Cycle paths are unsafe

This page is a draft and has not yet been endorsed as official Cycling Embassy policy.

Summary of the claim

It has been widely claimed that, rather than making cycling safer, dedicated cycling infrastructure like segregated cycle tracks increases the risk cyclists are exposed to. In particular, it is claimed that cycling infrastructure is unsafe at junctions, for example by reducing motorists’ awareness of the presence of cyclists and exposing cyclists to turning vehicles.

Some specific sub-claims are made:

Example sources

One of the most influential proponents of this claim is Cyclecraft author John Franklin.1 The claim is inevitably raised in cycle forums whenever the subject of segregated infrastructure arises. CTC forum discussion about a DfT study into “Barriers to cycling,” and Cyclechat, a discussion of a critique of Cyclecraft, both contain good examples of this claim.

Summary of responses

  1. All cycle paths are not created equal. Placing research on infrastructure designed primarily to accommodate the needs of motorists (such as in the UK) together with research on infrastructure designed to prioritise cycling (such as in The Netherlands) obfuscates the benefits to cyclists that the latter approach has achieved.
  2. Where “best practice” infrastructure is discussed, research in favour of cycle paths being unsafe is often cherry picked by those who are choosing to ignore the wider consensus in favour of cycle paths improving cyclists’ safety
    1. One of the most commonly cherry-picked research article is “Road safety and the perceived risks of cycle facilities in Copenhagen.” However, the methodology employed by this study compares real intersection crash figures to predicted crash figures for a road with the same traffic composition as one which had been modified with cycle infrastructure, a traffic composition which would not be achieved had the infrastructure not been implemented. The actual raw figures show that crashes reduced despite the significant increases in cycling seen on roads where infrastructure was built.
  3. Cycling is already a statistically low risk activity, the main barrier to cycling is its percieved danger. Dedicated cycle infrastructure using best practice from around the world provides the level of subjective safety and convenience needed to make cycling attractive for the average person. Whilst these facilities do decrease the risk cyclists are exposed to, this is less important than the much larger effect they have on cyclists perception of danger.

In more detail

A common myth amongst some cyclists is that dedicated facilities for cyclists are unsafe. This misconception can be largely attributed to the selection of research presented on the Cyclecraft website1. Whilst this page is stated to be “Intended to be without bias,” the criteria for which pieces of research are included and which are omitted are not specified. The page also includes research from countries who have implemented segregated facilities in a manner which prioritises motor traffic flow by getting cyclists, “Out of the way.” These approaches to cycle infrastructure are not what we regard as, “Best practice.” In some of these cases (such as in Milton Keynes here in the UK, where cycle infrastructure was built to facilitate and encourage easier driving2), there is some truth in these claims.

In order to assess fairly whether cycle paths are indeed safe or unsafe, it helps to split these facilities into two types; facilities designed to prioritise journeys by cycle and facilities designed to get cycles out of the way of cars. The former is what The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain aspires to, the latter is the kind of infrastructure which already exists in the UK3, and continues to be built to this day.

The most successful cycling culture on Earth exists in The Netherlands. Dutch cyclists enjoy the greatest level of safety in the world45. Dutch cyclists are more than three times less likely to be killed and more than four times less likely to be injured per km cycled than cyclists in the UK. When looking at these figures (or any figures from The Netherlands) it is also worth considering the differences in the demographics of cycle use in The Netherlands compared to the UK. In The UK, cycling is mainly the preserve of the young, fit and able bodied, with cycling being most popular amongst young men and much less popular amongst women. The group with whom cycling is most popular in the UK are generally very experienced road users, around their physical peak and able to cycle at relatively high speeds. In contrast to this, in The Netherlands cycle users are a much broader group. For example, the over 75s group in The Netherlands make 50% more trips by cycle per year than women of all age groups in the UK put together67, and it is common for children to cycle to school unsupervised from around age 8 and a half [8]. Despite Dutch cyclists being, on average, less “Hardcore,” they still enjoy a level of safety which is higher than for cyclists in the UK.

Denmark is another nation synonymous with the popularity and safety of cycling. Although their cycling infrastructure and cycling rates are not as impressive as the Netherlands, cyclists and Denmark are still less than half as likely to be killed and approximately four times less likely to be injured than cyclists in the UK are4. A Danish study on the safety of cycle tracks is commonly cited by those who oppose the construction of dedicated cycle infrastructure here in the UK, “Road Safety and the perceived risk of cycle facilities in Copenhagen.”9. This paper is often quoted with the eye-catching figure of cycle tracks resulting in a 24% increase in crashes involving cyclists at intersections where cycle tracks have been implemented. The study makes a few qualifying assertions, firstly in the introduction;

“Many studies of bicycle tracks have been undertaken in Northern Europe. A meta analysis10 of 11 studies shows a reduction of 4 percent in crashes, and the crash reduction is almost the same for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists respectively.”

As always, the overall body of work, as well as meta-analyses and reviews of the overall body of work such as in The Handbook of Road Safety Measures10 are more useful than simply cherry-picking an individual piece of work because they give a broader consensus on that area of research, minimising the effect of any flaws or limitations in individual studies by looking for overall trends in the body of work as a whole. Secondly, the paper also acknowledges the positive effects of the installation of separate cycle tracks;

“The construction of bicycle tracks resulted in a 20 percent increase in [bicycle] traffic mileage and a 10 percent reduction in motor vehicle traffic mileage on those roads, where bicycle tracks have been constructed.”

However, reading the methodology used to generate that 24% figure reveals that previously cyclist injuries at junctions had been measured as 353. After the installation of cycle tracks, the number of cyclist injuries at intersections was measured as 285, a reduction of 19% in absolute figures. However, the 24% increase figure is calculated from a predicted number of crashes figure for the after period, based on the changes to the traffic volume and mode composition, which predicted that at unmodified intersections with the same increase in cyclists, decrease in motorists and subject to pre-existing crash trends seen at the intersections which had been modified with cycle tracks, there should be 230 cyclist crashes. This is the figure which is used to generate the eye-catching 24% increase in crashes figure.

Taking intersections and straight sections together gives a figure of a 10% increase in crashes involving cyclists overall versus the predicted figures on un-altered junctions for the same traffic mode/volume composition (broadly speaking, a 10% reduction in motor traffic and a 20% increase in cycle traffic), a composition which is realistically only achievable where segregation is applied. The actual before and after numbers show a decrease in the absolute numbers of cyclist crashes of 29%. It is important to consider the effects of any pre-existing downward trend in crashes which could be contributing to this number, but also important to consider that this effect is seen contemporaneously with an increase in cyclists’ mileage of 20% on these facilities.

However, all of this is in fact largely irrelevant. Even on our current cyclist-unfriendly road network, cycling is a relatively low risk activity. Reducing the risks cyclists are exposed to is certainly desirable, but considering they are already low, this is less important than reducing the fear of cycling. The most commonly cited reason British people cite for not cycling is fear or traffic1112. Whilst cycle infrastructure built using best practice from around the worls would reduce the risks involved in cycling, more importantly they will make it feel safe too. Increasing people’s sense of subjective safety is a huge part of making the bicycle seem like an attractive and viable mode of transport. Another important factor is convenience. Both the need to feel safe whilst cycling, and the need for it to be convenient are provided where there are segregated cycle facilities built using best practice from around the world.

1 Cycle path safety: A summary of research

2 Two decades of the Redway cycle paths in Milton Keynes

3 Cycle Facility of the Month

4 Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany

5 Three types of safety

6 Fietserbond: Cycle usage statistics in The Netherlands

7 Cycling Info: Cycling Stats in UK

8 Hembrow: Australians’ Study Tour

9 Road Safety and the percieved risk of cycle facilities in Copehagen

10 The Handbook of Road Safety Measures

11 TfL: Cycle Safety Action Plan

12 DfT: Claimate Change and Transport Choices