The “85th percentile” speed is a speed at which 85% of traffic will be travelling at, or below, along a street or road (under free flow conditions). It’s typically associated with the setting of speed limits, and (more controversially) often used as an argument against lowering them, or enforcing limits.
In particular, some police forces have been reluctant to enforce 20mph limits that have been introduced on roads that previously had a higher speed limit, without any changes to the design of the road, on the basis that enforcing this lower speed limit will prove to be too much of a drain on their resources – too high a proportion of drivers will be exceeding the new (lower) limit.
I have to admit I have changed my position on this issue over the last few years. Previously, I had been of the opinion that a speed limit is a speed limit, and that it should be enforced, regardless of how many people are breaking it. That any refusal to do so was effectively a ‘cop out’ (excuse the pun) on the part of the police.
But I think the police (or ACPO) are exactly right when they say
Successful 20 mph zones and 20 mph speed limits are generally self‐enforcing, i.e. the existing conditions of the road together with measures such as traffic calming or signing, publicity and information as part of the scheme, lead to a mean traffic speed compliant with the speed limit.
To achieve compliance there should be no expectation on the police to provide additional enforcement beyond their routine activity, unless this has been explicitly agreed.
In other words, the 85th percentile speed (the speed at which 85% of drivers are travelling at, along a road) should correspond much more closely with the posted speed limit through the kinds of measures the police list here – in particular, the design of the road. Research carried out for Manual for Streets shows that the speed at which drivers travel along a road is influenced by its design – principally its width, and forward visibility. If plenty of people are breaking a limit, that probably tells you either the limit is wrong, or the design of the street is wrong. Something has to give.
And this is the reason I am suggesting that the ’85th percentile’ could actually be a force for good – it cuts both ways. While it can be used to reinforce the status quo, it can also tell us that the design of a road is inappropriate for the posted speed limit.
Take, for instance, a situation in which a residential street with a 30mph limit has that limit lowered to a 20mph limit, without any changes to the design of the street, or to the motor traffic network. Let’s then say that the 85th percentile speed of motor traffic on this street, after the introduction of the lower limit, is much more than 20mph – close to 30mph, for instance.
What does this tell us? It tells us that the design of the street isn’t doing its job. While it might be a good idea in the short term to get the police out with speed cameras, a long-term solution should be to change the nature, character (and usage) of the road so that the 85th percentile speed on it is much closer to 20mph.
So the 85th percentile is an effective way of demonstrating when speed limits and road design are out of kilter. Take, for instance, this 20mph limit on Midland Road in London, running between St Pancras and the British Library – just one of many main roads in London that have, in recent years, had their limits lowered from 30 to 20mph without any change to the design of the road.
I don’t know what the (free flow) 85th percentile speed of motor traffic is here, but I’d be willing to bet good money it is way, way over 20 mph – this is a wide road, with three lanes of motor traffic bearing down on Euston Road, in one direction.
Again, we could get the police out here with speed cameras, but really, the discrepancy between the posted limit and the way people are actually behaving on the road tells us that something more serious is wrong here – the messages the road is sending out to drivers don’t correspond to the limit that has been painted on it. Something has to give.
By contrast, in this early-1990s 20mph zone in Horsham – designed to be self-enforcing – it’s pretty much impossible to drive at 20mph (despite it being one-way!).
A combination of speed humps, tight corners, limited forward visibility and surfacing means that the 85th percentile speed is likely to be at (or even below) 20mph, which tells us that the speed limit and the design of the road are in agreement, and there’s little or no need for enforcement.
The same logic can be applied to 30mph roads too. This road in Wageningen, NL, has a 50km/h speed limit – and it’s reasonable to assume that the 85th percentile speed will be at or below that speed, due to the design of the road.
The carriageway is very narrow, with motor vehicles barely passing each other, and has no centre line.
And there are other ways of bringing the 85th percentile speed into line with a 50km/h (or 30mph) limit on these kinds of distributor roads – for instance, pinch points for motor traffic (that don’t affect cycling).
So if the 85th percentile speed on a 30mph road near you is (under free flow conditions) closer to 40mph, that should tell us that action is needed to bring driver behaviour more closely into line with the posted limit, through these kinds of measures. Principally, perhaps, by reclaiming a good deal of the carriageway for cycling, consequently narrowing it down for motor traffic.
I hope this explains why I’ve changed my mind, and why the 85th percentile can be a constructive tool for improving streets for walking and cycling!
A few months ago I commented on the new Waitrose/John Lewis retail site in Horsham, principally in relation to the way the visualisations of the (then yet to be opened) new development ducked the problematic issue of a very busy road severing the site from the town centre, but also on the potential difficulties of getting to the site by bike and on foot.
Now that the site is open, it is quite obvious that, yes, walking and cycling have been completely failed by the planning process. As I hope to explain here, cycling to Waitrose and John Lewis is effectively impossible, except for those who want to cycle (illegally) on footways, or for the tiny minority of people who are prepared to ‘negotiate’ with motor traffic on a dual carriageway carrying 20-25,000 vehicles per day.
To set the scene, here’s a video I’ve made showing the ‘legal’ cycling route to Waitrose.
To repeat some of the points made in the video – this isn’t an ‘out of town’ site, it is just outside the town centre, separated from it by the road I am cycling on. The route shown in the video is the one that will have to be taken by the vast majority of people who live in Horsham if they want to ‘legally’ cycle to Waitrose – only a small proportion of the town’s population live in the ‘opposing’ direction, and they too will have to cycle on this dual carriageway, as this is the only access for the supermarket.
There is heavy traffic in the video which actually makes the experience of cycling to the store slightly less hostile, principally because of reduced vehicle speeds. At less busy times, moving out into the outside lane (as I do in the video) is much less easy because motor traffic will be travelling at or above 30mph.
The video also shows someone cycling on the footway, from the supermarket. This isn’t legal (and I don’t think it should be – the footways, as currently designed, are too narrow). But it is exceptionally common. People want to cycle to Waitrose, but faced with the choice between a four lane, high speed, high traffic road, and trundling on the pavement, people are unsurprisingly opting for the latter.
Cycling has been squeezed out on these kinds of roads for decades, and this new development has done nothing to address this root problem. The only silver lining on the cloud here is that, in undoubtedly attracting more ‘ordinary’ people on bikes to find their way along this road to the supermarket, the problem is now increasingly visible and less easy to ignore.
My video also shows the stupidity of planning entirely around motor traffic – from start to end of the video, my trip is only around 300m as the crow flies, but it takes me three minutes to cover this distance, in large part because to even get to the front door by bike (which is where people cycling should be going) I have to go out of my way to a roundabout, and then negotiate my way through two levels of a car park. There is no direct access to the front door by bike.
Some amazing open goals have also been missed here – whether by Waitrose themselves, or by council officers, or both. Mainly, there are no access points into the site from the surrounding area, only the road I cycle on in the video. This is incredibly frustrating.
Standing in front of the main entrance, it is quite easy to see the main road to the north. The silver car is travelling along this road, and the white building is on the far side. It is a distance of only 80 metres or so from where I am standing.
But there is no walking (or cycling access from here – instead, you have to go take the long way round, the motor traffic route. I’ve marked this obvious (missing) connection on the visualisation of the site – the red line.
This is looking north, across the site, to the road running east-west (left-right). But there is no connection through to the west, either – a housing estate clearly visible, and a passage there to the side of the supermarket, but… fenced off.
This missing connection would run here – again, marked in red.
Again, the absence of this connection means a walk of a few metres is converted into one of several hundred.
Nor is there access at the south-west of the site. The development looms behind the housing here (circled) but again, no direct access, no connection with an existing path running along the river.
The overall impression is of a development that has been plonked down, with no thought or consideration, no attempt to connect it up sympathetically with the surrounding area, by foot or by bike.
Anyone living to the south, west, or north of this site has to go some distance out of there way to get to it. Combined with the hostility of the road you are forced to walk along, or cycle on, this development has entrenched, indeed worsened, car dependence within the town, which is pretty appalling given that this was a blank slate, in 2014.
“Mobility measured crudely in terms of how many kilometres we move around every day has nothing whatsoever to do with quality of life, rich human interaction, satisfaction, happiness and a detailed knowledge and familiarity with places and the things we chose to do in those places.”Our roles as transport professionals or campaigners are always related to the assumption – however unstated that assumption may be – that mobility is, in itself, inherently desirable. It is, like all background assumptions or cultural themes, so deeply seated that only careful analysis will suffice in assisting us in understanding what modern transport thinking is about. And when I say “transport thinking” I mean not just that of transport professionals (highway engineers, transport planners, road safety professionals, land use planners etc.). Indeed, the current assumptions we have about mobility are so wide reaching that they impact on just about every corner of modern life.
This important and necessary book is exactly what we need to help put questions probing so many areas of modern society, as well as those immediately concerning transport professionals. Why, for example, has the cutting of the fuel tax accelerator (at massive cost to the exchequer) gone without opposition in parliament or any real public debate? If we are really supposed to be concerned about climate change, why has a level of motorisation in this country been accepted which, if universalised, would mean no prospect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions with any existing or likely technology? Do we really value local community? Are we able to even talk about all the various depredations of contemporary car culture?
In modern society, actually questioning the sense of entitlement to largely unhindered car usage is highly unusual. Some of us have tried to do so. John Adams has used the concept of “hypermobility”. With Adams and Mayer Hillman, Whitelegg carried out the key work on the loss of children’s’ independent mobility over just a short period of modern time: “One False Move”. But this kind of questioning has had little impact on actual practice, particularly in the UK.
Indeed, this questioning of assumptions – I find myself using that word again and again because it is the key one – is discouraged by those in the “Smarter Travel” movement and elsewhere as unhelpful. I disagree. Stating what is wrong with car culture and the worship of mobility is necessary. The public, as well as professionals, can benefit from being made aware of the numerous ramifications of contemporary transport and associated policies.
Biting this bullet is exactly what Whitelegg does here: I would argue that the Introduction and first two short chapters of the book are a “must read” for all transport professionals. In fact, it should be required reading for first year students on not just transport related university courses, but social science courses as the implications are so widespread. This is easily recommended because of the books concise nature and low cost as an e-book.
Of course, concision means the arguments against the villains of the piece (Air pollution; Death and injury on the roads; Energy consumption; Climate Change; Obesity and related health impacts; Community disruption; Equality and social justice; Fiscal burdens) each of which gets a chapter, are necessarily brief.
I would also argue against danger being treated in terms of the end product of death and injury. Whitelegg is a fan of the “Vision Zero” approach. Some of us are deeply sceptical of this idea, simply because death and injuries can and have been reduced precisely because of the decline of walking and cycling along with most processes of motorisation. (Whitelegg acknowledges this, but I think that he is not fully aware of how the “casualty reduction” trope has worked against reducing danger on the roads.)
Nevertheless, each chapter is worth reading, if only to provide a basis for further study. Above all, this book sets down an alternative framework for us. It is”…intended to promote the abandonment of the mobility paradigm and its replacement by something that maximises benefits to all sections of society locally and globally and minimises disbenefits. For convenience this is referred to as the accessibility paradigm.” A New Urban Design and Transport Planning Philosophy for a Sustainable Future: indeed.
The following essay is based on a review of “Is it safe in numbers?” by Christie and Pike (in Injury Prevention August 2015 Vol 21 No. 4 276-277 – see the reference to it here ) . It indicates certain attitudes and beliefs about human behaviour amongst “road safety” researchers and professionals – attitudes and beliefs which we think it important to criticise.What is “Safety in Numbers”?
The “Safety in Numbers” (SiN) thesis is associated with Jacobsen, and argues that, as Christie and Pike note:
“Based on data from the Netherlands, Denmark, USA and UK, Jacobsen’s paper in 2003 1 identiﬁed the non-linearity between the number of cyclists and pedestrians and the risk of injury from being hit by a motor vehicle. In other words, the more people walked and cycled, the fewer the number and rate of trafﬁc collisions and injuries experienced by cyclists and pedestrians—a non-linear relationship. Jacobsen, termed this relationship, ‘Safety in Numbers’ (SIN), which was shown at different levels of scale, whether at an intersection, a city or a country. More recent work has since shown SIN to occur in other countries such as Australia” (*)
I am not here restricting myself to, or defending, the work of Jacobsen. I am, however, defending the idea that people adapt to perceptions of risk (risk compensation, henceforth RC) and that SiN is a manifestation of this. In fact, a reduction in casualty rate per motor vehicle at a roundabout with the increase in flow of motor vehicles through it was noted in 1962 in a paper quoted by the father of road safety studies, Reuben Smeed, shortly afterwards. For his and other illustrations of what RC is about, see Chapter 2 here and of course the work of John Adams , particularly “Risk and Freedom” and “Risk” downloadable from his site.
RC is the causative mechanism for numerous phenomena. Some of these are the effects of “road safety” interventions which have adverse effects on those of us outside cars: the iconic case of seat belts, for example: . In presentations I often refer to the comments of Alec Issigonis about the lack of “safety features” in his Mini Minor: “If I had wanted to build a safe car, I would have put nails in the dashboard”, generally to be greeted with laughter. The effects of the use of more crashworthy cars on those outside them have been anything but laughable.
Sometimes there are beneficial types of adaptive behaviour to changes in the transport mix – albeit not ones created by “road safety” or other transport interventions. These are the ones referred to by Christie and Pike (increased numbers of people walking and cycling). Consider the following two cases. Firstly the case of an increase in cycling in the first decade of the current administration of London’s transport affairs through the GLA and TfL:Cycling in London 2000 – 2010
Looking at the annual reports by Transport for London for the first decade of his century, we see a decline in reported Killed and Seriously Injured (the most reliable casualty statistics) cyclists, moving back up to around the 2000 level in 2009. Over this time cycling approximately doubled in London, indicating something like a 40% cut in the KSI rate for the average cyclist.
What’s the explanation for this? There have been similar casualty rate declines for other modes, but these are claimed to be due to highway and vehicle engineering. There has been little of engineering with significant benefit for cyclists – the much-vaunted segregated cycle tracks promised in the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling are only being completed now, in mid-2015. Policing of London’s drivers is minimal at best, with a flurry of activity occurring at the end of 2013 after a spate of cyclist deaths.
There has been an increase in cyclist training, with some evidence that recipients are less likely to be involved in collisions – but the vast majority of London’s cyclists have not had this training. There have been advertising and publicity campaigns asking cyclists and drivers to behave in certain ways: this form of “road safety” intervention is the least proven of all types.
There is one possible area where some interventions by Transport for London may have been effective: collisions where cyclists are killed under the wheels of lorries (HGVs). While the Killed statistic is the most reliable of all casualty statistics, in London it is difficult to use, as it is small for cyclists – the annual number is typically between 9 and 18 and is difficult to use in statistical analysis. Nevertheless, the number of cyclists killed in this way stayed more or less the same during the first decade of this century despite there being an increase in lorry traffic (and even more so in the construction industry, whose vehicles are particularly implicated) in the areas where most London cycling occurs – inner and central London. Even more striking, the increase in cycling in inner London was greater than the London average: other things being equal, one might have expected the number of cyclists killed in this way to be 3 – 4 times higher than it was in this decade. (Of course, as will be pointed out below, this is not any reason for complacency – the lorries issue is one which should be addressed forcefully, as we argue here ).
What’s the reason for this? TfL during this decade made efforts to alert lorry drivers, a small fraction of cyclists have been warned not to undertake lorries, and operators were urged to use additional mirrors. But would these efforts have resulted in a massive cut in the death rate amongst cyclists? My argument would be that there has been substantial publicity (particularly in London’s Evening Standard and the London BBC and ITV news programmes), and likely informal discussion among the lorry driver community.
It is crucial to remember that this need not involve what is often referred to as “respect” for cyclists – as in so-called “mutual respect” advertising campaigns – but simple awareness of cyclists. Lorry drivers may still (or even more so) regard cyclists as a hazard or menace: the point is that they appear to be more willing to watch out for them.
Of course, outside the community of professional lorry drivers, we would expect the SiN effect to be less, as indeed it appears to be with a less dramatic fall in the cyclist casualty rate.
Of other explanations the main one raised is of course cycle helmet wearing, with use apparently increasing during this time period. On this I would refer to the work by the Cyclists’ Touring Club and other evidence collected by the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation.
In addition, we have to ask what the beneficial effect of cycle helmets would be on the Serious Injury figures. (As already noted, the annual number of cyclist deaths is difficult to use in statistical analysis, and the majority of these either involve lorries or high speed collisions with motor vehicles where helmets will have little benefit).
Even where a helmet may have had a beneficial effect after a collision, the collision should still be analysed as a Serious Injury (SI) for reporting (on the STATS 19 form) purposes. One reason for this is that where the helmet liner has been damaged (supposedly preventing a head injury from being Serious rather than Slight) the injured person should still be under observation, and thus more likely to be recorded as a Serious Injury. Another is that other injuries may fulfil the SI criteria. All of this applies even without any adaptive (risk compensatory) behaviour by either helmeted cyclists or other road users towards them.Removal of pedestrian guard railings in London
This is the second case: For the evidence see the debate with John Adams in Local Transport Today 26/08/2011. Essentially, the pressure put on motorists to have to watch out for crossing pedestrians and be more careful has had some beneficial effect. Of course, there are always other factors – like having sufficiently slow speeds – but there is still the sort of effect that SiN is all about.What we think of SiN
Our reading of SiN as a form of adaptive behaviour/RC is, like RC, something which we think of as a plausible reason for some phenomena. It is important to state what we DON’T think about it.
Firstly: “Implied in the SIN concept is that cyclists and pedestrians travel in proximity with each other and that the protective effect is similar to the protective effect of animal herds”. We have no evidence of this assumption. The “critical mass” sometimes referred to in discussions about SiN is the effect of increasing numbers impressing greater awareness on other road users, specifically drivers.
Secondly, it is not sufficient to argue that all we have to do is to increase the numbers of people walking and cycling – nor has anybody ever suggested this to be the case. The road danger reduction agenda argues that we require a shift in our everyday assumptions about transport and safety. This may be manifested through technological changes (as in highway and vehicle engineering, or in aids to law enforcement) or simply in the ways people behave.
UK cyclists riding in in countries like France and Spain point out significantly different driver behaviour towards them: the idea that UK drivers (with basically similar genetic make-up) could not change, albeit over some time, to behave the same way is nonsense. That does not mean that the usual publicity campaigns will be effective, or that relying on drivers to change their behaviour because they have also cycled will be effective. It just means that change occurs – often entirely irrespective of any official “road safety” intervention.
SiN is at least a partial explanation for some beneficial changes, and can be part of wider moves to reduce danger at source.
By contrast, the reaction of some such as Christie and Pike is hyperbolic. The attention of public health promoters was apparently “grabbed” by the concept of SiN, allowing them to make “clarion calls” resulting in :
“… a paradigm shift among planners and engineers who could think about pedestrian and bicycle safety in a different way and not be so fearful that by encouraging increases in walking and cycling they would see an increase in trafﬁc collisions and causalities”.
I doubt that there has been a “paradigm shift” except in terms of increased verbal “support” for walking and cycling, with an exception being in London – (mainly) characterised by segregating, rather than integrating cyclists with the general traffic flow. Public health professionals have been pointing out the benefits of walking and cycling for over twenty-five years, showing that the benefits of cycling in particular far outweighed the dangers even in then existing conditions (which were not to be tolerated anyway).
Christie and Pike are particularly concerned about criticism of helmet advocacy which draws attention to the adverse effects on cycling levels. Given the adverse effects of compulsion http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/17/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law/ , this is hardly surprising.(no comment is made by Christie and Pike about this evidence, nor the likely reasons for a lack of effect of mandation http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/27/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law-the-evidence-and-what-it-means/ .)
There is an alternative source of concern about SiN, namely from the new wave of cycle campaigners pushing for full y segregated cycle tracks as the key feature of a pro-cycling programme. Their argument is that such provision creates safe conditions to cycle, which then supports mass cycling. The consensus in RDRF is that while we’re happy to go along with the current push for “Space4Cycling” in the UK and London in particular, we have reservations about specific issues (driver behaviour at junctions, potential conflict with pedestrians at bus bypasses and on segregated cycle tracks), the lack of relevance on rural roads and more generally the possible adverse effects on the majority of streets where cyclists will travel in proximity to motor vehicles.
However, we are fully in agreement with the idea that cycling must be supported as an everyday form of basic transport carried out ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes, as opposed to a specialised athletic pursuit (although that can also be accommodated). Our main difference is a concern about “dangerising” existing cycling, and arguing for support for those people already cycling, as well as the full range of measures required for reducing danger at source for cyclists and others, whether highway engineering or other methods: vehicle technologies, law enforcement etc.
Our view is that high cycling rates and low cycling casualty rates per journey are achieved when cycling is regarded as a normal form of transport where special clothing and helmets are not seen as required. This appears to be at odds with Christie and Pike.
Why the panic?
There has traditionally been hostility towards increasing the numbers of people walking and cycling among “road safety” professionals, as “vulnerable road users” outside cars they are particularly prone to injury and death after collisions and not to be encouraged. (This opposition does not extend to a significant proportion of the “road safety” industry that advocates the far more hazardous form of transport that is motorcycling). Cycling, in particular, is seen as problematic.
One way this manifests itself is the way the problem is measured. For us this is critical, and requires a fundamental transformation in the way we conceptualise safety on the road. For traditional “road safety” professionals, it is the aggregate number of KSIs, or at least the aggregate number of a road user group KSIs. So, Christie and Pike mention: “…the relative high risk of injury among pedestrians and cyclists from deprived areas, where we know people walk more because there is less access to a car?” as a counter to SiN. But is there this “high risk of injury”?
What we know from such neighbourhoods is that there is indeed far more walking and street play. Taking into account this level of exposure, such pedestrians may in fact have quite a low level of risk – a low rate of injury per hour spent walking or playing in the street. But then an exposure based measure is not what the “road safety industry” is interested in.
Another indication of a scared reaction to prospects of increased cycling is: “… that 8 out of 10 injured cyclists result from single crashes not involving a collision with a motor vehicle”. Of course, as with all road crashes, there is the question of under-reporting. But there is no reason to think that there has been any change in the proportion of cyclist casualties that are under-reported: in terms of a trend, the picture is the same. Also, how serious are these collisions that might involve children playing (often off-road) on bicycles?
More importantly, is it really helpful to suggest that danger from the (ab)use of motor vehicles is not the problem? Is that what the “road safety” professionals want us to think?
The conceptualising of cycling as, we think, a key element in helmet advocacy.??? Sure enough, one of the authors mentions cycle helmet wearing as one of his two key points to consider when taking to the roads in this video . (The other is seat belt wearing which we would think of as grimly ironic in this context given the adverse effects of seat belt laws on cyclists and pedestrians) .And they ignore unreported pedestrian falls, which probably mean that figures for the relative danger of walking and cycling make cycling look worse than it is.
Christie and Pike do acknowledge that there is some sort of possible SiN effect, and call – as academics are so wont to – for further research. We would also agree with them that good quality highway engineering is required for cyclists and pedestrians.
But we need to point out the flaws in a belief system that has stood in the way of the more benign modes for far too long, and indeed been part of the problem for walkers and cyclists. If new research is indeed forthcoming, it has to take into account two features constantly highlighted by the road danger reduction movement. Firstly the hierarchy of danger in a car-centric society with discrimination against non-car modes, specifically, cycling as key. Secondly, that people constantly adapt to their perceptions of risk. Otherwise we will get nowhere.
NOTE* Linearity is the wrong word. The null hypothesis is that the risk does not change with cyclist numbers.
Some thoughts about ‘danger’ and ‘dangerising’ cycling had been floating around in my head, following recent local discussion about whether talking about ‘danger’ puts people off cycling, and whether we should refrain from talking about it all.
Speaking as she prepared to race today in a pop-up street velodrome in Broadgate, Glowinski told the Standard: “I think it can be quite damaging to talk about how ‘dangerous’ cycling is. I really don’t think it is that dangerous. The reason I think women are getting hit by lorries is because it’s an assertiveness thing. […]
“I think it’s good that cycle safety is taken seriously and highlighted so it’s high on the political agenda, and people care about road safety and think about how to make certain junctions safer,” Glowinski said. “But constant highlighting of cyclist accidents can be a bit misleading. I get told all the time: ‘You are taking your life in your own hands, you are crazy.’ It’s misleading. It’s putting people off.”
I’ve emphasised in bold the passages that I think exemplify the kinds of objections made by people who think we shouldn’t talk about ‘danger’. We’ve been here before, of course, and others have eloquently covered the same ground.
At face value Glowinski’s comments appear confused – on the one hand she thinks it’s good that safety is on the agenda, and that we are talking about how to make roads safer. But at the same time a ‘constant’ highlighting of these issues is a problem. Is it even possible or sensible to draw a line here? This leads me to believe she may have been selectively quoted, or was pushed for a quote on something she didn’t really consider.
But, more generally, I think an important distinction often gets missed here. It’s vital to stress that when people like me, who are interested in increasing cycling levels substantially in Britain, talk about danger – both in objective terms, and in the way perception of danger is a major barrier to cycling uptake – are not arguing that cycling is an intrinsically dangerous mode of transport. We aren’t say that cycling itself is dangerous.
Instead, quite specifically, we are arguing that the design of certain roads and streets, and the nature of the motor traffic using them, presents an unacceptably high risk to people cycling on them. Cycling on a quiet residential street, with very low levels of motor traffic, is acceptably safe to anyone, but obviously very different from cycling around the Elephant and Castle, or Hyde Park Corner, or through Kings Cross, places where you have to make your way across multiple lanes of motor traffic travelling at higher speeds than you.
Exposure to this kind of motor traffic is unacceptable. It continues to baffle me why, in a country that (quite rightly) takes Health and Safety very seriously, these risks continue to be tolerated. Certain kinds of step ladders have to be used in the workplace, yet it is apparently fine and dandy for local authorities to build new roads where people cycling are expected to mix with heavy traffic, travelling at speeds of 50 or 60mph, ‘negotiating’ their way into the middle of the road to get around roundabouts.
The only way these roads even appear to be ‘safe’ is because next to no-one is using them on a bike. (Despite this, cycle KSIs on these kinds of roads form a considerable percentage of the total, even if the number of trips being made on them by bike is 1-2% of the total.)
The reasons so much of the British road network is dangerous for cycling are established reasons –
In short, all the attributes that are being designed out of Dutch roads and streets, thanks to Sustainable Safety.
Meanwhile Britain squeezes cycling onto roads that are simply not designed to accommodate it safely – with predictably tragic outcomes.
Does pointing this out really ‘put people off’ cycling? I think that’s a pretty far-fetched assertion. For one thing, we’ve been talking about road safety in general for decades in often quite vivid detail – in particular, car safety – without putting anyone off driving. And we have succeeded in greatly reduced the exposure drivers face while travelling around on roads and streets, by designing more forgiving environments for motoring, that tolerate minor mistakes, and reduce the seriousness of consequences when mistakes occur. (The problem is that cycling has largely been ignored in this process).
The implication of the ‘putting off’ claim, therefore, is that cycling is an especially fragile mode of transport, one that can collapse when people talk about the downsides of it; that exposure to risk and danger, and the perception of it, genuinely is a problem for cycling, compared to other modes of transport.
But even for the ‘putting off’ claim to stand up to scrutiny, there must exist some large cohort of the population that is willing to cycle on roads that have all the kinds of problems described here, yet will choose not do so simply because these problems are being talked about.
Is this really at all probable? Are they somehow blind to the hostility of these roads and the hazards they present, yet simultaneously so danger-sensitive that mere words will stop them cycling on them?1
The general public might not be particularly au fait with the principles of safe road and street design for cycling, but those principles will correspond closely with what we as human beings can instinctively judge to be unsafe. Faster motor traffic whizzing past us at close proximity feels unsafe. Being surrounded by HGVs feels unsafe. Junctions which present multiple potential conflicts and uncertainty about what other parties might be doing feel unsafe. And so on. These are the reasons most people don’t want to cycle on Britain’s roads.
I think most human beings are pretty good at assessing risk for themselves; they might not get it right all the time, but they can judge that it is safe enough for their children to pedal around in a park, or on a small section of pedestrianised street that rarely carries any motor traffic…
… while at the same time judging that allowing their children to cycle on the road with HGVs at the junction just yards away, in the background of the same photograph, presents an unacceptable level of risk.
This is exactly the point that David Arditti makes in the post I have already linked to –
I think the advocates of cycling need to stop treating the public like idiots who cannot correctly judge what is or is not an unacceptably dangerous activity for them to engage in. I think they can judge.
The public knows that cycling itself isn’t dangerous. That’s why families will wobble around parks, and up and down trails, and in those places they feel comfortable. But they do know that cycling on certain types of road presents a kind of risk – even a feeling of risk – that they simply aren’t prepared to tolerate.
Talking about addressing those risks isn’t going to stop anyone from venturing onto those roads on a bike, who wasn’t already prepared to do so.
1. [I am vaguely aware that statistics suggest there may have been a ‘dip’ in London cycling levels following the six fatalities in quick succession in late 2013; but this is surely attributable to the deaths themselves, rather than the people making the case for changing they way roads are designed to prevent these kinds of deaths from occurring in the future.]↩
I’m currently working my way through a DVD set of films from the BFI on cycling in Britain. One of these films is called ‘Free Wheeling’, which you can watch yourself on the BFI site (although it will cost you £1).
The film was produced for the Department for Transport in 1979, and appears to be aimed at councils and local authorities, showing them what can be currently be designed for cycling, based around Local Transport Note 1/78, Ways of Helping Cyclists in Built Up Areas, which we see, and is referred to, several times in the film.
It’s quite eye-opening – there are some things in there that were obviously radical at the time, like contraflow cycling on one way streets (something that, ridiculously, we still struggle to implement with any consistency 36 years later!).
What really caught my eye, however, was this short section on signalised junctions.
To my (untrained) eye, at least, this looks remarkably like, well, a simultaneous green junction – two of them.
In the first section of the clip, we see a man on a bike setting off from a bicycle-specific signal, heading diagonally across a junction, while other people cycling emerge from the road he is heading towards.
And indeed this is precisely what happens – the man and the woman emerging from the junction opposite do head off in different directions, the woman ‘yielding’ to the man in the blue jumper.
There are many variations [of this type of junction] possible, depending on local circumstances
which funnily enough is exactly what David Hembrow has been saying about ‘simultaneous green’ arrangements for cycling – that they can work at junctions of different sizes and shapes.
The second junction in the clip is even clearer. We see two people arriving at the junction, waiting at the corner on cycle-specific infrastructure, for a green signal to progress across the junction.
Note that this ‘corner’ arrangement is precisely the same as that at ‘simultaneous green’ junctions in the Netherlands.
As the two cyclists get a green signal, all motor traffic at the junction is held.
As in the previous example, people cycling emerge from the opposite side of the junction – not directly opposite, but from a cycle track at 135° to their own entrance to the junction.
Note, again, that there is nothing to stop people choosing whichever exit they please. All these (conflicting) options are possible.
I’d love to know where these two junctions are – my guess, from the rest of the video, is somewhere in Peterborough – and indeed what happened to them, Do they still exist today?
TfL’s response to the consultation on the route of the Superhighway through Hyde Park was released last week. It reveals, yet again, a curious hostility to cycling from the Royal Parks, the (government) agency that manages the eight Royal Parks in London.
This is the same body that is effectively blocking the most sensible routing of the Superhighway past Buckingham Palace for ‘safety, operational and aesthetic reasons’; that bans cycling along the eastern side of Green Park (yet allows driving, for access); that is apparently reluctant to close parts of Regents Park as through-routes to motor traffic; that organises regular ‘crackdowns’ on cycling, including (notoriously) one last year which saw BBC presenter Jeremy Vine stopped by the Met Police for ‘speeding’ (at 16mph).
The curiousness of the Royal Parks’ position was neatly summed up by City Cyclists back in January –
it seems to me that the [Royal Parks] authority is terribly concerned that building a safe cycle route through this area might lead to conflict with pedestrians. Fair enough. But I don’t see any evidence that The Royal Parks understand that much of that potential ‘conflict’ is because they are trying to squeeze people on foot and bikes into small spaces at junctions that are absolutely mobbed by motor vehicle traffic. The elephant in the room is that there is an awful lot of motor vehicle traffic in the Parks. Why isn’t The Royal Parks worrying about removing some of that, I wonder?
And indeed this latest response from TfL to the consultation reveals that the Royal Parks are still thinking this way. For instance –
3 respondents (<1%), including The Royal Parks, expressed concern about provision for cyclists on North Carriage Drive
The Royal Parks stated that the proposals are not safe enough for pedestrians. Most of these cited potential clashes with cycles due to increased cycle congestion in certain areas of the park
The Royal Parks stated that impact on pedestrians needs to measured and a risk assessment undertaken
Nobody wants to see more conflict between walking and cycling, but it seems to me that the Royal Parks are coming at this issue from a perspective that is bound to see problems where they don’t exist, and fails to diagnose solutions where they can be found.
First of all, from the tone of their comments on this consultation, and other public responses, they appear to have a fairly fixed idea of ‘cycling’ being the preserve of fast, speedy types, posing grave danger to other users, rather than as a potentially universal mode of transport that could be used by all visitors to the Parks. Indeed, these people exist in the Parks already, and they are hardly a great danger to other users.
Ordinary people need safe routes through (and obviously to) the Parks by bike, not just ‘cyclists’, and those routes shouldn’t be compromised because of assumptions about speeding, or bad behaviour, or lycra, or whatever. If there is a genuine issue with bad behaviour, that should be tackled directly, rather than punishing everyone else by not even providing proper routes in the first place.
Secondly, all the (potential) problems with conflict between different users in the parks are almost certainly design problems, rather than any intrinsic problem with cycling itself. Where there are currently issues with ‘speeding’ in Hyde Park, for instance, it’s notable that it is on a desperately narrow shared path, along Rotten Row.
With two-way cycling on the right hand side of that white line, it’s hardly surprising that conflict with walking on the other side of the line is going to occur, with ‘fast’ cyclists seeming to come out of nowhere.
Parks across Europe handle much larger numbers of people cycling, with much less conflict, because their paths are designed to safely accommodate it. In Utrecht –
In Lyon –
And of course in Amsterdam.There isn’t conflict in these parks, precisely because there is enough space allocated to walking and cycling for everyone to get along quite happily. The problems that result from pushing people together into a tiny space isn’t a problem with cycling; it’s a problem with bad design.
This fixation on the ‘problems’ cycling might cause is even more curious in the light of the Royal Parks’ ambivalence about motor traffic levels in the areas it controls. We are told that
It is The Royal Parks’ aspiration to reduce the number of motor vehicles in the Royal Parks. It does not feel an immediate ban on cars in Hyde Park is considered feasible given the impact that this would have on those who currently visit by car and taxi.
Reductions in motor traffic would obviously be welcome, but it’s not clear how this is going to be achieved without restrictions on the routes motor traffic can take through the parks. A ‘ban’ on motor traffic needn’t even be a priority in the short term; the main problem with motor traffic in the Parks is how the roads in them are used as through routes. These roads could be converted to access roads, still allowing people to visit by car, but removing the motor traffic using the Parks as a cut-through to somewhere else.
The Royal Parks seem innately conservative; wedded to preserving the status quo, even if that is deeply sub-optimal in terms of safety and convenience, especially for people walking and cycling.