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New cycling safety devices cannot cure bad road design

06 January 2014/Categories: PTRC News

Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have taken bold planning decisions over decades to achieve safe cycling for all

Cycling Group Hold die-in safety Protest
Cyclists hold a 'die-In' protest at Vauxhall. Campaigners want greater awareness of cyclists at busy road junctions Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Sometimes the debate over urban cycling safety in the UK resembles one strand of thought concerning global warming: the fervent hope that new that technology could save governments from making low-tech but politically difficult decisions.

There is nothing wrong with radar systems that warn road users when bikes and lorries get too close. Given a choice between trucks having the devices or not, I imagine most cyclists would choose the former. But to an extent this isn't the point.

The Netherlands and Denmark, mass cycle cultures where people of all ages ride to work, the shops or school as a matter of routine, tend to have road designs which prevent cyclists from having to encounter large vehicles at all. This means predominantly segregated bike lanes with junctions and roundabouts designed to protect cycles by not making them go straight ahead while other traffic seeks to turn across them – a factor in so many London cycling deaths.

Such systems are well understood, and trial variants on them will appear in London very soon. But to take Britain from its current position, where a mere 2% or so of trips are made by bike, to a Dutch-style 20%-plus would need decades of coherent, consistent spending and planning on cycling, along with disincentives for driving. This is something no British government has yet had the vision or bravery to take on.

There is another, slightly counter-intuitive point that must be stressed in all debates about cycle safety: for all the pressing need for improvements, cycling remains, for the most part, extremely safe. Government casualty figures say cycling is less perilous than walking per mile travelled, while a wealth of studies show the health benefits outweigh the possible risks by a factor as high as 85 to one. And as the doctors involved in NHS active travel campaigns are fond of pointing out, years spent sitting stationary in a car eating Cornish pasties is statistically much more risky, albeit in a much less dramatic, more normalised way. A total of 122 cyclists died in the UK in 2012. Inactivity killed an estimated 37,000 in England alone.

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