys are not spread evenly through the population. The fanatics cycle much more than that, and to make up for it, 70 % of the British population doesn't cycle at all. Not even once per year.

Note that the article referred to above, and the ONS document, both claim there has been a "17% increase on the previous year" in cycle journeys based merely on looking at the numbers for 2007 and 2008. However, the number of cycle journeys per year are reported as being between 14 and 16 for every year between 2002 and the present. This is just statistical noise, not a trend.

I suspect that there are two reasons for the apparent improvement in safety of cyclists in the UK. One reason is that the demographics have become yet more narrow, leaving just the fanatics, who tend to be experienced, cycling.

Fewer British children are cycling, and children have never been the safest of road users (indeed, the UK's record on road safety for children is one of the worst in Europe).

Perhaps this second set of numbers from the same document better explains the increased apparent safety of cyclists in the UK. While no figures are given for children cycling to school (it's been very low for many years, and the document notes that "Other" generally means a local bus), fewer children than ever now walk to school. Indeed, the most common way for primary school children to get to school in the UK now is by car.

Reading the document you find such passages as "The majority of children aged 7 to 10 were usually accompanied to school by an adult in 2008 (86 per cent), an increase from 78 per cent in 2002." and that the main reason for accompanying children was "traffic danger (58 per cent)."

It seems reasonable to assume that a similar change has occurred in child cycling.

Others have noted that teenage girls hardly cycle at all in the UK. Other groups who feel less than confident on Britain's subjectively unsafe roads are also less likely to cycle now than in the past, or in countries such as the Netherlands where children have a remarkable degree of independence through cycling and virtually everyone cycles.

Context. How are cyclists doing relative to other road users ?
We must also put the improvement in safety for Britain's cyclists in the context of an overall improvement in road safety in the UK.

Britain's roads have become safer for all modes of transport, and actually cycling's improvement is smaller as a proportion (roughly 40% of the risk there used to be) than most other modes (driving now has 30% of the risk it used to have).

Compared with driving, cycling now has a risk 12.7 times as large per km travelled, when it was just 9.3 times as risky in 1981. So, to answer the question posed at the top, cycling in Britain is now safer overall than it used to be, but it's less safe than it used to be relative to driving.

We touched on school travel above, and I think it's interesting to compare the high profile that Britain has achieved internationally based on claims to have achieved changes in school travel ("The UK is a world-leader in terms of School Travel Plan (STP) development and implementation") with the reality of how walking to school has declined in the country. The comparison with the Dutch situation is stark. Words from government aren't enough. What is needed is the infrastructure which makes people feel safe when walking or cycling, which makes it an attractive and convenient thing to do.

Streets in these two countries look completely different and that's why people's behaviour is different.

I've pointed out before that Britain's overall record on road safety may be good, but it's not been achieved in the same way as the Dutch have achieved their even better record.

You can read more on the effect of British policy on children.

2013 update
The British government reports that "The number of pedal cyclists killed rose by 10 per cent from 107 in 2011 to 118 in 2012. In addition, the number of pedal cyclists reported to the police as seriously injured in a road accident increased by 4 per cent to 3,222. There is a well-established upward trend in pedal cyclist casualties; this is eighth year that the number of seriously injured cyclist casualties has increased." (thanks to GB Cycling Embassy)

True improvements in cycling safety in the UK will result from building a proper network for cyclists, not through wishful thinking about safety in numbers.

2015 update
The inevitable result of  slightly more people cycling with the same dangerous conditions is a rise in cyclist injuries (the blue line). Courtesy of Sam Saunders and the UK Department for Transport.
Britain's roads continue to get safer for motorists as road and car design improve the safety of those who use motor vehicles. We should not be surprised that the small rise in cycling in recent years has led to more cyclists being killed and injured because cycling infrastructure has not improved in the UK.

Dutch road safety improvements were due to sustainable
, not wishful thinking about safety in numbers.
This is as we should expect. There is no "safety in numbers" effect. It has never existed. Cycling is safest where the cycling infrastructure removes danger and safer cycling conditions lead to more cycling. That is why the Netherlands still leads the world in cyclist safety.

1Don't be offended. I number myself amongst the fanatics.


electric said...

I seem to recall a UK police force caught omitting certain accident types involving cyclists... This was about 1.5yrs ago maybe? I much prefer the hospital admission numbers for cycling accidents to be included.

Anyways, I think there is a lot of wishful thinking on behalf of the cyclists and police.

MiddleAgeCyclist said...


Fanatic!? I prefer committed or even dedicated. Fanatic kind of marries with obsessed or sad (although sometimes my wife calls me obsessed when I'm blogging come to think of it). Agree with all the points you make though.


I speak as an A&E nurse in the UK. While I agree the figures would be valuable, I doubt NHS coding would be able to differentiate a "cycling accident" from any other form of Road Traffic Incident (RTC) involving any and all road users.

The mechanism of injury is of interest to clinicians but of little use to others within the NHS. I also feel a fair few cyclists involved in a 'minor' RTC wouldn't present to hospital anyway so any figures so collected would only show the fewer serious injuries.

Personally I find the bulk of RTC presentations tend to be for whiplash after a rear end shunt. Very few cyclists arrive in A&E in comparison, in fact the only one I have seen in the last 6 months was a guy who busted his shoulder when he hit black ice on his commute.

townmouse said...

There are some hopeful signs, though (maybe it doesn't look that way from the perspective of the NL). One is that cycling in the capital (= the UK, as far as the bulk of the media and policy makers is concerned) is going up by any measure. Maybe, just maybe, cyclists will start to be considered as legitimate interests when decisions on spending and road building are made (although it would help if the various cycling organisations didn't fight like rats in a sack over whether cycling lanes are a good thing or the work of the devil). The second is the increase of 20 mph zones, largely for pedestrians' benefit, but which have to have a knock-on effect on other road users as well. Ok, it's not anything like what's going on over in the continent, but maybe we can start to build on that, no?

(I have to remain somewhat positive, otherwise why bother?)

Anonymous said...

I'm still laughing, if you have a Velomobile in the UK you may well be considered a fanatic. True those remaining cyclists in the UK are not ordinary citizens. Hey, I rode to work in the snow today.
Is it getting safer, no, but we are down to killing "just" fifty people each week, how nice.
That said the risk of cycling is unbelievably exaggerated by the use of the per km distance rather than per journey. The passenger deaths table gives a picture that cycling is 12 times as deadly as being in a car, but the hidden truth is that you travel greater distances in the car. Compare the number of journeys - 410 by car and 16 by bike, 26 to 1, and then the number of deaths 2538 and 115 (for 2008), 22 to 1. Not so much different when it comes to arriving alive, certainly not 12 times.
We shouldn't lose sight of the number of injuries and these work out at 14 to 1 so you are less likely to be injured when traveling by car, but again the difference is not as great as one is led to believe.
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

Anonymous said...

If you want more detailed figures on home-to-school mode share, there's a data set called "NI 198" (Google should work) that has mode share for a limited number of UK local authorities. For primary schools, the number is generally 1% or lower, for secondary school 4% or lower, with some spikes (generally mid-size sleeper towns, plus Cambridgeshire). Now contrast that with your Kloosterveen school video :)

freewheeler said...

I'd disagree with 'townmouse' that there are hopeful signs in the UK.

The rise in cycling in London remains insignificant in relation to modal share, and while commuter cycling on main roads has increased, cycling by children in London has plunged. I almost never see unaccompanied children riding bicycles in London. The few that I do see tend to be tough, streetwise young teenagers on BMXs.
I'm not surprised by this. One local school has had its access made one-way to accommodate motor traffic flow and on-street car parking, yet the cycle route sign remains up, directing schoolgoing cyclists the 'wrong' way.

20 mph zones don't necessarily make for cycling-friendly streets. Much of my cycling is in such zones, but there's nothing pleasurable or relaxing about cycling along a narrow street lined with parked cars on both sides, with drivers coming at you head on, or overtaking recklessly close. The traffic calming in 20 mph zones often fails to reduce speeds to below that limit. You may well get a reduction in casualty figures, what you don't necessarily get is streets which are cycling-friendly.