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More Cyclists Means Fewer Accidents, Says Report
Article Photo

by Peter Walker
York is safest place to ride your bike in Britain, while Calderdale, West Yorkshire is the most dangerous, research finds

A study of the most and least safe places to cycle in Britain, released today, shows that where there are more riders on the roads there is generally a lower accident rate, while in areas less popular for bikes, cycling can be notably more risky.

Contradicting the notion that a mass of inexperienced riders taking to the streets brings a spike in injuries and deaths, the research by the Cyclists Touring Club (CTC), the UK's main cycling organisation, rates local authority areas in England on a scale of A to E according to how safe they are.

The trend is clear, with areas popular for cyclists tending to be safer on average, with the differences sometimes significant. Top of the list is traditionally bike-friendly York, where around one in eight commuters cycle to work and 0.1% are badly hurt in accidents each year. Not far down the road, Calderdale, West Yorkshire, a district centred around Halifax, is at the other end of the scale. Here, fewer than 1 in 120 commuters use bikes, and those that do face a danger level 15 times higher than in York.

Other areas awarded the A grade and near the top of the safety league include Hull, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, while others given an E rating include Bradford, Blackburn and Kirklees.

"While this is a useful guide, we're also very keen to stress that even the apparently less safe areas aren't actually unsafe, and that it's still much better for your health to cycle than not to cycle, wherever you live," said Chris Peck, the CTC's policy coordinator. "It's important that people are not put off cycling."

The phenomenon of safety in numbers – the name given to a new CTC campaign – can be seen throughout Europe. Other figures compiled by the organisation show that in Denmark, top of the continental league for cycling, the average person rides over 10 times further than his British peer every year but runs only 20% of the risk of being killed.

The reasons for this inverse correlation are many, according to Peck, and include the likelihood of better cycling infrastructure in areas where more people ride, the fact that if car drivers also occasionally cycle they are likely to be more careful with bikes, and the statistical quirk that a higher proportion of riders in low-cycling areas tend to be young men with a higher than average threshold for risk.

"It's a virtuous circle: people feel safe, they know a lot of people who also cycle and say, 'it's OK, get out there. It's even a pleasant way to get around,'" said Peck. "They're much more likely to get on a bike if they know, say, a friend or neighbour who cycles."

Getting more people onto their bikes has proved beyond most British policymakers for years at both national and local levels. While many more Britons have taken to the saddle in the past few years, spurred on by factors including fitness and national Olympic success, only 2% of all journeys involve a bike. In the Netherlands the equivalent figure is 27%.

Struck by the Dutch success, a group of British MPs has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the country. There, along with reams of information about bike lanes and secure parking, they were let in to a less well-known secret for spurring a national cycling culture: throw out the Lycra and the helmets.

The experts, who took the all-party cycling group on a tour of the unparalleled Dutch cycling infrastructure, argued that the best way to tempt people on to bikes is to portray cycling as an everyday activity, not just the preserve of young men with an assertive attitude and a wardrobe full of skin-tight DayGlo jerseys.

"If you really want to have a lot of people cycling, one thing that people need is to feel safe cycling. It is the perceived safety that is so important," said Hans Voerknecht from Holland's Fiets Beraad, or bicycle council.

"It shouldn't be a fringe sub-culture, just for the cyclists you could call the urban guerrillas. You'll never have ordinary people cycling if that's the image they see."

Voerknecht points out that only a tiny minority of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, and while a few enthusiasts take to the roads in full Tour de France gear they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by people pedalling to work, school or the shops in everyday clothes, even formal business suits.

The CTC's Peck, who accompanied the MPs to the Netherlands, agrees that the image of cycling in Britain needs an overhaul.

"Helmets and things like that do give this impression that cycling is inherently dangerous, and this whole urban warrior image is not very helpful," he said. "But of course, a lot of the aggression is also about having to compete for space and priority with cars."

That is, of course, a key point. While Dutch riders enjoy car-free bikes lanes, secure parking at every train station and an automatic presumption of innocence in any collision with a car, the situation in the UK is very different.

According to Voerknecht, much UK bike planning is too piecemeal to be truly effective. "They build 1km of a bike lane and then it ends. And the people who built it are amazed no one is using it. You might have 50km of lanes, but if it's 50 times 1km then no one will use them. You have to make it consistent.

"If I took a Dutch cyclist to a British town or city and said, 'What do you think of the cycling facilities?' they would say, 'What cycling facilities? Where? Did I miss them?'"

And then, of course, there is the factor that no government directive can change: topography. Like Holland, the areas of England favoured by cyclists also tend to be the flatter ones.

Cycle lane to nowhere

Sean Smith, a web developer from Halifax, has been cycling for 30 years in Calderdale, rated England's least safe cycling area.

"I'm maybe used to it these days but the traffic can be heavy and can go pretty fast. There are a few marked bike lanes but most of the time they disappear when the road narrows, so they're not a lot of good. It's not really bike friendly. I was deliberately pushed off my bike by someone leaning out of a car six months ago and broke my wrist. But whatever you do to encourage cycling, there's always the problem with the terrain. Wherever you go you're going to hit some hills, some of them pretty steep. That's always going to put off a lot of casual cyclists."

Andy Shrimpton is co-owner of Cycle Heaven, a bike shop in York, rated the safest place to ride in England.

"There's what you could call a residual bike culture, from the past – when the shifts changed at the Rowntree factory the streets used to be a mass of bikes. The traffic in the centre is pretty bad as well, which encourages people to ride. In some ways it's been quite easy for the council, as you've got the river and parks, so they've been able to put in bike lanes. But when it comes to the difficult decisions like disrupting cars they're not doing a great job. The volume of cycle traffic certainly helps. The cycling culture is a lot less aggressive than in some places, particularly London."

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Photo credit: flickr/procsilas, Creative Commons License.


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Comments

You seem to be missing the obvious reason that there are fewer cyclists in dangerous places because less people want to cycle in those places, not because more cyclists make cycling safer.

I'm a keen cyclist in Cheltenham where the infrastructure is probably average, painted lanes and one very good ex-railway line into town. I use a shared cycle-pathway along a very busy stretch to take my 3 year old to nursery in a trailer isn't wide enough. Walkers have to climb into a hedge to make way for me! it isn't good enough.


Posted by: Adrian on 13 May 09

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