John Franklin

This paper was presented at the international VeloCity conference in Graz, April 1999

Cycling is an activity with more than its share of misconceptions and paradoxes. People believe cycling to be slow, but cycles are often the fastest mode of transport in towns. People think of cycling as hard work, but the cycle is one of the most efficient machines yet invented, requiring less than half the energy it takes to walk.

In recent years the traditional myths about cycling have been augmented by the perception that cycling is also inevitably dangerous. Yet cyclists live some 7 years longer than people who do not cycle, and during that time they lead much healthier lives, with fewer illnesses and less time off work.

The fear that bikes and cars are incapable of mixing safely has led to the popular belief that for cycling to be a practical mode of transport, cyclists should keep – or be kept – out of the way of motor traffic as much as possible. This has led to a concentration on engineering measures to promote cycling, and in particular on measures that segregate cyclists, in varying degrees, from other traffic.

So strong is the perception that cycle paths and other facilities must be safer than riding in traffic that few people look further. But where this has been done – and in particular where account has been taken of unreported crashes, which are much more common off-road, although they are not necessarily less serious – the statistics are not comforting. From across Europe and America there is much evidence of cycle facilities being the least safe place to cycle.

It helps to know something about the causes of cycle crashes. Contrary to popular opinion, the great majority of crashes in which a cyclist is hurt do not involve a motor vehicle. In fact, fewer than 1 in 6 crashes is so related. But this does not necessarily imply less serious injury, and there have been fatalities with no-one but the cyclist involved. Nearly all of these crashes are a result of a lack of skill by the cyclist.

Probably the most common cause of cyclist injuries is poor surfaces. This is not just due to surface damage, such as potholes, that the cyclist cannot avoid. Off-road cycle routes with a rough or loose surface, feature prominently. Many off-road routes – sometimes promoted as 'safe routes' for families – may be exciting 'challenge' routes for the experienced rider, but pose real problems for the novice, for whom cycle control can be a real difficulty as the front wheel moves unpredictably from side to side and up and down. People new to cycling need firm, level surfaces on which to learn the basic skills of bike control.

A lack of discipline – not following the established rules of the road – often leads to crashes. A failure to keep left (or right, according to country) is common on off-road paths, as is cutting corners where visibility is poor. Minimum danger from others does not necessarily lead to minimum casualties. The extra discipline enforced by the presence of a greater perceived danger, such as motor traffic, generally results in the safest cycling environment overall.

When collisions do occur between a motor vehicle and a cyclist, the motorist is often at fault. Nevertheless, most of these crashes could have been avoided altogether by the cyclist riding more diligently, such as by making his presence more obvious, for potential collisions are frequently foreseeable in sufficient time to take counter-action.

People tend to fear most being hit from behind whilst cycling – the only type of crash best prevented by segregation – but this risk is very small, especially for someone who rides conscientiously. Most crashes are as a result of turning or crossing movements, and occur because the cyclist is not seen, or his actions not predicted. All drivers give most attention to those parts of the highway where there is risk to themselves, and see much less easily anything, or anyone, outside of a quite narrow field of vision. A cyclist is safest riding within this zone of maximum surveillance, not outside it.

Cycle paths alongside roads are often advocated as the 'ideal' way to improve cycling safety, but to the surprise of many people, their safety record in practice is poor. It is in fact easy to see why.

Consider a simple T-junction with a cycle path parallel to the through road. The first thing to notice, is that the addition of the cycle path changes a 3-way junction into a 5-way one, increasing its complexity for cyclists and motorists alike. Good road engineering strives to minimise confusion; making a junction more complicated invariably increases the likelihood of someone making a mistake.

Look at two cyclists approaching the junction, one on the cycle path and the other on the road. The path cyclist has to look for danger through an angle of up to 270°, for he is at risk not only from traffic entering or leaving the side road ahead, but also from vehicles following that might turn into the side road. Looking for traffic through such a large angle requires much movement of the head, which takes time, and the cyclist has no way to influence the actions of other drivers. Last-minute changes of circumstances are easily missed. At busy times, the only way to be really sure that there is no danger from any direction is to stop, and even then the cyclist may face increased risk re-starting.

This situation is much the same in countries where cycle paths have marked priority over side road traffic, for the cyclist cannot assume that this priority will be respected. Motorists frequently do not notice cyclists on cycle paths, as they are outside their zone of maximum surveillance. Particularly at risk is a cyclist who is riding in the reverse direction to nearside road traffic – for it is contrary to normal road behaviour for cyclists to ride in this way – or who approaches the junction quickly.

The road cyclist, on the other hand, can use positioning and listening to reduce the angle over which concentration is necessary to less than 90° close to the junction, which is within the compass of eye movement alone and can therefore be carried out more easily and quickly. Through positioning, a cyclist can exert considerable influence on the movements of other vehicles, as well as ensuring that he is easily seen. He also enjoys the benefit of a speedier and less complicated passage.

This example illustrates, too, why collisions at cycle path crossings are often more serious than crashes elsewhere on roads. If a cyclist is hit by a car at a crossing, he will be hit side-on and will bear the full force attributable to the car's velocity. Most road collisions, on the other hand, involve only a glancing impact when the force felt by the cyclist is less.

Cycle lanes and other means by which cyclists are expected to ride separately from general traffic lead to similar problems and, again, the casualty record is not good. The actions of cyclists are best understood and respected by others when they are following the same rules of the road. If cyclists behave differently to other road users, they can expect to come into conflict with them more often, for the mutual understanding, so essential for road-sharing, will be less. Many facilities introduced to improve cycling safety address problems that seldom lead to crashes, whilst introducing new dangers that do. At the same time, they require cyclists to exercise greater, rather than less, skill in more demanding situations. Many people simply can't cope.

The effect of cycling infrastructure on skills acquisition has been little researched, but there is evidence that the segregation of cyclists can adversely affect development of the skills that contribute to safe road-sharing. One result is that when someone needs to cycle in traffic, they are more vulnerable. Another is that their cycling horizons are much limited.

People who regularly use cycle paths can get used to taking chances, both because it can be so difficult to give proper attention at junctions, and also because they believe the paths to be inherently safe. Because positioning and signalling play little part in protecting or affording priority to the cyclist, these skills are not practised so often. Because cyclists are kept separate from other traffic for much of the time, they do not learn how to co-operate and integrate with others. As previously observed, even such basic principles as keeping left (or right) are widely ignored.

Bad cycling practices develop instead of good cycling skills. It is a great mistake to think of cycle paths as a training ground or stepping stone to cycling more widely; they can so easily become a ghetto from which it is all the more difficult to venture further.

One manifestation of this is the tremendous growth over just a few years in Britain in the number of people who now cycle on pavements, even when the adjacent road carries so little traffic as to be a problem for no-one. This trend has, I believe, much more closely mirrored the growth in cycle facilities (especially cycle/pedestrian paths) than traffic growth.

People are becoming stuck in a vicious circle where, led to fear traffic, they ride away from it as much as possible, frequently in places where cyclists should not ride and where actual danger is greater. At the same time, they forego the skills they would otherwise acquire through interacting with other road users, which makes them all the more vulnerable and afraid when they do have to share the same road space. Fear grows and safety declines, for unskilled cyclists are at risk wherever they ride. Is it really a coincidence that the rapid growth in cycle facilities over the past few years has been accompanied by further decline in cycle use?

By contrast, someone learning to drive a car is not taught to fear and avoid traffic, but how to cope with it, yet a car driver is not that much less at risk on the roads than an adult cyclist. Would motoring have become as popular if its promotion had emphasised danger and scared people unnecessarily in the same way as so many current 'pro-cycling' policies? Is learning to drive a car skilfully the subject of stigma, or does it confer status? People have high expectations of their ability to drive well, why not also of their ability to cycle?

Cycling safely on the roads is not simply a matter of luck, and it does not depend solely upon the behaviour of motorists. Safe cycling is mainly about adopting sensible techniques, for cyclists can cope with a wide range of traffic conditions by learning a not-onerous set of cycling skills. Furthermore, skilled cycling is not the province of only the super-fit. Integrating safely with traffic depends much more upon technique than physical strength, which is a decisive advantage in only a few situations.

The emphasis on facilities and danger is depriving many people of the skills they could so easily acquire, and of the freedom to cycle widely that they would value, by undermining the basic confidence that they need to succeed. Whilst some roads pose real problems for cyclists, in most cases it is the cyclist's lack of skill that is the main difficulty, not roads or traffic.

Good positioning is the most important skill for a cyclist to acquire, yet it is precisely here that most cyclists perform badly. Many cyclists fail to position themselves properly because of their fear of traffic, yet ironically, it is this very fear that puts them most at risk. Good road positioning increases your margin of safety by riding where you can obtain the best view, where you can best be seen by others and your movements predicted, and where you may deter movements that could be a danger to yourself. It also allows you to ride as direct a route as possible, conserving your energy and making control of the bicycle as simple as possible.

Good road positioning is not about keeping out of the path of other traffic as much as possible. Telling cyclists to keep to the road edge, and restricting their movements through cycle lanes, compromises their ability to react to changing circumstances and encourages bad riding practice generally.

Learning how to alter one's position in traffic makes it easier to pull out when passing side roads, to overtake parked vehicles and to make right turns off two-lane roads. All of these movements are carried out badly by many cyclists, contributing to some of the most common types of crash.

To progress further a cyclist needs to learn how to negotiate with other drivers, which is the skill of establishing co-operation with others to facilitate progress and to protect you from the dangers which might otherwise be present. There is nothing awesome about negotiation nor, practised properly, is it at all unsafe. In all facets of life the great majority of people respond willingly to a direct appeal for assistance. Negotiation is such an appeal. It does require, however, that the cyclist seeks deliberately to integrate with traffic. In this, and other aspects of skilled cycling, the biggest hurdle to overcome is putting aside the prejudice that cyclists and motor vehicles should not mix.

The cyclist who learns positioning, negotiation and good judgement is able to share most roads in most places with a minimum of difficulty. Although such skills are seldom taught, they have been the stock trade of experienced cyclists for decades. They confer safety, mobility and freedom for cycling in a way that no form of separate infrastructure has yet succeeded in achieving, and this explains why, in countries where cyclists have the choice, most cyclists of wide experience prefer to do most of their cycling on the road.

Whilst changes are needed to some roads to make them easier for all users to share, especially by reducing speeds at places of potential conflict, for the greater part the road network already provides the best infrastructure for cycling. With better guidance and encouragement on how to cycle well, through the development of appropriate skills, not only could more people cycle more widely, but cycling might enjoy a higher status as a practical means of transport that people aspire to adopt for themselves.

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