Bicycle safety will come through changes in attitude and in the law, but it also needs investment
The Guardian, Sunday 26 February 2012
Campaigners are beginning to talk about a real watershed, a cultural shift, in public attitudes to cycling. The change they have noticed has deep roots and has been under way for a while, but when David Cameron used his bike as part of his remodelling of the Conservative image, and Boris Johnson, who cycles in office as well as out, got a scoop from Blair adviser Jonathan Powell as they waited on their bikes at a red light, Whitehall seemed to pay more attention than before. Nevertheless the momentum has got fresh energy this month with The Times’s high profile campaign on bike safety, prompted by the fate of a young reporter, seriously injured as she cycled to work in November.
Is this an idea whose time has finally come? It begins to look that way. Last week there was a well-attended debate in the Commons about making cycling safer. And a real milestone will be passed later this year, when Wales will become the first country in the world where maintaining a network of bike and walking routes is a legal obligation. There are still plenty of questions about the “network” and a certain amount of scepticism about how much money will be available for vital changes like segregated cycle lanes. But there are moments when a change in the law can itself consolidate a profound shift in mood. Welsh assembly members – and Sustrans, the lobbying organisation which has been closely involved – are right to boast about making history. The more people who bike the safer it becomes.
Here is the real irony. Recent research shows that the first reason people give for not using a bike is that it is dangerous. But figures from the House of Commons show that cycling is not as dangerous as people imagine. You are, for example, three times more likely to be killed on a motorbike, and slightly more likely to die as a pedestrian. The 111 cyclists killed on the roads in 2010 was the lowest annual figure for years. Of course, it is worrying that the number of seriously injured has started to rise again but, at 833 casualties per billion vehicle miles, it is only a little above the lowest-ever level. It is true that some urban areas have death and injury rates far higher than the national figures – and some unusually dangerous urban cyclists too. But again, contrary to that stereotype, by far the most dangerous place to ride your bike is down a rural A-road.
The social prize now is to turn this greater awareness and engagement into something really practical, lasting and safe, by leaning hard on planners and road and vehicle designers to integrate big improvements in bicycle safety. That means changes in attitude and in the law, but it also means investment. And it has to be done without scaring people back into their cars. The real watershed will be reached when it is considered odd not to make a short journey on foot or by bike.