Is cycling in London getting safer?

Rough calculations suggest riding bike in capital has become more dangerous since Boris Johnson took charge

by GreenJennyJones   December 14, 2011  

City of London from the Thames copyright Simon MacMichael .jpg

Every time I have challenged the Mayor about cycle safety recently, he has lectured me about “your duty as an honest politician to tell people the truth that cycling is actually getting safer, when you consider the number of people on the roads”. I was happy to do so, as I often did when the previous mayor's Road Safety Ambassador. In early 2008 I would be stood at one of the Mayor's weekly press conferences (those were the days) and happily declare that cyclists were nearly half as likely to be injured as they were eight years before. The number of cyclists had grown dramatically and the number injured had fallen. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt it was heading in the right direction.

I was discussing cycle safety with one of the Conservative Assembly members the other day and he started by re-stating that cycling was getting safer. I agreed and repeated the usual TfL mantra. Yes, cycling casualties had gone up in absolute terms since Boris became Mayor but the rate of casualties per number of trips was still falling. But was it? I decided to check the figures and realised that it probably isn’t.

Annual     Estimated      KSI   Slight     Total           Rough
period      cycling           casualties casualties     calculation 
             trips                                      of casualty
            per day                                        rate

2000        310,000       422   3,084      3,506    1 per 32,291 trips

Total 2008  480,000       445   2,757      3,202    1 per 55,175 trips

Total 2009  500,000       433   3,236      3,669    1 per 49,751 trips

Total 2010  550,000(est)  467   3,540      4,007    1 per 50,136 trips

The number of cycling casualties is not in dispute. They have been rising fast and the figures I have for the first six months of 2011 show that they are continuing that rapid rise. The crucial question for many cycling campaigners is whether this increase is going up faster than the increase in the number of cyclists. TfL have issued cycle numbers up to 2009. This shows that cycling is certainly safer than it was in 2000, but it has probably become more dangerous since Boris took charge. The Mayor may well argue that cycling has increased rapidly in 2010, but even if we assume a 10% annual rise across the whole of London (as opposed to the 15% rise on the roads which TfL runs, which the Mayor often refers to) this would still leave the rate worse than it was when Boris took office.

I admit that these are my back of the envelope calculations, as neither TfL nor the Mayor has produced any of their own figures. However, they highlight the fact that the Mayor is making this assertion that ‘cycling is getting safer’ without actually knowing if it is true. The instinct of a growing number of cyclists is that the Mayor is complacent and wrong. He came into office encouraging people to cycle and then made the road network more dangerous with his ‘smoothing traffic’ agenda which gives motorised traffic the priority at dangerous junctions like Bow Roundabout. This has made vulnerable road users (pedestrians and cyclists) even more vulnerable.

Of course we must encourage cycling and hopefully create a critical mass of cyclists which changes the whole culture on our roads. However, I stick to my view that every death and injury is potentially avoidable and that we should always be asking what could be done to stop it happening next time. We need to adopt the Swedish ‘vision zero’ approach. When I was Road Safety Ambassador I insisted that Transport for London adopt tough targets to reduce the number of cycling casualties. They wanted to adopt a figure based on the 'rate' as they claimed it was too difficult to reduce casualties when the number of cycling trips was going up, I stuck to my guns and luckily the total number fell. We need the Swedish approach in London and that means a complete change in culture throughout the Met Police, Transport for London, local authority engineers in London and a new direction from the Mayor.

10 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Keep Pushing, Ms Jones. I have little faith in politicians (left or right) in this city and country. I will vote for someone who states the truth and makes cycling in London safer.

posted by Coleman [329 posts]
14th December 2011 - 13:42

6 Likes

Good lord, a politician checking her facts before repeating the official line? Whatever next?!

It's interesting that New York has managed an absolute increase in ridership (albeit with the actual increase under dispute) without any corresponding increase in injuries and death, according to the New York Times.

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/08/number-of-bicyclists-keeps-...

Couldn't be anything to do with their investment in proper infrastructure instead of blue paint on the roads, could it?

posted by townmouse [14 posts]
14th December 2011 - 14:48

8 Likes

I want cycling to be safer for everyone, but I also want to make sure that we're using the evidence as well as we can.

Quoting raw numbers can be misleading, so I ran some stats tests. Based on this data, it's definitely a stretch to claim things are getting worse, but you can also say with some confidence that they aren't getting better, either.

So I'd contest Jenny's claim that things have got worse under Boris, but BoJo has failed to improve conditions for us cyclists, based on the quoted figures. Given the noise he makes about it, that's totally unacceptable.

What I worked out using a couple of approaches is that the numbers are very likely better between 2000 and the later years due to real effects (i.e. it got safer), but from 2008-2010 the numbers wobble about. Some look to be real effects, some random changes you can put down to chance.

I'd invite anyone with stronger maths than me to check again - I like evidence, not conjecture, and I'd love to see some "official" numbers so someone can actual do a proper analysis.

Here endeth the nerdage.

posted by thereandbackagain [155 posts]
14th December 2011 - 15:02

6 Likes

The conclusions you have reached are not safe. If you look out the DfT Reported Road Casualty Great Britain papers on accident reporting rates you will find that while deaths and serious injuries are well reported, there is serious under-reporting for minor injuries....because they are minor. For that reason the best guide is by looking at ksi figures not the all injury ones as the latter can vary according to variations in reporting. For example the rise could be due to greater concerns in the cycling community and therefore an increasing tendency to report minor injury accidents. Most serious injuries are, contrary to most people's expectation, not that serious if you read the definitions for their coding in the STATS19 and while there are some most are not what you would call the life changing sort. Bad cuts and grazes or kept in for observation for example.

If you repeat your calculations using the ksi figure it has got consistently safer with around one ksi per million plus journeys now. I would be far more trusting of that figure than your all injury figures for the reasons above.

Three further points to that - the Boris Bikes must by now have done over 8 million journeys without a single serious injury as far as I know - interesting that they have a so much lower accident rate despite many novice users.

If we were to get rid of the lorry deaths and injuries in London the ksi figures would plummet. The solution to getting much safer cycling in London and quickly is not facilities as someone above has suggested but taming the lorries and their drivers.

Finally, while we should worry about decreasing the numbers of accidents and injuries, despite perceptions, cycling is very safe. Even on your all injuries figures it would take me 113 years of cycling twice a day, 220 days a year to have an evens risk of a minor injury and over 20 times longer to get a "serious" injury. So sure, lets focus on making it safer but please don't portray it as dangerous. Its that false portrayal and perception that discourages many people from cycling.

posted by Tony [84 posts]
15th December 2011 - 7:08

4 Likes

Good work Jenny, well done

whizz kid

posted by whizzkid [62 posts]
15th December 2011 - 8:24

5 Likes

where do these numbers come from? Tfl? How accurate a picture do they paint I wonder?

I got hit in September, I had right of way (bright orange jersey!) and a minivan driver just came across my path making a right. Typical smidsy. Fortunately I didn't come off the bike and wasn't injured, neither was the bike damaged. Driver stopped, possibly because there were lots of witnesses, but very apologetic, we just made sure each other was ok and went our separate ways.

But despite not reporting it officially, I did report it on the http://www.stop-smidsy.org.uk/ web site, just because I wanted the statistic to be out there.

Do things like this appear in these numbers? They should do. As for the streets being safer? They were scary when I first got a bike in London and they're still scary now. I know I've become a better rider amd am able to reduce the risk I subject myself to, but there's no accounting for the other guy...

Pete

PeteH's picture

posted by PeteH [159 posts]
18th December 2011 - 20:51

6 Likes

@PeteH Looking at the numbers they seem very similar to the DfT Stats 19 tables broken down by local authority. Similar but not the same the total cycle casualty rate is very slightly higher on Stats 19. I'd say Jenny Jones's figures probably come from the same source though, casualties reported to the police, maybe she gets them via TfL. We'll ask.

@Tony I agree that cycling is a much safer activity than most people think it is, and it's certainly a good deal safer riding London's roads than those in many other parts of the country, but it could be safer still.

Your argument seems to be that we should ignore the stats for slight casualties because they are unreliably er… low. Well I can see that if you take out a casualty figure that actually should be higher cycling in the capital is going to look a lot safer.

Ignoring inconvenient statistics is I'll grant you a good way to prove your argument. I reckon there's a bright future as a career politician or maybe a senior position at a merchant bank there for the asking if you want it Wink , but while your analysis would seem to prove that cycling in London is getting safer the inconvenient truth is that 16 cyclists have lost their lives in the capital so far this year… already more than last year. That number on its own should have a big effect on the national casualty stats for 2011.

No argument though that taming the lorry drivers would go a hell of a way to cutting the death rate I think there is an argument that better infrastructure has a big part to play too. All the rest of those casualties weren't caused by lorries - as is all too clear lorry Vs cyclist incidents usually end in the worst possible way. The helped create the create London's Cycling Revolution he can't simply take credit for its success he also owns its problems too. If you encourage large numbers of people to cycle in from the suburbs it's your responsibility to ensure you've done everything possible to make the roads as safe as possible for them. From out here in the sticks it looks like the jury is out on that one.

I don't know whether cycling in London is getting safer or not, viewed from outside the capital and as an ex-London commuter the transformation has been amazing and I certainly don't want to denigrate it - I love cycling in London whenever I go there.

Tony Farrelly's picture

posted by Tony Farrelly [4160 posts]
18th December 2011 - 23:31

5 Likes

In my view, concentrating solely on deaths creates an erroneous view of the experience of cycling in London. Just because one survives a journey does not, in itself, signify that it was a safe one.

I've been cycling in London for over 25 years and of one thing I am sure: year on year the experience has just got worse and worse. I am not alone in feeling this as plenty of experienced cyclists I speak to share the same view. Purely anecdotal, I know, but we can't all be wrong. I don't see this in any surveys or government statistics.

I commute some 15 miles a day, possibly much longer if I put in an extended training run. It is a rare day indeed on which I don't experience some sort of incident regarding a motorist. By "incident" I'm referring to such as the relentless close overtakes, near misses, SMIDSYs, speeding, red light jumping, overtakes on approaches to (or actually on) roundabouts, doors opening into my path, ASL infringements, drivers tailgating and honking to indicate that I should give way to them (why?), abuse and, in rare cases, intentional pursuit, blocking of my path and being forced off the road.

On top of this we have an often lacklustre response by Police to complaints lodged by cyclists, a lack of parking restriction enforcement which means that vehicles stopping in cycle lanes is a common occurrence, an almost pathological inability of tfl to actually act on complaints about their operative's behaviour on the road (try sorting that out for starters, Boris) and much the same attitude from the PCO with regard to the lamentable behaviour of some black cab drivers.

This all combines to make the experience of cycling in London a progressively less enjoyable one. Neither the £££s spent on happy little posters exhorting us all to get on our bikes (surely this is just greeny point scoring) nor the statistics purporting to show that, because there are less cyclist deaths, cycling must be getting safer mean much when it comes to cyclists' experiences in the real world.

Yes, I may be alive but, when it comes to the the current state of affairs, Angry

TiNuts's picture

posted by TiNuts [95 posts]
21st December 2011 - 20:02

5 Likes

The search for data to support policy is never-ending. I recently wrote a short blog on cycling safety in Bristol, in which I show how raw counts of casualties, mile for mile are much higher in London than in any English region and that this holds for all modes of transport. This doesn't prove anything, but it does at least challenge certainty when taken with all the other reports we have available. The blog is here: http://thislast.blogspot.com/2011/12/considerate-cycling-5.html

There is a useful DfT Statistical release from September 2011 that refers to the distinction between police reports and hospital admission reports. This emphasises the important role that data collection plays in shaping the "facts" at our disposal and also links to further data and discussion: http://assets.dft.gov.uk/statistics/releases/road-accidents-and-safety-a...

We should not abandon statistics, but we should keep our thoughts on what we really value. It's obvious that no category of road user enjoys the roads in English cities and each user blames a different culprit. A sensitive analysis of many individual experiences might be worth investing in – being a bit bumped once or twice a year (as experienced by most cyclists) might be much less important than the constant anxiety level experienced in some road contexts. In chasing casualty reduction we might be missing opportunities to reduce car and lorry use in total. Such reductions might be more important than very small changes in road accident causalities. Might.

posted by Sam Saunders [20 posts]
21st December 2011 - 23:00

4 Likes

@Tony, I agree with some of what you say but you can't really argue for rigorous use of statistics on the one hand and then pull this:

...the Boris Bikes must by now have done over 8 million journeys without a single serious injury as far as I know - interesting that they have a so much lower accident rate despite many novice users...

posted by msw [126 posts]
13th January 2012 - 12:33

4 Likes