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Buying cyclists’ safety will cost more than £10 per head

This is not “cycling infrastructure”, this is blue paint. Lewis Whyld/PA

Government should budget to spend £10 per cyclist by 2020 in order to make bicycle travel safer, according to a committee of MPs. The report of the Transport Committee also called for a “change in culture” across departments, so that cycling is supported at all levels of government.

Leaving aside the issue of whether £10 per head (up from £2) by 2020 is sufficiently ambitious, comfortably distant in parliamentary terms as it is, the report’s most notable call is for the number of cycling casualties to decrease – 109 cyclists were killed on UK roads last year, and another 3,000 seriously injured – and for the amount of cycling to increase at the same time.

This latter point is very important. The tendency to ignore risk-exposure has long been characteristic of Department for Transport reports, which trumpet decreases in pedestrian and cyclist casualty numbers without showing whether the number of walking and cycling trips has changed. Logically, celebrating a reduction in pedestrian casualties without asking whether people are walking less is like saying dinosaurs are the safest form of travel because no dinosaur riders were hurt last year. So it’s encouraging to see this considered. The next problem is how to measure that risk of injury – incidents per cyclist, per kilometre, per journey, or per day? Each will paint a very different picture.

The report also illustrates a key debate within bicycle safety circles over recent years: are cyclists’ needs best met by making roads safer places to cycle, reducing the dangers imposed by motorists, or by providing dedicated cycle infrastructure?

The argument goes that, as the UK already has an excellent network of roads to almost anywhere a person might want to reach, if this network could just be made safe for cyclists then cycling would be a practical form of transport for most people. The committee talks about taming roads by, for example, making it easier for local authorities to introduce 20mph speed limits and holding the haulage and construction industries to account for the disproportionate number of cycling deaths their members cause.

Are such approaches feasible? The idea that people operating heavy machines will inevitably make dangerous mistakes, even if they don’t want to, is the starting point for how we operate aviation, maritime and rail transport systems, to say nothing of industrial workplaces. In these industries, human error is seen as inevitable and systems are put in place to prevent accident or disaster. But governments have never really addressed this issue for those driving motor vehicles on the roads, even though traffic psychologists have long drawn attention to how errors and lapses are normal features of driving.

Lower speed limits could mitigate the effects of driver error – less speed means reduced energy on impact and greater time for drivers to react. But this would only work if drivers are sufficiently convinced the new limits are a good idea, and motivated to obey them. Traffic psychology research also shows that drivers’ deliberate violations of traffic rules cause dangers, and a person already happy to drive recklessly is unlikely to be made more safe for others by the imposition of further rules for them to ignore. And this is to say nothing of the risks to rural cyclists who are never going to get their roads reduced to 20mph.

This is why many cycle safety campaigners instead look to improving infrastructure, a solution the committee also raises. However, not all cycling infrastructure is equal. Research has shown that on-road features such as bicycle lanes can lead to motorists blindly following the paint on the road rather than making proper judgements, increasing the risk to riders. So many campaigners today prefer the idea of “gold standard” segregated cycle infrastructure, as found in cycling-friendly countries such as Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. This protects cyclists from the danger posed by drivers by using physical separation, which is still effective even with a proportion of reckless or intentionally dangerous motorists.

The key question to arise from this report is whether there can be sufficient impetus to change to established practices across Whitehall required to ensure good-quality segregated infrastructure is provided in the future?

My feeling – putting aside one misguided comment about everybody respecting everybody else, which ignores the hugely different levels of harm each road user can inflict – is that the committee’s heart is in the right place. But I am not convinced much will happen. It’s encouraging to see demands for cycling to become safer, and also feel safer. This is the critical shift required to move cycling from something unusual used by a stubborn minority, to something ordinary used by commuters, children and older people. And the committee is right to believe that achieving this kind of change will require banging a lot of heads together across Whitehall.

But I wonder if they realise just how big a task this entails – if we truly want to normalise and encourage cycling, fundamental changes are needed everywhere: planning laws that prevent out-of-town shopping centre sprawl, the health service (doctors should ask if you use sedentary travel before they ask whether you smoke, given the former is a better predictor of premature death), in education, in business. Above all, we must stop making motoring the cheapest, easiest, and most “standard” form of travel, and go further to ensure the true cost of vehicle use is paid by those that use them.

Motor vehicles are of course useful and definitely have a role. But that role should not include, for example, using a five-seat vehicle to move a single person less than 5 urban kilometres. That’s what bicycles are for. We’ll know we have a culture that truly values cycling when we see a government’s message to an able-bodied person driving alone across town is: “What’s wrong? Is your bike broken?”

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