Segregation Myths #2: Segregated Cycle Facilities are Dangerous

After writing my critique of Cyclecraft a few weeks ago, I noticed that a thread had cropped up on Cyclechat discussing the post. A common research article is cited by those who oppose introduction of Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the UK is, Bicycle Track and Lanes: A Before and After Study, most commonly linked in the form of a summary report. This is often linked to as “proof” that segregated cycle facilities are dangerous, which in itself is rather unimportant, for reasons to be discussed later. Interestingly, very early on in the introduction, the author writes:

“Many studies of bicycle tracks have been undertaken in Northern Europe. A meta analysis of 11 studies shows a reduction of 4 percent in crashes, and the crash reduction is almost the same for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists respectively.”

The meta-analysis being referenced there is from, “The handbook of Road Safety Measures,” by Rune Elvik. Meta-analyses are useful because they take a broader consensus from numerous studies, minimising the effect of any flaws or limitations in individual studies by looking for overall trends in the body of work as a whole. Picking a single piece of research which agrees with your own opinion whilst ignoring the wider consensus offered by the body of literature is called “Cherry-picking,” and is generally frowned upon.

The study compares the numbers of cycle*-car and cycle-pedestrian crashes on roads with cycle tracks and with cycle lanes, to predicted crash figures based on figures for unaltered roads which have been altered to factor in the alteration to traffic volume and composition. The crash figures for junctions and straight road sections are treated separately, and the study finds that on roads with cycle tracks, cyclist crashes are decreased by 13% on straight sections, whilst at intersections they are increased by 24%. Overall, crashes involving cyclists increased by 10%.

This is the oft-cited percentage increase when discussing Dutch-style segregated cycle facilities with those who are vehemently opposed to them, and it is interesting to see how it is calculated; previously cyclist injuries at junctions had been measured as 353. After the installation of cycle tracks, the number of cyclist injuries at intersections was measured as 285, a reduction of 19% in absolute figures. However, the 24% increase figure is calculated from a predicted number of crashes figure for the after period, based on the changes to the traffic volume and mode composition, which predicted that at unmodified intersections with the same increase in cyclists, decrease in motorists and subject to pre-existing crash trends seen at the intersections which had been modified with cycle tracks, there should be 230 cyclist crashes. This is the figure which is used to generate the eye-catching 24% increase in crashes figure. The author of the paper also states that:

“The construction of bicycle tracks resulted in a 20 percent increase in [bicycle] traffic mileage and a 10 percent reduction in motor vehicle traffic mileage on those roads, where bicycle tracks have been constructed.”

Taking intersections and straight sections together gives a figure of a 10% increase in crashes involving cyclists overall versus the predicted figures on un-altered junctions for the same traffic mode/volume composition (broadly speaking, a 10% reduction in motor traffic and a 20% increase in cycle traffic), a composition which is arguably only achievable where segregation is applied. The actual before and after numbers show a decrease in the absolute numbers of cyclist crashes of 29%. It is important to consider the effects of any pre-existing downward trend in crashes which could be contributing to this number, but also important to consider that this effect is seen contemporaneously with an increase in cyclists’ mileage of 20% on these facilities.

“The bicycle facilities effects on traffic volumes are rather large. We do not know for sure whether these effects are a result of changes of route choice or transport mode choice or both. The magnitude of the changes in traffic volumes on the reconstituted streets, and the traffic volumes on parallel streets, however, do indicate that thousands of travellers in total must have changed their choice of transport mode. We do not know who have shifted mode – children, middle-ages or elderly, women or men, beginners or experienced, etc.”

It is also interesting to note the large effect which the presence or absence of car parking restrictions on the adjacent road has on the number of collisions and injuries for cyclists and pedestrians which occur at intersections. Where parking restrictions were in place, there were more collisions due to the effect of motor vehicles parking on minor roads instead, resulting in more turning thus collisions.

At the beginning of this post, I stated that the safety effect of Dutch-style segregated cycle facilities is actually rather unimportant. Cycling, even on our hostile road network is actually a very low risk activity. A lot of people have invested a lot of time in trying to convey this message, that cycling is actually very safe, low risk and that the benefits from cycling hugely outweigh the risks a person is exposed to by cycling. It also featured as a common theme on the Cyclechat thread too, demonstrations of the statistically low risk which comes from in motor traffic and links to works such as the study discussed above (ignoring the wider consensus offered by the overall body of literature, which are even discussed in the introduction of this particular study).

Generally, the body of research shows that Dutch-style segregated infrastructure moderately decreases the risk to which cyclists are exposed, despite expanding the demographic itself from what is largely a small minority of experienced and vigilant hardcore cyclists under a vehicular approach, to include such disparate groups as teenagers chatting as they ride together or riding alone with earphones in, older people, parents with their children (either on their own bikes or on the parent’s bike), children cycling to school without the need for supervisions and boozy revellers returning home from a pub or club by cycle. Despite the incredible broadening of the demographic, safety is still increased.

However, all of this is missing the point. Surprisingly, the main benefit and purpose of implementing Dutch-style segregated cycle infrastructure isn’t just to reduce risk, it is to reduce fear. Increasing people’s sense of subjective safety is a huge part of making the bicycle seem like an attractive and viable mode of transport to them. Another important factor is convenience. Both the need to feel safe whilst cycling, and the need for it to be convenient are provided where there are Dutch-style segregated facilities (and the extra options it opens up for reducing the speed, volume and permeability available to motorised traffic). All the statistics demonstrating the low-risk of vehicular cycling isn’t going to change the average person’s mind as long as it doesn’t feel safe to them. People don’t work that way

“Making these bicycle facilities must have contributed to benefits due to more physical activity, less air pollution, less traffic noise, less oil consumption, etc. […] The positive benefits may well be much higher than the negative consequences caused by new safety problems.” (My emphasis)

*In the study, numbers for cycles and mopeds limited to 30 km/h (which are legally permitted to use cycle tracks in Denmark) are bundled together. Make of this what you will.

Segregation Myths #1

There are a few common canards used to attempt to discredit anyone who dares to talk about going Dutch with respect to cycling infrastructure here in the UK, including:

1) We’ll never get segregation on every street.
2) There isn’t room on British streets for separate cycle facilities.
3) People need somewhere to park their cars.

1) We’ll never get segregation on every street

In The Netherlands (and Denmark for that matter) they don’t even come close to having separate facilities for cyclists on every street. Instead they have specific guidelines for how much separation is required in a given location (Separation Principles) based on factors including the importance of said route as a main commuting route for cyclists, the volume of motorised traffic on said route and the speed of motorised traffic on said route. The degree of separation increases with all of these factors, from zero segregation on a quiet service road up to wide separated cycle lanes all red traffic signal phases at functions to allow cyclists and pedestrians to turn in whichever direction they wish at junctions, or roundabouts with radial exits and legal priority for cycle traffic.

An advantage of this type of infrastructure is its calming effect on motor traffic, due to the reduction in motor traffic capacity. This has obvious benefits for pedestrians without bringing cyclists and motorists into conflict in the way that conventional lane narrowing does, as it is usually implemented without any serious consideration for the needs of cyclists.

2) There isn’t room on British streets for separate cycle facilities.

Now that we have addressed the myth that Dutch-style infrastructure means putting a separate cycle lane on every street, we have gone a long way to addressing canard number two. The roads which most unattractive and unsafe for cyclists at present are the very same roads which have require the very highest level of separation of cycle and motor traffic under the rules of the Separation Principles. These roads are the widest and fastest roads we have, roads which are easily capable of accommodating Dutch-quality separate infrastructure for cyclists. In Manchester, good examples of roads matching this description include Upper Brook Street (A34), Oxford Road (B5117), Princess Road (A5103), Chester Road (A56) & Regent Road (A57), to name a few. Reducing the speed and volume of motor traffic reducing road capacity on these streets has wide-ranging benefits to pedestrians and the local community in which these roads are situated.

Unlike current approaches to tackling motor traffic speed and congestion through road capacity reduction and lane narrowing, using the space taken away from motor traffic to build Dutch-quality infrastructure does not necessitate bringing cyclists and motor traffic into conflict and so enhances the attractiveness and convenience of cycling rather than further diminishing it.

3) People need somewhere to park their cars.

Ignoring for now the obvious oddity that is the widely accepted phenomenon that is the routine storing of personal property on the public highway, in addressing canard number two, we have gone a long way to tackling this one too. The streets I named are generally of the kind which have either blanket parking bans, or at least have peak-hours parking bans along most of their length. The biggest roads are the roads where parking is already prohibited all the time, and where it is not prohibited all the time, it definitely should be (I’m looking at you, Upper Brook Street).

Even if implementing Dutch-style infrastructure did mean displacing some established car parking, I don’t see why this should be regarded as a problem. It is a very depressing prospect that the safety of vulnerable road users be regarded as a lower priority than the publicly-subsidised storage of personal property on the public highway. Streets are primarily intended for people and movement, not storage.

Cycling: Lessons from Recycling

When I was at school in the 1990s I remember there was a lot being said about recycling, how it was important and how we should all make an effort to recycle our glass, paper and cans (there was little mention of recycling plastic at that stage). I distinctly remember that one month we were all encouraged to bring all of our family’s empty tins and cans into school, sorting them into separate steel and aluminium bins by testing them with a magnet. At the end of the month the bins were taken away, I remember being enthusiastic and wanting to continue recycling the cans but the only place to recycle them was through large bins at the supermarket car park, or at the borough tip. At the time we didn’t even have wheelie bins, we had several metal bins at the back of the house which were emptied by the bin men every week. There was no separate collection for different types of waste, the whole waste collection infrastructure was designed around the need to move all domestic waste to either landfill or incineration.

Recycling in the 1990s was possible, but it required individuals to think about their domestic waste and make the conscious effort to elect to take their waste to centralised recycling facilities. The more destructive option of not recycling waste which could have been recycled was the convenient and easy choice because it didn’t involve individuals to elect to change their behaviour. Most people didn’t particularly care about the issue of recycling and thought nothing of throwing all their domestic waste out in the same bin. Less than twenty years in 2011, almost everyone recycles the majority of their recyclable domestic waste.

Image courtesy of MEN

In 2011, do the majority of people care about the issue of recycling? The answer is still a resounding “No.” People recycle because it in 2011 it is easy and convenient for them to do so, so it is the natural choice. Rather than continuing to promote elective behavioural change to increase recycling rates, councils have changes the waste collection infrastructure to make recycling the natural and convenient option. Separate bin facilities are provided for different sorts of waste, often different categories of recyclable waste in addition to a general waste bin for non-recyclable material. For those choosing not to separate waste so it can be recycled, life is made inconvenient by a reduction in general waste capacity through reducing the frequency of general waste collections. Overall capacity is maintained or improved through additional collections for recyclable waste, making recycling a convenient and attractive option. Mass recycling was brought about not through elective behaviour change but through subtle coercion; changes in the waste collection infrastructure were made so that recycling became attractive and convenient, whilst not recycling became a less attractive and less viable option.

Those who wanted to promote recycling realised early on that an approach based mainly on elective behavioural change was inherently limited in its ability to deliver significant gains in recycling rates. Elective cycle training, “Be nice,” and “Mutual respect,” campaigns directed at both motorists and cyclists, and things like Bike Week are all similarly limited. A few weeks after the end of “Can collection month,” I had a bag of cans I wanted to recycle, but because the waste collection infrastructure was based around not recycling, and I was too young to take them to the recycling centre myself, I ended up throwing them into the bin and I forgot about the issues and importance of recycling. In 2011, at the end of Bike Week, there will be the same realisation and people will get back into their cars and forget about cycling for another year, because approaches based extensively on conscious, elective behavioural change are inherently very limited in their ability to bring about significant long-term results.

Who asks for this crap?

Anyone who cycles in the UK will have encountered our unique cycling infrastructure, which is truly in a class of its own. I, like many other have often wondered who asks for this useless, inconvenient and dangerous infrastructure? How does it come to be?
Warrington Cycle Campaign’s Facility of the Month, January 2011
The answer to this became clear to me whilst I was reviewing the report on the Greater Manchester LTP3, a consultation with the public and relevant organisations on the future of transport in Greater Manchester. These kinds of consultations are relatively common activities run by local authorities all over the UK.
When I was reviewing the LTP3 report, I noticed an interesting disparity between the organisations’ responses and the individuals’ responses. Individuals frequently asked for cycle lanes, but understandably they did not go into detail with respect to design standards of these lanes (except for me in my individual response). Organisations claiming to represent cyclists, such as the CTC and British Cycling asked for things such as 20 mph zones*, workplace showers, cycle parking and cycle training, but not separate infrastructure.
By ignoring cycle infrastructure, or ranking them as the “less preferable” options as the CTC’s Hierarchy of Provision does, councils are left with individual respondents asking for cycle lanes with this request not being mirrored by cyclists’ organisations and no guidance or lobbying on the standards of lanes** forthcoming from these organisations. The DfT does offer some reasonable guidance for cycle facilities, but because historically the national cyclists’ organisations have focussed their energy doggedly on vehicular cycling, these remain advisory and are treated as unattainable ideal standards rather than as the absolute bare minimum.
There is a definite disconnect between cyclists’ organisations such as the CTC and the needs and wishes of everyday cyclists and the millions of potential cyclists, who are put off by having to cycle in close proximity to huge volumes of fast traffic. Individuals continue to ask government for cycle lanes in consultations and cyclists’ organisations continue to ignore the elephant in the room. The result is Facility of the Month.
* 20 mph zones are a great idea in residential and dense urban areas. They are not going to achieve any meaningful rise in cycling alone though. As long at they are surrounded by fast A and B-roads without any separate infrastructure for cyclists, they are little more than isolated islands of safety.
** Hopefully this will change at a national level with the launch of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, offering a voice for separate infrastructure, technical guidance and an umbrella for local cycling campaigns whose goals are the same.

A Modern Clement Attlee

Winston Churchill is widely regarded to be a national hero, and rightly so. Through his leadership the UK survived the biggest threat to its very existence for centuries, and years earlier he abolished road tax too. During those dark and dangerous times, he called for unity, and set up a coalition government, with the Labour party leader Clement Attlee as Deputy Prime Minister. Most people, of all political persuasions, were grateful for his leadership during the Second World War and the service he did his country.

Sir_Winston_S_Churchill

After the War in Europe was over in 1945, elections were held again, and the people voted not for the man who had defended them so well during the time of war, but for the man they hoped would lead them differently during the new time of peace; Clement Attlee. The war was over, and so was the need for unity in the House of Commons. I write this because Clement Attlee is one of my favourite politicians (just read the Wikipedia article on him), but also because I was reminded of this bit of history when reading several posts by Carlton Reid.

Attlee_BW_cropped

Amongst the other points made in his posts; the issues with which are largely discussed in the comments, there is a theme that he believes it is more important for cycle campaigning to be unified than it is for a new organisation; such as The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, to exist to represent the beliefs of its members. His argument is that we are stronger as a unified force (even if many of us no longer feel adequately represented by existing campaigns such as the CTC) than we are if divided.

Cycling in the UK has seen some dark days, with modal share plummeting with the rise of mass car ownership and the simultaneous lack of investment in cycle infrastructure. The CTC and other existing organisations defended cycling through some of its darkest days, and I and many others truly appreciate this. If this were 1985, I might find myself agreeing with Carlton and saying that we need to remain unified. However, it is not 1985, times have changed and cycling in the UK has been through its darkest days and is coming out of the other side. We are starting to see the very beginnings of a recovery in our towns and cities, and a desire from the population to use the bicycle for transportation, with fear of traffic being the number one factor deterring them, a real desire for Dutch-style infrastructure and the organisation which is supposed to speak for cyclists listing this option amongst the least desirable in their Hierarchy of Provision.

Just as the man who got us through the biggest threat to our existence in centuries isn’t necessarily the man we want to lead us into a hopeful new era of peace, the campaign which protected cycling during its decline doesn’t necessarily represent the needs of those who cycle and those who want to cycle now we are presented with a real chance for a resurgence. In the end, Churchill lost the 1945 election to Clement Attlee, but this does not diminish his achievements in the eyes of the British public, just as the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain does not diminish those achievements of the CTC. There may have been a time for unity within the cycle campaign community, but that time is coming to an end. Many of us feel that the time is right for a change.

This, Carlton, is why I feel we need The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.

Hills and Headwinds

I had what some refer to as “A moment of clarity,” yesterday. I had to run a family errand in Rochdale during the evening and I decided to ride there. I was expecting there to be little other traffic due to the time of day and I avoided the train because that particular route has been very unreliable lately. The route I usually take to Rochdale has a few hills and is a net climb when heading there from Manchester (making the ride back quite nice). Yesterday this net climb was combined with a fairly stiff headwind and a greater volume of motor traffic than I had expected. On several sections, the combination of those factors made me feel the need to walk the bike on the pavement for a few separate stretches.

On one of these stretches, there was a long section of car-parking allocated on the pavement which was not being used at the time. I decided that despite the hill and the headwind I might find riding along this section of parking bays better than walking. Riding along that section, the hill was still there and so was the headwind, but I was effectively separated from the motorised traffic. I was riding much slower than I usually do (~12 km.h-1) but the hill and headwind were no longer bothering me.

It was at that point that I realised why I felt the need to get off. The hill and headwind were too much together for me to maintain the minimum speed at which I feel comfortable riding on a fast (40 mph) or particularly narrow road (around 20-25 km.h-1). I imagine this speed is different for different people, for many it is the speed at which they would travel in a car, hence they are put off cycling on these roads altogether.

If I had been riding on Dutch-style segregated infrastructure, or if the road hadn’t been narrowed to accommodate free on-street parking, or if the speed limits were lower, I would have felt secure climbing the hill against the headwind at a very low speed. Many people say that Dutch levels of cycling are unattainable in the UK because of our geography (The Netherlands are famously quite flat), but the vast majority of people can tackle our hills on bikes. They just need to do so at a lower speed, whilst feeling safe from the threat of motorised vehicles. If that threat were removed, I, and I suspect many others, wouldn’t feel the need to get off and push on almost any hills, even with a stiff headwind.