Cycling advocates sometimes seem to get themselves into a knot trying to distinguish subjective and objective cycling safety. How can it be safe to cycle, while at the same time improving safety is a key priority?
I see two things that are central to resolving this apparent inconsistency. The first is that there is no dichotomy between safe and unsafe, and that safety profiles vary between people: in particular there is a difference between the people currently cycling and the people who could potentially cycle. The second is that there are longer-term dangers that appear neither to immediate observation nor in accident statistics — in particular, it is critical to take stress into account.
It is quite safe for me to cycle into central Oxford, either by myself or with my seven year old on a tandem. But it would be unsafe (at most times) for me to cycle that same route accompanied by the same seven year old on their own bicycle, or for most twelve year olds to cycle it by themselves. And I can cycle that route without much stress. But for some people, even some fitter and more experienced at cycling than me, that identical route may be really stressful, to the point where repeated, long-term exposure to it would be detrimental to their health.
To illustrate these two ideas, let me look at a key part of this route, Iffley Rd from James St to the Plain. This is, as Oxford "infrastructure" goes, only moderately substandard: the lane is only 1.1m wide and advisory but the surface is at least in reasonable condition, without major potholes or access covers, and the line markings are still clear. Cycling this I am continuously monitoring for possible risks, including:
- motor vehicles parked, or stopped, so as to block the cycle lane
- debris in the cycle lane
- people standing on the edge of the pavement, looking away from the
- people walking right on the edge of the pavement, sometimes swinging arms over the cycle lane (in one case, swinging an umbrella out over the entire cycle lane).
- people jogging in the cycle lane
- people in front cycling slower than me, who I might want to overtake
- people behind cycling faster than me, who are likely to want to overtake me
- a near-continual stream of motor vehicles passing me on the right, sometimes a bare half a metre away and sometimes moving at speed. This constrains options for moving right to avoid dangers (or overtake), but it also means that what might be minor accidents are now potentially catastrophic ones.
Iffley Rd is an A road carrying 12,000 motor vehicles a day, including buses and HGVs. The first part of the route is 30mph, before speed limit drops to 20mph, but if it is uncongested drivers regularly exceed those speed limits.)
- parked vehicles on the other side of the road, which may force oncoming vehicles to the middle, in turn forcing motor vehicles moving with me into the cycle lane
- stopped vehicles, queued at the Plain or for some other delay, which may or may not have left enough space at their side for safe filtering
- buses stopped at bus stops, largely blocking visibility of what's ahead.
This continuous risk monitoring is not something a twelve year old can be expected to do reliably, nor could I provide enough support (in shouted advice) for a seven year old to do it safely. (My 7yo also cycles at half the speed I do, so would be in the "danger stretch" for twice as long — and would be forcing dozens of other people cycling to overtake.) And I'm not the only one who thinks like this: observe the remarkably low number of children on this route, in comparison to either the demographics of East Oxford or the numbers cycling on nearby low traffic residential streets.
And it's the same for other groups of people: the less agile elderly, people with disabilities, fit adults with low tolerances for "cliff edge" danger, and so forth.
Studies that show this kind of infrastructure is safe neglect the possibility that that is because the more vulnerable and less capable people are not using it at all.
Given the amount of alertness required, I also find it moderately stressful cycling along here (certainly in comparison to an earlier stretch of my trip, along Hurst St) and it is potentially much more stressful for others. This is a real deterrent to people, especially if combined with stress elsewhere in their lives, and also contributes to health problems. (This point follows up a comment on my post on tail risks for people cycling).