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I started blogging here about a year ago, and one of the first posts was about the Paris 0 deaths stat.  This stat has turned out to be what Tim Harford and the More or Less production team call a ‘zombie statistic’, a number whose significance is either false, or grossly misinterpreted, but keeps coming rising from the dead, metaphorical hands outstretched to grasp reality and pull it back down into the miasma of half-truth and phoney assertions.  My friend, colleague and fellow Moving Target contributer, Jon Day used it in a blog on the LRB site in July just past.

Anyway, in a guest post, I asked Kieron Yates, possibly the original source of the offending statistic, and former Paris resident, to clarify.

He writes:

About eighteen months ago I was living in Paris and tweeted that there had been no cycle deaths in the city during the year 2011. It was a tweet that was picked up and retweeted by various London cycling campaigners and used to highlight how much it is possible to reduce urban cycling casualties. A 140 character tweet, however, does not provide much space for context. Since I was happy at the time to see the figure being used to take to task the willingness of politicians to make serious changes to transport infrastructure, I let the matter lie.

I later did a piece with Jack Thurston on The Bike Show about cycling in Paris and this statistic came up again. I was able to clarify that, although the statistic is correct, it is not a simple case of comparing like with like. Most importantly, the figure of zero deaths in 2011 relates solely to the Ville de Paris, which is the inner heart of Paris. It is the area enclosed by the city’s périphérique ring road: an area slightly smaller than that covered by London Transport’s zones one and two. Recent statistics for the Ville de Paris show that the highest number of cycling fatalities was in 2009, when six cyclists died, a figure which possibly points to cycling in Paris being no safer than in central London. Typically, however the numbers are lower and average out at four cycling deaths a year. If one wants to draw wider comparisons between Paris and London with regard to cycle safety it is worth looking at accident statistics for the greater Paris area. The Ile de France is a largely urban agglomeration with a population larger than Greater London and occupying a larger area (12,012k m² compared to 1572 km²), here the number of cycling fatalities for 2011 and 2012 were 10 and 17 respectively.

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Some campaigners used the zero deaths statistic to highlight the importance of investment in infrastructure. It is true that the Ville de Paris has invested and continues to invest in cycling infrastructure but I personally do not believe that it possesses much that is greatly superior to what is available in London. There are segregated lanes in some places for the use of cycles, buses and taxis but they are not widespread and it is more usual to see streets with no segregation or a simple painted cycle lane. To me it seemed as though the best infrastructure was most visible in the places tourists tended to visit: around the Marais and the first arrondissement, Montmartre and eighteenth arrondissement. Elsewhere cycling infrastructure is often lot worse: I regularly left the city via the roundabout at the end of Avenue Foch in the sixteenth where, as with many other big intersections in Paris, traffic arrived unpredictably from every angle showing little consideration to the presence of cyclists.

When I was pushed to think of a reason for the French statistics the major difference that came to my mind was the relative invisibility of large goods vehicles on the streets of Paris during daylight hours.

HGV’s haven’t been banned from the Ville de Paris, there are however rules on when HGV’s can enter Paris. If a lorry has a surface area greater than 43m² it can’t enter Paris at all. If a vehicle is between 43m² and 29m² it can enter the city between 10pm and 7am. If it is less than 29m² entry is restricted to between 10pm and 5pm, in other words only excluded between 5pm and 10pm. Vehicles below 29m² using clean fuels have no restrictions as do car transporters which are generally very busy restocking car hire businesses.

As an example of how this may work in London, I used to work at Waitrose in Marylebone High Street and their deliveries would, due to the size of the loading bay, have been on lorries less 29m². So, under the Paris regime, this branch of Waitrose would have been able to receive deliveries between 10 pm and 5 pm. Investment in cleaner LPG lorries would mean that this particular supermarket would have been able to re-stock at anytime of day or night. Current London road freight regulations mean that these vehicles can only deliver between 7am and 9pm, the period when London roads are most congested.

My experience was that due to the unpredictability of traffic entering London, lorries would frequently arrive at the branch before 7am and wait outside the store with engine running to maintain refrigeration. This would disturb residents who lived in the flats above. The alternatives were to get the lorry onto the loading bay, which could be equally noisy, or make it wait on Marylebone Road. In Paris hauliers and larger storeowners have addressed the problem of noise pollution by introducing quieter refrigeration for delivery vehicles and by making night-time deliveries quieter in general. The investment is worthwhile as it is to their advantage to make deliveries at the least congested time of day. The Ville de Paris itself has entered into the spirit of quieter deliveries and collections by replacing its fleet of dustbin wagons with newer models running on liquid petroleum gas; these lorries also have a new lower cab design, easing access for operatives and improving all round visibility.

One factor that makes this change in delivery handling possible is the huge difference in retail, particularly food retail, in Paris and London. Parisian supermarkets are generally smaller than their British counterparts: equivalent in size to the convenience stores of the big UK supermarkets. Where I lived in the west of Paris I had at least five supermarkets and four street markets within a kilometre of home. I’m now living in Lewisham and have two large supermarkets and one street market within a kilometre. Generally in London it is the consumer who pays in time for the final part of the journey from supermarket to the kitchen.

Further cultural difference between the two cities is seen in the construction industry. Within the Ville de Paris building regulations are very strict. Most buildings get re-fitted and re-purposed rather than bulldozed and redeveloped. During my time in Paris at the end of the street where we lived there was a large apartment block. This block was converted into office space over a period of 18 months. I only saw large delivery vehicles in the early mornings.

Small flat bed trucks, the kind local councils in the UK use for collecting old fridges and mattresses, removed most waste material. If I did see skip lorries around the site, the driver was always accompanied by a banksman whilst maneuvering on the public streets and the lorries themselves bore the logo and certification of Bureau Veritas an independent auditor of standards and compliance.

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Paris has been working on a reduction in use of large goods vehicles since 2006 with the aim of cutting pollution. Aside from the changes mentioned above other innovations include the use of electric tri-porteurs to transport small deliveries. Indeed one company has gone as far as arranging collections by barge from a depot on the outskirts of Paris, sorting deliveries on the barge as it makes its way to the centre of the city and then using tri-porteurs to deliver over the final kilometre. Elsewhere specially adapted tram carriages have been used for making deliveries overnight along the length of the newly developed tram system in eastern Paris.

It is hard to make direct comparisons between London and Paris when it comes to cycling fatalities. A common sense part of me wants to believe that by ridding its streets, at peak commuting hours, of what have been identified as the most hazardous vehicles to cyclists, Paris has to a degree reduced its level of cyclist fatalities. The true picture is less clear however and cycle fatalities as a consequence of poor HGV maneuvering still occur.  What is clear to me is that with vision and commitment it is possible to successfully alter the way our cities are serviced. The benefits of this change in Paris are a sustainable future, which makes full use of a city’s wider infrastructure allowing it to grow whilst retaining its unique character. If these changes introduced to cut pollution have resulted in fewer cycling fatalities then that has to be welcomed. For me what was most noticeable in the City of Light was how much more of the roads and space around them was visible in the relative absence of large goods vehicles.

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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.