This week I came across a piece entitled “London Is About To Have An Explosion In Cycling Deaths“, posted to the website singlefile.org. As a cyclist in London, I was intrigued, so I read on. And… well, let’s say that, like a good historian, I am all about analysing the secondary literature.
Firstly, the source. At the foot of the singlefile.org home page is this description:
Every motorist has come across at least one group of cyclists who seemingly have no consideration for anyone but themselves. Indeed, you may have noticed cyclists who ride in large bunches constantly put their need for conversation above the rights of every other road user. Our aim at SingleFile.org is for future generations to have LESS reason to scream at cyclists, not more.
This, then, is an organisation which is focussed on a perceived problem of cycling and of cyclists. It is explicitly focused on giving some unspecified group “less” reason to scream at cyclists. The people who scream most at cyclists, of course, are motorists.
What of the author, Geoff Baird? According to his author biography, Baird is a “lifelong keen cyclist” who “supports the right of cyclists to use the road system”. Cyclists’ right to use roads is not in question, so raising the issue may be intended to make the author seem reasonable. The biography also notes that Baird wants to “make cycling safer for all road users, including motorists, presenting cycling as a significant threat to the safety of motorists. True, some accidents which are caused by poor cycling may result in serious harm to motorists, but basic physics dictates that, as a rule, motorists are a greater threat to cyclists than vice versa. Finally, Baird “advocates ‘zero tolerance’ for cyclists who impede traffic flow when riding in large messy groups.” In effect, this bio implies that cyclists should only be allowed to use the road if they can do so in a way which is convenient for others. All told, I think we can expect this to take a line which is not supportive of cycling.
Turning to the content, the article opens by discussing the problematic traffic levels in London, noting that car ownership is declining even while traffic volumes increase. This is attributed to, for example, more delivery drivers and private hire vehicles on the road. There’s little to take issue with in this statement of the problem. The question then is what to do about this.
The author contends that cycling cannot be a part of the solution. He identifies the contention that “only cycling can fix London’s congestion crisis” as a fallacy, which would be correct, were anyone making this contention. But this appears to be a classic straw man, set up to be knocked down. In reality, groups such as cycling UK describe cycling as “part of the solution for a low-carbon future” [my emphasis]. This is an important distinction, as we will see later.
But why does the author believe cycling can’t fix London’s congestion crisis?
- Polling shows that people would prefer to swap to buses or trains rather than to a cycling for their commute.
Setting aside the fact that the polling is five years old, this assumes that all modes of transport are equally accessible and available. I might prefer to take the tube, but not if its crowded, or if I don’t live close to a station, my preference might swap to another mode of transport. Or I might want to combine different modes of transport.
Additionally, this assumes that people’s preferences can’t be changed. But the reality is that building more safe cycling infrastructure encourages more cycling.
- Currently cycling accounted for 2% of trips in 2019. Why invest in infrastructure (and remove space from cars), for something which is only done by a minority?
This is a variation on point one. The people who will benefit most from safe cycling infrastructure are those who, at present, do not feel safe cycling and, therefore, don’t cycle. Perhaps, if we are concerned about misuse of resources and land we should build social housing on golf courses.
- Cycling infrastructure takes space from pedestrians.
Baird doesn’t offer evidence for this, but in London, most cycling infrastructure is one of three things – cycle superhighways along major routes (where there is plenty of space which can be redistributed from cars), LTNs (which reduce traffic in order to make both walking and cycling safer), or quiet ways (with cyclist directed to quieter back streets without changing the basic physical road layouts). While there are examples of shared spaces (e.g. crossing Blackfriars Bridge), these are uncommon, and are generally in areas with high levels of space to begin with. Most cycling infrastructure doesn’t impact on pedestrians in London.
- Cycling infrastructure is mostly empty, so it’s bad for tackling congestion.
This argument ignores a couple of key points:
a) Cars are empty most of the time too, and parked cars account for far more space than cycle lanes;
b) Cycles are more space efficient, so you need a proportionately smaller amount of space for the same number of people moved, and;
c) Because of supply induced demand, decreasing the space devoted for cars will encourage modal shifting by those who can travel by another means (including among the delivery vehicles Baird identifies as a major problem), making life easier for those who really do need to drive.
The next turn the argument takes is to focus on the Netherlands. The article notes (correctly), that many cyclists hold the Netherlands up as an excellent example of how to take a car-centric society and shift towards one in which safe cycling is enabled. And yes, Amsterdam is a flatter than London, but little of London so hilly as to make cycling impossible, while the higher density of London means on average shorter journeys, making cycling a better option.
But, argues Baird, Dutch cycling isn’t 100% safe, so it can’t be the cycling nirvana some suppose.
Now we come to the crux of the argument. The Author provides a screen grab of what looks like a Wikipedia article, which shows that 15 OECD nations have lower numbers of cycling deaths per million vehicles than the Netherlands, suggesting that all that investment in cycling infrastructure hasn’t prevented cycling deaths. He contends that rising traffic levels in London are a reason to oppose more cycling. “Quite incredibly, it’s in this chaotic environment London’s cycling advocates are lobbying to massively increase the number of people who ride a bike to work”.
The death rates Baird provides may be accurate (though without links or citations, it can’t be easily verified), but this argument ignores the fact that there are far more cyclists per million vehicles in the Netherlands than elsewhere. This means we’d expect far more cyclists to die relative to the number of vehicles – the table isn’t comparing like with like.
A 2021 discussion paper from the International Transport Forum addressed this problem by calculating “exposure-adjusted fatality rates“ for cycling. The Netherlands was found to have just 0.8 cycling deaths per hundred million km cycled, compared to 0.9 in Denmark, 2.1 in the UK and 5.1 in Italy. Some countries did have lower rates, but these were nations which lacked reliable data.
So 0.8 deaths per 100 million km cycled is the benchmark for a nation which has developed its built environment to support cycling, and in which fully 41% of people use a bicycle or scooter as their main mode of transport (compared to 2% of people in the UK). It’s true that is that the exposure adjusted fatality rate for cyclists in the Netherlands is more than double that as for motorists in the UK (0.33 deaths per billion km in 2018). But that ignores the health benefits of cycling. A quarter of the UK’s adult population does less than 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, yet we know that being physically active can have a huge impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. Cycling to work has been estimated to reduce all-cause mortality by 40%, which more than offsets the marginal risk associated with cycling. The health benefits of cycling clearly outweigh the risks.
The author also notes that “between 2015-2017, 82% of every Dutch cycling death reported to police involved a motor vehicle”, going on to argue that “When Dutch cyclists use NON segregated roads, the Dutch road system remains just as deadly for cyclists as any other nation in the Western World.“ This, to me, seems like an argument in favour of building more cycling infrastructure. Perhaps then, those 0.8 deaths per million km could be brought down further.
Baird then takes another digression, this time to Austraillia, where he notes that, as the number of cyclists fell (following in the introduction of a mandatory helmet law), so too did deaths. However, Baird fails to explore the change in exposure adjusted death rate, and fails to note that the exposure of cyclists to cars – which, Baird has already noted, are involved in most fatal cycling accidents – will not have changed substantially. Introduction of helmets will have reduced individual risk a bit, but given the focus of the piece is on whether or not to invest in safe cycling infrastructure, this seems something of an irrelevance.
Finally, Baird moves to some conclusions.
- As the number of people in London grows, so too does its congestion.
- London “long ago ran out of room to tear down stuff and design best case road systems with nice wide boulevards and segregated cycle lanes.”
This seems to be something of a stretch. Baird has provided no evidence for this, and there is are strong counter-factuals across Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, areas are designated as “autoluwe” – or “nearly car free” – to accommodate safe cycling and walking. This could easily be implemented in London, were there the political will.
- Cycling isn’t the solution to London’s congestion problem.
We have already addressed the false foundations of this in terms of safety and space. There is no reason cycking can’t be part of the solution.
- The solution is a massive investment into light and heavy rail.
I like trains. Trains are great. I don’t know any cyclists who are opposed to trains. But to suggest, as the author does, that we have to choose between trains and bikes is another falsehood. As noted above, cycling can and should be seen as part of the solution, but the best transport networks enable integration between different modes of transport. That is what London should be aiming for.
To add insult to injury, I’ve just discovered that singlefile.org is based in New South Wales, Australia. So London’s cycling policy is clearly super relevant to them…