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Cyclist using a mobile: a major threat to public safety or a minor irritant easily avoided?I think it was Dr. Robert Davis, author of Death on the Streets, that said the following:

Complaining about cyclists jumping red lights is like complaining about queue-jumping in a bank whilst an armed robbery is taking place.

If it was someone else, my apologies for misattributing it, but it does sound like something Bob would say.

Disclaimer: I am actually a pretty law-abiding road-user these days, probably as law-abiding as anyone,  in any class of vehicle, on the road.  I used to be a bicycle courier (or messenger if you prefer), and if I obeyed the law, I lost money in earnings because I was slower than the other riders I was competing against for work who did not obey the law some or most of the time.

I guess my attitude now is that I really can’t be bothered to break the law if no-one is paying me to do it, but when I was a courier, it didn’t make sense to obey the law, everything else being equal.  I did try to be careful to respect the safety of other road users, particularly vulnerable ones.  Balanced against the economic imperative not to stop was the economic imperative not to get injured.  Nearly all couriers are classified as self-employed sub-contractors, and so do not receive pay when off work due to injury (or sickness).  In other words, if you rode like a crazy person, and crashed all the time, you wouldn’t make any money, because you would be on your back instead of on your bike.

I noted in this article that a courier had been stopped and ticketed by the Met for red light jumping (RLJing), and told that the police were cracking down on RLJing because a cyclist had recently been run over by a lorry.  This despite the fact that cyclists involved in collisions with lorries (HGVs) are almost always in compliance with the law at the time of the collision.  Another courier was stopped by the police, and given the option of attending a safety course instead of a fine.  The safety course was this week. It was a session in a lorry, observing the blind-spots.  The courier’s offence? Riding on the pavement.

As I said, I totally get that the police get more complaints about misbehaviour by cyclists than any thing else (including violent crime etc), so they need to be seen to do something; I also get that if you break the law, you should be prepared to accept the consequences, but I do find the association between anti-social behaviour and critical injury to cyclists by lorries really quite offensive.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘subjective safety’, notably by the kerb nerds, but also by cycling advocacy groups generally.  Subjective safety is what stops more people from riding, according to the surveys.  Subjective safety probably explains why a female friend found cycling in London too daunting, and now rides a motor scooter, despite the scooter being objectively more dangerous as a mode of transport than the bicycle.

Subjective safety explains why cyclists are far more concerned about being crashed into from behind whilst moving along in a straight line along a straight road, when in fact they are much more at risk when stationary, or moving off from stationary, at a junction.  Subjective safety explains why the public view cyclists as a major threat to public safety, when in fact cyclists are, almost without execption, an irritant, and that pedestrians are far more likely, by a factor of several hundred, to be killed whilst walking on the pavement (sidewalk for any N Americans) by a motor vehicle.

Subjective safety explains why, at the conclusion of a lengthy twitter debate about patronising advice given to female cyclists, someone tweeted:

Please – & I think it is more women doing it TAKE OUT THOSE F* EARPHONES. Too many die for music.

If you’re relying on hearing danger, as opposed to having a good look around you, I would suggest that you are likely to come a cropper whether you’re listening to bird-song or the latest offering from Motorhead.  Most headphones are totally inadequate in a competition with road-traffic noise, and some motor-vehicles are virtually silent, as are cyclists & pedestrians.  Cycling with head-phones does look dangerous, but objectively, it’s probably not any more dangerous than cycling without a hi-vis vest.

The RLJ debate comes up again and again and again, I have heard it raised by serious policy-makers at serious policy conferences, as if it were a proper threat to public order and health on the order of something like obesity, or alcohol abuse, when in fact, it is of little more concern than illegal parking.  So I welcomed these two items from the internet, the first a letter to the Montreal Gazzette, which I’ll reprint in full:

Re: “Cyclists must be made to obey rules” (Letter of the Day, May 6)

Elazar Gabay says “bicyclists have the same rights and duties as other drivers” then just a few sentences later complains that “at times they (bicyclists) occupy the entire lane …”.

Well, if they have the same rights, and motorists have the right to use the full lane, then shouldn’t bicyclists, too?

In fact, it doesn’t make sense that the exact same rules should apply to motorists and cyclists (and indeed it’s not the case). The difference in speed, mass and size means that sometimes they should be treated differently.

Everyone breaks whatever rules they think they can safely get away with. Motorists speed all the time; cyclists can’t because their vehicle can’t. Cyclists go against one-ways all the time; motorists can’t because their vehicle is too wide.

Where motorists think they see cyclists breaking so many rules, they are only seeing different rules being broken, due to physical differences between vehicle types. Motorists have long since internalized their own rule breaking as socially acceptable.

Cyclists are no more scofflaw than motorists.

Sean McBride

Montreal

The correspondent correctly, in my view, identifies that it is subjective safety that is the issue here.  Motorists do dangerous things in their vehicles, but this behaviour (speeding etc) has been normalised and is socially accepted, the way drink-driving was 30 years ago, whereas cyclists’ behaviour is unusual and doesn’t fall into social norms and so looks dangerous.

The second article is much longer and appears in Atlantic Cities, with the delightful title  Why We Should Never Fine Cyclists. It’s quite long, but worth a read.  The author goes much further than me, and to use Anna’s paraphrase, proposes that traffic lights are for traffic, not cyclists. A brief excerpt will give the flavour:

On balance, cyclists’ illegal behavior—like that of pedestrians—adds much, much more convenience to life than danger. Aggressive enforcement of traffic laws could upend the fragile system of incentives that leads thousands of people to undertake a long and sweaty commute each day.

Why should people riding 20-pound bicycles obey laws designed to regulate the conduct of 4,000-pound cars, to say nothing of accepting the same penalties? In terms of the damage we can cause and sustain in an accident, cyclists have more in common with pedestrians than cars and should be treated accordingly.

I know that there is a discourse about respect, recently advanced by a cycling writer that I respect, Ned Boulting, who got a bit backward when I pulled him up on it, more or less running that if we want to be taken seriously, we need to behave seriously, i.e. if we don’t stop running red lights and riding on the pavement, we won’t deserve to have decent provision.  This is total pony, and the argument doesn’t stand up to any examination.  Objectively a majority of motorists break the law relating to speed.

Since when did anyone get up and say ‘well, until the motorists stop speeding, we’re not going to build that new motorway, because they’ll only use it drive even faster than they are doing now’?

I’m not a trained statistician, nor do I hold any transport policy qualifications.  However, I became interested in the numbers of cyclists killed in London after 1992, when Edward Newstead, a working cycle courier, was killed by a left-turning HGV on Oxford Street.  I did some campaigning on the issue of HGV killing cyclists, and to cut a long story short, I ended up in a working group with the Mayor’s Office, TfL, Roadpeace & London Cycling Campaign.

As part of that process, we looked at a lot of numbers. Some of the numbers that we looked at were even leaked and then misrepresented in the media. One thing I have learned, not just from that process, but through reading and listening to the likes of Tim Harford (More Or Less is essential listening for everyone, in my opinion), and other people that use statistics critically, is that when producing raw numbers, particularly road casualty numbers, it is really, really important to give some sort of context, and, the most crucial part, that if you do present seperately collected stats side-by-side, you must compare like with like, otherwise grossly inaccurate conclusions can, and will, be drawn.

For instance, if there is almost no use of powered two-wheelers (scooters and motor-bikes, also known as P2W), then you would expect the numbers of deaths and serious injuries (sometimes called Killed & Seriously Injured, or KSI) to be very low, perhaps even zero.  If this is reported as ‘no motor-cyclists were killed in Carville last year’ without also adding ‘but almost no motorcycles or scooters sold or ridden in Carville last year’, the potential exists for turning a non-story into a very big deal, with the officials of cities that have high rates of P2W KSI being asked by scooter clubs, ‘well, why is Scooterville so dangerous? Why can’t we be more like Carville, the safest place on earth for scooter riders?’  There then might follow questions from the media following up the enquiries of the scooter clubs, questions asked by members of Scooterville’s legislature etc etc, and the general impression given by the fuss is that Carville is somehow safer, whereas Scooterville’s streets are a charnel house of hot, twisted metal and broken limbs, into which no sane rider would venture, which is totally incorrect assumption, not supported by the evidence misrepresented by a not-like-for-like comparison between Carville and Scooterville.

So why am I concocting parables? I have seen various references to an astonishing reported fall in cycling fatalities in Paris.  The Times quoted city officials as saying: “the number of [cycling] deaths [in Ville de Paris] fell from six in 2009 to none last year (2011).”  The Mairie de Paris has some numbers on its web-site for cyclistes décès (that is, cyclists killed) between 2008 and 2010, as follows: 2, 5, 5, 6, 2 (no number given for 2011).  London’s numbers for the same period are: 19, 15, 13, 13, 10.  Looking at these numbers, it would be easy to come up with a headline such as London cyclists more than 8 times likely to be killed than in Paris!  (19, the number for London in 2008, divided by 2, the number reported for Paris).  I have also seen the numbers quoted as London 16, Paris 0 (there were 16 cyclists killed in London last year).

My initial reaction to seeing the numbers was that the reported numbers were wrong.  It seemed implausible that Paris, a city which is still trying to build up a culture of utility cycling (as opposed to cycle sport), should be so much safer than London.  Then I went to Paris over the summer, and I became even more convinced that the numbers were wrong.  Paris has some cycling infrastructure, but not all that much, and is certainly not light-years ahead of London.  Paris also really doesn’t have that many more cyclists than London, based on what I saw.  I would guess that London actually has more regular cyclists than Paris.  I would also say that Paris streets and traffic are about as hostile as London’s to cyclists, if anything, more hostile.  Which is not to say that Paris is all that dangerous for cyclists.

It’s difficult for me to be objective about danger to cyclists in cities, as I was a bicycle messenger for many years, and was (and still am) quite comfortable tackling Hyde Park Corner at speed, or any other street for that matter.  The only place that I ever felt threatened was the Upper Thames Street tunnel.  I used it because it was the quickest way to get from the City to the West End, but I wouldn’t now use it at all, as it’s unpleasant, and, in my opinion, just about the most dangerous road in central London.

Anyway, I didn’t find Paris all that scary (not even La Place de La Concorde, but, like I said above, I am quite happy riding around Hyde Park Corner), but compared to, say, Copenhagen, it’s clearly not as comfortable to cycle in.  By the way, while we’re talking about Copenhagen, let me say here that comparing Copenhagen with London just doesn’t fly.  Copenhagen is not comparable with London.  It is a much, much smaller city.  You can ride across it in less than an hour.  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t lessons to be learned from Copenhagen, but London should be compared with cities of the same size, i.e. metropolises, not small cities. (Copenhagen has a population of under 2 million; London has a population of 8 million, by the most conservative estimate.)

The very long and slightly shorter of it is that, in my opinion, London and Paris offer a fairly similar level of hazard to cyclists.

So, piqued by my own observations, I couldn’t let the number 0 go, after having actually ridden in Paris for a few days.  I emailed a couple of people, including Charlie Lloyd at the LCC, who has done a lot of work on KSI numbers, and knows his stuff.  According to Charlie, the Ville de Paris, from which these numbers are reported, is less than the size of TfL’s Zone 2.  The numbers reported for cycling deaths in Paris are taken from a much, much smaller area, and therefore not really comparing like with like.

So what is the like-for-like comparison?  In the last year, 2 cyclists have been killed in a similar-sized zone to Ville de Paris in central London, according to Charlie, who keeps track of such things. This means that a similar number of cyclists were killed in this area of London as in the Ville de Paris 2009 & 2010.

Also, no-one seems to have to hand the numbers for total km travelled by all cyclists in Ville de Paris.  The number wouldn’t be all that useful for a direct comparison with London, but you could at least get the km / fatality number for a rough comparison, which would be far more useful than simply quoting raw fatality numbers, which in any case, aren’t even directly comparable.

Paris 0 London 16?  Match referred to statisticians for further enquiries.