Posted on December 3, 2013
Source: As Easy As Riding A Bike
The subject of ‘dangerisation’ – the idea that we are discouraging people who might be tempted cycle in London from doing so by talking about danger and safety – is back on the agenda, following the ‘Die In’ outside TfL headquarters and a poll from the BBC, and the responses to both.
I think it is important, first of all, to remember what has actually put danger on the agenda. It wasn’t bloggers and campaigners suddenly deciding to talk about it. It was a series of deaths and serious injuries in a short space of time. It’s impossible to keep that kind of story out of the news, and to a large extent anything campaigners have been saying and doing after it made the front pages of newspapers and the headlines on TV is pretty irrelevant. Asking campaigns, specifically, to moderate the message – as it appears Andrew Gilligan is doing – is largely pointless, because our reach with the general public is pretty much non-existent (I wish it were otherwise, but it’s probably true). The general public has heard about cycling death and injury in the last month not from campaigners, but from the newspapers, the radio and from TV – they haven’t discovered this story from the London Cycling Campaign, and other campaigns (I think the one exception here is the ‘Die In’, about which more below). And it’s not reasonable to expect media outlets to not report or investigate this sequences of deaths.
I did short interviews with both ITV News, and with BBC London’s Tom Edwards, who asked me for comment during that sequence of deaths. I couldn’t reasonably say that cycling in London was fine, because it plainly isn’t. It is unnecessarily hazardous, and we know the reasons why, and have done for some time – I tried to put those reasons across in the interviews. I tried to explain, in particular, how we have junctions with large motor vehicles turning left, and people on bikes moving ahead, and the reasons why collisions occur. It would not have made much sense for me to talk about anything else.
Did this surge of media interest in cycling and cycling danger put anyone off cycling in London, who might have been on the cusp of doing so? It may have done so, but I’d argue that the effect is so superficial it should not even be a matter of concern. It’s tempting to imagine, if you are an optimistic cycle campaigner or official responsible for increasing cycling levels, that there is some huge cohort of the population that just needs a small bit of persuasion to start cycling, just a little nudge to get them onto two wheels. But the reality is that the people watching the news, or reading newspapers – ordinary Londoners who in the main would not even dream of cycling on London’s roads – have already firmly made their minds up about the attractiveness of cycling in this city. London, like most cities in Britain, is divided between the tiny percentage of people who are happy to cycle within it, and the huge majority who won’t even consider it.
At the same time, that tiny percentage of people who do already ride in London are not likely to be affected much by media reporting. If they were put off by danger, and talk about danger, well, frankly, they wouldn’t be cycling in London at all in the first place. In the main, they probably know the issues, and the dangers posed by HGVs. The fact that cyclists get killed and seriously injured is not news to people who cycle in London. It’s entirely reasonable to suppose that a solid majority of the people who already ride in London are not going to give up their bicycles on the basis of media reporting and campaigning on this issue.
Now it may be the case – hypothetically – that discussing the dangers of cycling may dip cycling levels in London down a few tenths of a percent, if perhaps as many as ten percent of all the trips made in London by bike are simply abandoned. (We have a poll, commissioned by the BBC, which purports to show some abandonment of cycling following the recent deaths, but the question appears to be vaguely phrased, and doesn’t actually ask why people have stopped cycling – it may be due to the onset of cold weather).
I don’t think such a degree of cycling abandonment is at all likely, because as I’ve just argued, people cycling in London are familiar with danger already, and reporting about what they already know is not likely to change their minds. But in the context of where we should be aiming – double digit cycling levels – and the policies that are required to take us there, even this kind of ‘worst case scenario’ is completely trivial. We should focus on sorting the roads out, and making them safe and attractive to cycle on, for anyone – concerns about scaring people off should rightly pale into insignificance if these changes are happening.
From acquaintances, people do not give up cycling because of media reporting – they give it up because of a bad incident, or a series of bad incidents, that they experienced themselves directly. Or they simply find other modes of transport relatively more attractive, and choose them instead. Concerning ourselves over how media reporting and campaigning frames the issue of danger is an irrelevance, when set against the broader picture of how pleasant cycling actually is.
This brings me to the ‘Die In’, which was a (limited) media event, and which, it has been argued, presented cycling as dangerous to the general public – something that wouldn’t have happened if the event hadn’t taken place. One of the most forceful critics appeared to be Copenhagenize, who wrote
Everything – absolutely everything – that tells people that cycling is dangerous is the stupidest form of advocacy.
In the UK today, a couple thousand people convinced tens of thousands of their fellow citizens never to ride a bicycle again. Well done.
Well, frankly, I think that’s a ludicrously overblown statement. The idea that tens of thousands of Britons will never ride a bicycle again because of one protest is deeply silly, especially when we consider the actual, documented barriers to cycling uptake in Britain. Now of course perception of danger is a serious obstacle – if not the most serious obstacle – but that perception has not appeared out of thin air. It is grounded in the reality of the way Britain’s roads and streets look and feel to the people who walk (and indeed drive) along them.
It has not arisen from protests about the way the roads and streets are hostile for cycling, for the simple reason that people can already see for themselves that roads and streets are hostile for cycling. This is why – for the most part – they don’t ride bicycles on them. Protests like the Die In are, at the very worst, only confirming what people already believe, and just as importantly, the absence of Die Ins won’t change anyone’s mind about the attractiveness of cycling – we cannot market the unmarketable.
It is interesting to note that a significant part of the Die In was devoted to the issue of pedestrian safety, with several speakers, including Tom Kearney and Nazan Fennell, relating the consequences of death and serious injury while walking. Tom was hit by a bus on Oxford Street, and left in a coma with serious injuries. Nazan’s daughter Hope was killed by an HGV while crossing the road with her bicycle. Pedestrian safety is a serious issue, with pedestrians being killed or seriously injured in large numbers in London. It is entirely appropriate that the protest focused on this issue alongside that of cycling safety, because I think walking and cycling should have a great deal in common, and the way in which people walking and cycling are exposed to danger is very similar.
Crucially, however, I haven’t seen anyone complain that the Die In ‘dangerised’ walking, and discouraged people from walking.
This might be partially explained by the fact that the walking aspect of the protest was not really covered by the media, at least as much as the cycling aspect was. But the absence of concern about ‘dangerising’ of walking is probably more likely due to the fact that walking is a more robust mode, and cycling is currently inherently fragile. Everybody walks every day, and does so without real concern for their safety (despite the fact that danger is posed to pedestrians). By contrast, the danger experienced while cycling is subjectively much more real, and apparent. These issues – the difference between walking and cycling safety, and why we get concerned about dangerising cycling, but not about dangerising walking – are something I am going to explore in my next post.
Chicago has a similar problem surrounding the public perceptions of “danger“. We are faced this year with a rash of shootings that have affected virtually all of the sectors of the city. However the bulk of these shootings have been in low income areas on the South and West Sides of the city. And as with things like “ghost bikes” there is always the chance that either reporting on a situation or placing memorials to victims means that those who are wary become even more so. This is part of the “unintended consequences” scenario that faces every aspect of human existence. Nothing it would seem is very straightforward.
Part of the problem in Chicago is that we do not have a complete handle on how to prevent shootings. At present the city is working off a model that more resembles the steps one would take in preventing communicable diseases than anything else. The theory (and I stress that this is a working theory) is that those most likely to be killed on any given weekend in Chicago are acquaintances of the people doing the shooting or previous victims.
Does reporting on these crimes make the city less safe (in statistical reality) or just seem so? I would argue the latter. But perception is in fact everything when it comes to dealing with public fears and the willingness of tourists to visit the city. No amount of encouragement that the downtown area of the city is quite safe is sometimes able to overcome the fears of the general public. Once the notion has taken hold it is difficult to shake.
‘Bicycle Heaven’ Has A Different Problem
Let us suppose however that you have a situation which is supposed to represent the pinnacle of current technology where bicycle infrastructure is concerned. And let us further suppose that the rates of “right hooks” has been low for years at various busy intersections. And let us also imagine that visitors from around the developed world have been doing pilgrimages to your city to see how “the best” have managed to get that way. And then suddenly you have a spike in “right hooks“. You cannot immediately place the blame on lack of infrastructure. After all it is the state of development of your infrastructure which is the envy of the world.
And if it were infrastructure why would the problem not have surfaced earlier? Why the sudden jump?
The Variable Is Always ‘The Human Factor’
My experience is that movements tend to be more emotional than rational. That is certainly going to be the case in Great Britain as it was in Amsterdam. Every time there is a spike in deaths, the emotional arguments will surface and people will be encouraged to either protest the “lack of infrastructure” or “blame the victims“. But suppose that our thinking about this problem is really not sophisticated enough yet to allow us to look at it with clearer scientific understanding.
At present the trend is to collect mountains of data and to “analyze the past“. When I use the term “past” I mean the very recent past. The idea behind this approach is very much like that being used in Chicago to curb gun violence. It is essentially the same way you learn to track the paths of pandemics of communicable diseases. There is some validity in this approach because it would seem possible that despite the quality and amount of bicycle infrastructure you are never assured of avoiding spikes in traffic deaths. The one key variable is human behavior.
Studying the location, types and frequency of collisions in an urban area at least tells you where the “contagion” has spread. What remands to understand is why some folks infected with the disease get sick and others do not. In bicycle infrastructure terms this would translate as, why some intersections mere blocks away from the worst ones do not have collisions while the others do. And most important would be why a given stretch of infrastructure suddenly erupts in an increase of fatal collisions.
Cooler Heads Must Prevail
At the end of the day it may just be that we learn that the single most potent cure lies in human behavior. We know this to be true of humans where diseases are concerned. A simple washing of the hands with soap after using the bathroom and before touching doorknobs, phones, chairs and the like can stop epidemics in their tracks. Likewise something as simple as sneezing into the crook of your elbow to limit the distribution of airborne contaminants actually works.
We have been focusing on what is essentially an “inert ingredient” in the race to make bicycling safer. The thinking goes that, if we can paint enough of the surface of roadways green and erect enough PVC bollards, safety will follow. But when it does not we have learned to fall back to the notion of “bicycle comfort“. The thing that lies behind this particular retreat is the firmly held belief that if we can just reach a “critical mass” in ridership that there is “safety in numbers“.
The fact is we are searching for a “silver bullet“. We will cling to the talisman of bicycle infrastructure for as long as we can. But in countries like the United States we will have collected mounds of data in big cities like Chicago and New York (whose infrastructure development is soaring) in a few more years. We already know that despite the upward trend in infrastructure development the statistical safety numbers are not heading in the right direction. That like the ones from the Chicago gun murder epidemic does little to calm public fears.
The Chicago Police Superintendent can stand before cameras each weekend for years and attempt to explain away the gun violence problem, but facts are persistent things. If we have a similar situation with bicycle infrastructure someone will “have some explaining to do“. Meanwhile demonstrations will proceed full speed in Britain because frankly that is the easiest thing in the world to do. We humans have no lack of capacity to complain. What we lack is a scientific understanding of the root causes of problems and how and where to apply lasting solutions.
Our ‘Track Record’ Is Dismal
Setting aside for a moment the question of bicycle infrastructure (for which there is a steep learning curve) consider the decades of practical knowledge of how to build highways and arterial streets for automobiles. And despite the trillions of dollars spent on these pieces of infrastructure and the complimentary money spent on making cars safer, there is a steady ride in deaths each year. It is as if we are buying “snake oil” and surprised when we discover it does not work.
Each year some new thing is pointed at to explain away our defeat in licking the car mortality problem. A few years ago it was a lack of “seatbelt wearing“. The current whipping boy is “texting“. We will get a handle on this problem too and my guess is that sooner or later something else will help up explain away rising deaths. Do not be surprised if one day somebody decides that there are too many bicycles on the roadway. Or barring that unfortunate idea it will be that the presence of bicycle infrastructure has made use of the roadways more confusing for drivers and that it needs to be made more straightforward.
I expect too that when the numbers on bicycle deaths does not go down fast enough that those who favor cycling will decide that the “Final Solution” is to eliminate cars altogether. But folks, the one constant in all of this are the humans themselves. It is their behavior that is at least a part of the failure of physical infrastructure design to resolve conflicts on the roadways.
We for instance have for decades tried to minimize collisions between cars and trains. We have gates at most intersections now and there is a plan to add additional arms to the gates to make it nearly impossible for a driver to go around a set of gates once they have been lowered. But that will probably fail as well. After all if people are still driving around lowered gates now they will find a means of circumventing even more draconian measures in the future.
As with the drug problem in the United States, there will always be a new and improved version of some opiate or gas or liquid that people will have discovered that gives a faster high for less money and it will reach epidemic proportions. And as with Prohibition in this country people will have the notion that just getting rid of drugs altogether is the answer. But that will only drive the production and distribution of narcotics further underground (as it did for the Mob during Prohibition) and sooner or later cooler heads will prevail and decide that even that measure failed.
Fixing Problems That Involve Humans Is Difficult
So I expect the demonstrations to continue to erupt as people try to figure out how to fix a problem that revolves around human behavior. With enough PSAs we learn to behave better on the roadways. And with enough “improvements” in infrastructure we may make travel safer. But it might be the case that nothing short of total eradication of collisions is possible unless machines are smart enough to keep us from killing ourselves and each other.