Cycling activist and writer David Hembrow has written a clear statement on the need to treat cycling safety as three different things. He describes “actual”, “subjective” and “social” safety. It’s in his blog here: http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/09/three-types-of-safety.html [first posted in 2008 and amended in December 2011]
This year, Safe Cycling has becomes a public issue, with The Times running a campaign and Parliament planning a debate in the House of Commons this week. Anticipating the debate and riding the heightened awareness, the Sustrans website has published findings from a telephone survey of 1,002 people aged 16 and over in the countries of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The headline is a bit stark:
“Half of people in UK fear our roads are unsafe for cycling”
The web summary of the Sustrans findings is here: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/about-sustrans/media/news-releases/half-of-people-in-uk-fear-our-roads-are-unsafe-for-cycling
For most people that will be all you need.
However, for a closer look in this blog I called Sustrans who happily sent the 12 pages of tables from which they had drawn the bold conclusion.
The tables are typical of the summary statistics generated by questionnaire surveys of this type. The questions had been designed to gather background characteristics of each person questioned: data were collected on age, sex, marital status, socio-economic class, participation in work, and administrative region. Further questions asked for facts and opinions relevant to cycling, they were:
Q.1 Do you think it’s safe to cycle on roads in built up areas or not?
Q.2 Do you regularly, by this I mean more than once a month, cycle on roads in built-up areas, or not?
Q.3 What, if anything, would make you more likely to cycle or cycle more regularly, on roads in built-up areas?
Q.4 Some councils have reduced the speed limit on residential areas to 20 miles per hour to make the roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Do you think all councils should do the same or not?
Question 1 “do you think it’s safe… ” leaves out Hembrow’s idea of three kinds of “safe” and demands a simple Yes/No response. Question 3 asked about suggestions for improvements with the option to choose as many as were relevant. Slower cars as a result of lower speed limits; more marked cycle lanes; More care taken by drivers; More care taken by other cyclists; Nothing would persuade me; I do not have a bicycle; and I do not cycle at all.
Going through the 4 questions in turn.
When asked in Q.1″ Do you think it’s safe to cycle on roads in built up areas or not?” 24 didn’t know. Two thirds of these were female and 17 were over 64. But of the rest, 565 said No and 414 said Yes. On that measure, Sustrans’ headline is accurate: 56% responded to the safety question with a clear NO. They don’t feel that cycling in built up areas is safe. Females were more likely to say cycling was not safe (63%) and males less likely (49%). Different regions yielded different responses too: Scotland and the North West were at 60% and 62% saying NO, while Yorkshire and The Humber were more sanguine at 50% and The North East 52%.
On the question (Q.2) dividing the regular cyclists from the non or less-frequent cyclists the sample group had 194 classifying themselves as regular (more than once a month) cyclists, 342 as irregular (less than once a month) cyclists and 464 as non-cyclists. The interesting point here is that the number reporting that cycling is not safe in built up areas (565) outnumbers the number of people who say they cycle regularly (194) by nearly 3 to 1. However you look at that there are some cyclists who say they cycle more than once a month while agreeing that Britain’s urban roads are not safe for cycling.
When asked in Q.3 “What, if anything, would make you more likely to cycle or cycle more regularly, on roads in built-up areas?” ideas were suggested by the following numbers of respondents: More care taken by drivers 439; More marked cycle lanes 431; More care taken by other cyclists 370; Slower cars as a result of lower speed limits 276; Nothing would persuade me 127; I do not have a bicycle 33; 137 did not cycle at all; and 9 didn’t know. The surprises there perhaps are the smaller number calling for lower speed limits and the relatively small number who do not and would not 137 plus 127 (30%).
On the specific question of 20mph limits (Q.4) 70% thought all councils should adopt them. 66% of men and 75% of women agreed with the suggestion.
In summary, the results of this survey show that a lot of people regard cycling in built up areas as not safe. Their focus on “more care” from drivers and other cyclists suggests that Henbrow’s “subjective” and “social” dimensions of safety are very important. The broad agreement with a 20mph limit is encouraging.
One strong message for the current campaign is that 431 (53%) of the sample would see extra cycle paths as being the kind of safety improvement that could persuade them to cycle more than they do. There do seem to be people out there who are ready to be persuaded. Their anxiety about others behaviour might be a question to pursue with more qualitative research. In the context of a harsher economy and a move towards greater individualism the urge to compete rather than cooperate might be getting stronger.
Another significant figure is in the age data. The 16-24 age group had 52% reporting that they cycled at last once a month. For each subsequent age group the proportion of self-declared cyclists was dramatically lower: 22% of the 25-34s, 20% of the 35-44s, 16% of the 45-54s, 11% of the 55-64s and 6% of the over 64s.