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Is cycling in London getting safer?

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

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.

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