London’s cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, says that his observations of people riding the city’s Boris Bikes suggests that cyclists may actually be safer riding without safety gear.
Mr Gilligan, appointed to his position by Mayor of London Boris Johnson earlier this year, was speaking at the annual conference at Glasgow’s Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome of Cycling Scotland, which tweeted his remarks.
While his view on safety equipment appears to be based on his own experience rather than properly conducted research, previous research suggests that he may have a point.
In 2006, a study conducted by Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath found that motorists gave more room when overtaking cyclists without a helmet than those wearing one.
More recent research from Australia suggests that whilst cyclists should endeavour to make themselves seen by motorists, reflective clothing, rather than hi-visibility, is the best solution.
Neither helmets nor hi-vis clothing are compulsory in the UK, but Rule 59 of the Highway Code says:
Clothing. You should wear
• a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened
• appropriate clothes for cycling. Avoid clothes which may get tangled in the chain, or in a wheel or may obscure your lights
• light-coloured or fluorescent clothing which helps other road users to see you in daylight and poor light
• reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark.
Opponents of helmet compulsion often point out that in countries with the highest levels of regualr bicycle usage - Denmark and the Netherlands - few cyclists feel the need to wear a helmet or high visibility clothing.
Mr Gilligan told the conference that the biggest developments in cycling were being led not by central government, but in the devolved administrations and in London.
The Active Travel Act in Wales last week received royal assent, while Scotland has an ambitious national target of achieving 10 per cent of journeys by bike by 2020.
The UK government recently declined to set national cycling targets as called for in April’s Get Britain Cycling report, saying such goals were an issue for local authorities to determine.
London's cycling commissioner said that the £913 million to be spent on cycling in the city in the coming years would benefit not just those who already ride bikes, but everyone, including those deterred from doing so because they perceive it to be dangerous.
He maintained that “heavy metal transport” such as cars was unable to deliver the same benefits in terms of improving quality of life as cycling does, and said that London was well on its way to becoming a “post-car” city.
Cycling is now at the cutting edge of the city’s transport planning, he added, partly because the improvements delivered by investment in cycling are much more cost-effective than those that can be achieved by ploughing money into public transport, which requires greater spend.
The Scotsman reported that Mr Gilligan also outlined to the conference the benefits of promoting cycling as a means of commuting to ease pressures on other parts of the transport network.
He said: “If you can convert a commuter to cycling, you will generate more cycle journeys – five a week [ie 10 return trips – ed] – and also take a car off the road or free a seat on a train or bus at a time that these are most needed and the roads are busiest.
“It is a very cheap way of delivering transport capacity.
“Edinburgh is a small city and eminently commutable by bike,” he added.
Mr Gilligan revealed that the mayor’s planned ‘Crossrail for Bikes’ that would link east and west London at an estimated cost of £30 million would have the capacity to handle 3,000 cyclists an hour.
He added that “you could not even get out of bed” by using that amount of cash to create additional capacity on the London Underground network.
The amount of £30 million Mr Gilligan referred to is dwarfed by the sum spent in recent years on just one piece of road infrastructure in Glasgow – it is equivalent less than 5 per cent of the £692 million cost of the five-mile long M74 extension, which opened in May 2011.
Mr Gilligan’s comment about safety gear such as helmets and high visibility clothing comes at the end of a week in which cycling retailer Wiggle came under criticism for publishing a guest blog calling for compulsory helmets for cyclists.
Cambridgeshire Police & Crime Commissioner Sir Graham Bright has also said helmets should be mandatory for cyclists – a call countered by Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, who is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group.
It was also a week in which two London cyclists were seriously injured and one killed in collisions with large vehicles.
On Tuesday afternoon, 62-year-old Brian Holt was killed in a collision with a tipper truck while riding on Barclays Cycle Superhighway CS2 on Mile End Road.
That evening, another male cyclist aged in his sixties suffered sever head injuries when he was struck by a coach turning left from Vernon Place onto Southampton Row in Holborn.
On Wednesday evening, a female cyclist sustained severe leg injuries when she was dragged beneath a lorry at the junction of Mortimer Street and Langham Place close to Oxford Circus.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Johnson had officially opened the new Bow to Stratford section of Barclays Cycle Superhighway CS2, which includes safety features such as segregate cycle lanes that have been welcomed by cyclists’ organisations such as the London Cycling Campaign.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.