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.


Harry Lieben said...

Hello David,

I like your blog. Did you see the daily internet comic
Right now it's a lot about infrastructure and safety. Also check out the comments section.

Greetings, H@rry of the Huneliggers

Anonymous said...

I bike marshalled for London Freewheel last year. Even though we were cycling in groups down to the event, and then on traffic free roads they insisted I wear a helmet. They even had to lend me one. What a mixed message to send to all those folks dusting off their bikes for the first time in years...

Nick said...

I have to say, David, that I sometimes think that NL is one big bike bus! But maybe, after all, that's a good thing (even though it doesn't always feel that way).

Anneke said...

bike busses... of how many people? Looked like about 10 to me.
I live along a road from several smaller villages to the city centre. All secondary school kids from those villages pass our house. Most of those 'bike busses' consist of at least 80 kids. Sometimes even more. So, I'm sorry Australia, but I'm not that impressed... ;)

David Hembrow said...

I think I should explain Anneke's comment. She's Dutch, and it's quite normal here for vast numbers of children to be cycling along to get to school.

Some of the friends of my daughters ride as much as 20 km each way to get to school. Just as all around this country, this happens every day, from many directions at once, without a "bike bus", unaccompanied unless they meet up with friends along the way, and without any safety gear.

That's the result of having achieved a level of safety which is second to none.

The situation in the English speaking world (I'm English, btw) is not the same, and it's different due to a lack of attention to what actually makes people choose to cycle or not: the subjective feeling of safety when cycling.

Anneke said...

Yeah, you´re right David. I´ve been reading (and occasionally commenting) on Amsterdamize, and found your site through them.
AS you said, I'm Dutch and I remember riding in a flock of school kids and arguing about who had to ride in front facing the strong winds. :D

I live about 8 km from the centre, most of those kids probably twice as much. We never thought twice about riding our bikes to school. It's just something we did, because everybody we knew did. (I still do, to the trainstation to get to university.) The only girl I knew who ever took the bus, lived across the border in Germany (she is Dutch), about 40 km away.

I don't think I ever even questioned riding my bike until I stumbled upon some blogs about cycling (about the Netherlands and Denmark) it was then that I realised that it's not the same in the rest of the world...

David Hembrow said...


Long may it continue ! What has been achieved here is quite extraordinary in comparison with any other country.

Just as you didn't know what you had until you started looking, many people in other countries don't realise what they're missing - including many of the cyclists.

I truly wish my home country could manage to copy this success.


Adrian said...

Hi David,
Greetings from Sydney. Just a couple of points. The bike bus in the video is actually from Sydney. I don't think it runs in melbourne. I know quite a few people on the video. I take your point about the bike bus and the fluro gear being a symptom of a broader problem but its also a struggle to just get anyone on a bike let alone riding in traffic in this city. Hopefully this will change as bikes move from 1% to maybe 5% or 10% of traffic in the near future. The good thing about the bike bus is it gets people started and builds there confidence. We have three generations of Australians who were not taught to ride on the road. One of my friends who rides on the bike bus is now riding to work by herself. Your point about looking to the Netherlands and other countries is absolutely correct. It seems a shame that "we" go to anglo-american transport planners to "solve" our problems however Jan Gehl has done plans for Sydney and Melbourne CBDs in the last 4 years. Finally, the federal government has been urged to spend $800 million. We're still holding our breath to see if they actually invest the money.

David Hembrow said...


Thanks for your comment. Sorry for confusing the cities. I've changed the blog post to refer to Sydney.

I hope you don't think I was too negative about the bike bus. If it gets people cycling, that's undoubtedly a good thing.