2 March 2015

One of the main reasons people don’t want to cycle, or cycle less than they otherwise might, is that it’s perceived to be a dangerous activity. Makes sense, doesn’t it? When you’re on the road, you’re dodging car doors and vehicles many times as heavy and as fast as you, with only a helmet to keep you safe. And when you’re off-road, well, let’s just say I once narrowly avoided going over my handlebars courtesy of an unrestrained and less-than-intelligent pug.

In Melbourne, each trip you take by bike is four and a half times more likely to kill you than one in a car and about thirteen times more likely to seriously injure you. That sounds pretty bad. However, these risks, horrific though they may be, are relatively small. There are around four to five cyclist fatalities a year in Melbourne and a hundred among car drivers and passengers (keeping in mind many more people travel by car than by bike). While these numbers are terrible and should be reduced (hopefully to zero!), there is evidence that the risk of cycling is many times outweighed by the reduced risk of health complications and early death associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Plus, you’re about seven times more likely to be hospitalised playing football than cycling.

I don’t mean to downplay the seriousness of injuries and fatalities from cycling at all. These are largely due to the way road environments are designed, namely excluding pedestrians and cyclists to maximise traffic flow and the convenience of on-street parking. However, I would say that cycling is perceived to be a more dangerous activity than it actually is and this puts off heaps of people that might otherwise do it. This means lost benefits in terms of public health, the environment, reducing congestion… You’ve heard it all before.

Basically, we need to make cycling feel safe. One of the most straight-forward ways of doing this is providing physically separated bike lanes where people want to go. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive solutions and impractical to do everywhere that people want to cycle. We can also make people safer by reducing speed limits, removing on-street parking, reducing the number of cars on key cyclist routes and promoting better behaviour on the roads. Plus, the ‘safety in numbers’ effect means that as these initiatives start to take effect, they are self-reinforcing, as the greater presence of cyclists on the roads makes others more comfortable joining them.

None of this is easy, particularly in a system where the ability of motorists to drive and park wherever they please is often the first priority for roads agencies and politicians. But I would think we could all agree that safety is paramount, and so the need to protect the life and limb of more vulnerable road users should be treated much more seriously. Plus, if we think that we need to get people into more efficient and environmentally-friendly modes of getting around, as well as encouraging them to live active lifestyles, we need to think not only about how to make people safe, but how to make them feel safe.

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