Heads In The Sand

One day cycling levels in the UK will reach a tipping point and its perfectly safe already and......

According to Wikipedia, ‘Contrary to popular belief, Ostriches do not bury their heads in sand. This myth likely began with Pliny the Elder(A.D. 23-79), who wrote that Ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

It may not be true about Ostriches, but i’ve come to the conclusion that it does apply to politicians, the cycle campaigning ‘establishment’ and the ‘road safety’ lobby.

In my previous post, I pontificated about whether a non-vehicular union should be set up to promote better infrastructure for cyclists & pedestrians with space being ceded by the motor car with the aim of creating safer and more pleasant environments.

Lots of wonderful comments followed including the segregation/vehicular debate (which is being discussed very eloquently on the very good i bike london blog at the moment).

For people new to cycling, firstly welcome to a better and brighter World and I’ll quickly try to explain what that debate means to the UK.

Levels of motorised traffic have soared in recent decades. The bicycle, once a common way of getting about was increasingly seen a bit of an imposition in the way of progress. The car was the way forward and a string of Governments created national infrastructure catering for this with motorways, bypasses and ever bigger trunk roads. This infrastructure begat more traffic which begat more roads which is still happening to this day. Many people who would like to cycle find that the roads are now too dangerous for them. The cycle campaign establishment believes that we should fight for our right to the road come Hell or high water, that we should campaign for better rights to those roads believing that they’re the best cycle network we have and that at some point we shall reach a ‘tipping point’. The modal share of cycling in this country remains dismal however, despite the best vehicular efforts. The Internet has increasingly shown many cycling Britons what is happening in mainland Europe with double figure modal shares through segregated infrastructure. This will never happen in the UK say the vehicular cyclists and if we go down the segregated route as it would lead to more of the crap that we already have which is dangerous and appallingly designed. Ah, say the segregationalists, but if we started to take space away from the motor car, everyone else would have more space to create decent facilities as in the Netherlands for example. But better cycle training will lead to better road sense making segregated infrastructure superfluous say the vehicular cyclists. Yes, say the segregationalists but no-one is cycling because it is perceived as a dangerous activity to all but the most experienced cyclists.

And so on and so on.

The thing is; is this an argument that’s going to continue for another several decades amongst cycling ‘afficionados’, or are we going to take a step back and acknowledge what the real issues are behind road safety and that the solution lies somewhere in the no mans land of cycling debate?

Dr Robert Davis of the Road Danger Reduction Forum made the following comment on my last post

A few thoughts: Many moons ago I tried the idea that we shouldn’t bang on about cycling, but talk about safety. This brings in pedestrians, cyclists and also the more responsible motorists. Of course, I then found out that “road safety” as commonly understood in the world of idiot-proofing the motorist experience is part of the problem – we have to talk about road danger reductionm (RDR) instead.

Such an approach can bring in all the above mentioned organisations, and people like RoadPeace (the National road crash victims’ organisation) who also support RDR – reducing danger at source, and creating “Safe Roads for All”. We also go for a genuinely sustainable and civilised transport strategy.


The only thing is: how are the organisations you mention going to work together? A lot of them don’t want to bite the “anti-car” bullet and panic at the thought of alienating Government (which is what lobby groups have to cosy up to). Also, a lot of their members (particularlly the racing cyclists in British Cycling) aren’t happy about perceived restrictions on motorists. A lot are just pretty toothless.

On top of that, there are the differences betwen segregationists and integrationists in cycling, and the fact that many pedestrian and disabled people’s groups just seem to want to bang on about cyclist misbehaviour.

That may seem negative. Actually, I see a lot of positive things – reduced casualty rates among increasing numbers of cyclists on my patch in inner and some parts of outer London. But the fact is that real road safety and sustainable transport has not got on the agenda. There was massive growth in motorised traffic under New Labour, and it’s not getting better under this lot.

What we can and should do is prepare the ideological ground: get across the point that we have a motor traffic and particularly car, lorry and motorbike problem. That’s the problem, both in terms of danger and subsidy towards motorisation. Anything else ignores this gorilla/elephant in the room, is Hamlet without the Prince, or – as Mikael Colville-Anderson puts it, the bull in the china shop…’ (I added the link)

Like an alcoholic in denial, this country has to face up some pretty simple facts about its addiction; that building new roads does not ease congestion, therefore are not ‘sustainable transport solutions’, that we still we still allow traffic to drive to pretty much all points of every city and town in the land at 30mph+, that approximately 9 people a day die each day on our roads and for some reason we just accept this, that those that cause the damage get away with relative impunity and that our roads are only safer because no-one walks or cycles anywhere.

There needs to be an acceptance of this by Government, national cycle campaign groups and the road safety lobby before we can continue with any other cycling debate.

The perverse thing is that cycling unwittingly fits into ConDem ideals with regards ‘Big Society’; Volunteers have always been the backbone of cycling from local campaigners to Sustrans Rangers to British Cycling marshals to devilishly handsome blog writers. Also you would have thought that there would have been more active promotion of cycling with all this localism talk and ‘Save the High Street‘ Campaigns that are hitting the headlines. Cycling keeps local money local and would breathe new life into flagging small businesses.

If we don’t address these issues directly, and learn from places like the Netherlands for proper engineering solutions, then we will certainly become a ‘Big Society’, but for all the wrong reasons.

6 thoughts on “Heads In The Sand”

  1. Great post Jim. Now all we have to do is to get the shop keepers to accept that cycling keeps local money local and would breath new life into flagging small businesses, instead of insisting that they must have car parking at all costs.

  2. Thanks for the mention Jim.

    First, one very important thing: The number of people reported as being killed on the roads IS NOT THE POINT.

    There is a large amount written about this – do go to our website http://www.rdrf.org.uk. to sample it. Try http://rdrf.org.uk/2009/10/a-safer-way-making-britain%e2%80%99s-roads-the-safest-in-the-world-2/ for a start.

    Some basic points: numbers killed can and do go down to low levels because of small amounts of walking and cycling, particularlly by children and the elderly. Aggregated numbers of fatalities (even in a road user group) are not a good measure of danger. Casualty rates (per journey) are better, but even they are inadequate.

    Also, even if they are low, you still don’t want to have to go out of your way to avoid being clobbered, and you still want some recognition legally of what has gone wrong if the worst comes to the worst (which doesn’t happen at the moment).

    And while we are at it, the number is 7, not 9 dead per day. Which out of some 1600 dead per day in the UK is pretty small. Plus some of this total is things like rural motorcyclists riding off the road into trees, which isn’t really what urban cyclists are concerned with.

    Finally, the road safety lobby is very much part of this problem (for example, in this example, the view is that the roadside tree needs to be cut down).

    Otherwise, I agree.

    But I would suggest that the reasons for Government not going for sustainable transport are more complex and ingrained. For example:
    1. The people at the top of this and the previous Government don’t give a monkey’s about global warming: they are not going to feel the brunt of it: it will be the children of people living elsewhere in the world.
    2. Anyway, they are scared of losing votes from people who like flying and driving.
    3. Ditto obesity, pleasant local communities, cyclists, people concerned about elderly pedestrians and convivial local community.

    We did have a Road Traffic Reduction Act in the 80s – it was dropped like a hot cake. Prescott promised to reduce motor traffic – it went up by 30% on his watch.

    So I’m afraid we have quite a struggle on our hands. But no reason not to get stuck in.

    All the best,


    1. Whilst I certainly stated that reported road fatalities were a factor, I certainly didn’t say it was THE POINT (your emphasis). Having said that, be it approximately 9 or 7, it is still approximately 9 or 7 too many for my liking because that number could certainly rise if more people suddenly start cycling in the current situation of poor infrastructure and amongst a predominently motoring society that has had every whim catered for up till now and isn’t prepared partly due to a road safety lobby that hasn’t a clue. And like Guy, I was brought up in a rural area where cars would leave the road with alarming regularity (often through drinking in the village pub which was even more alarming). I tended to favour the bridleways which isn’t really the best advert for tackling rural road safety.

      My views on road safety are clearly outlined here

      I would be the first to acknowledge that there are complex reasons why the Governments sustainable transport policy isn’t sustainable but we have to start picking them apart piece by piece and I wholeheartedly look forward to getting stuck in! 🙂

  3. I was enjoying Dr Davis’ comment until:

    “…some of this total is things like rural motorcyclists riding off the road into trees, which isn’t really what urban cyclists are concerned with.”

    Maybe not, Dr Davis, but there are thousands of non-urban cyclists who ARE concerned with this sort of thing.

    I would like to remind you of item 1 of the Road Danger Reduction Charter:

    “Seek a genuine reduction in danger for ALL road users by identifying and controlling the principle sources of threat.”
    (From RDRF website. emphasis mine).

    Are you still concerned about the safety of all road users, or only those in urban areas.

    Don’t worry too much, we in rural areas are quite used to being sidelined and/or ignored simply because we don’t live, work or travel in cities.

  4. Guy and Jim,

    some clarification, if I may attempt it:

    I’m saying that someone motorcycling off a road into a tree and killing themselves is fundamentally different from a motorist driving into a pedestrian/cyclist and killing them. Killing – or hurting, or evn simply posing a threat to others is the problem, hurting yourself not (or at least a different and secondary problem). And anyway, the problem of the motorcyclist going off the road is that they are behaving in away which threatehs others. It’s not that they kill themselves.

    So…I hope to cycle on into a ripe old age. At some time I might get careless and fall of my bike, break a hip and die of pneumonia as a consequence. As far as the “road safety” lobby is concerned, that’s the same as if I am knocked down by a careless/dangerous motorist and killed by them. I don’t think it is the same at all.

    Whatever infrastructure you get, if you have five times as many cyclists (particularly if they include a lot of elderly people) you may well get an icrease in overall cycling casualties – but probably not the casualty rate (casualties per journey or distance travelled). The road safety lobby would say that things had got worse: I would say they had improved , and I hope you do too.

    I’m very much concenred with rural cyclists and pedestrians (I started cycling in rural Herfordshire many moons ago). And I’d say segregation is particularly unuitable for country lanes – but that’s another question!

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