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Is Cycling Really Dangerous?

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In the month since the Times launched its 'Cities fit for Cycling' campaign, we've seen a huge groundswell of support - particularly in London - for pro-cycling change. As well as 25,000 people pledging support to the Times campaign and Thursday's Parliamentary debate on cycling, a ten minute bill was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday by John Leech, Manchester Withington MP, calling for action to be taken to make it safer for children to walk and cycle to school. Much of this 'success' can be attributed to attention grabbing headlines comparing cycling deaths to military casualties, a viral video of a bus deliberately targeting a cyclist, and nearly 5000 people contributing their own 'near miss' cycling stories via the Times online app, all bolstering public opinion that this form of transport needs to be safer. The assumption is that cycling is dangerous - but is it really?

Stupid question, you might think. There have been 1,275 cycling deaths on British roads in the last decade, of course it's dangerous. In fact, why don't we all put our bikes on ebay, buy 4x4s and know we could be hit by anything less than a high speed train and still survive? Well, that's the major problem, right there - our attitude. All the newspaper articles, speeches, petitions and opinion are focussing on the same thing; how dangerous it is to cycle. By the time we get a cycling network 'safe' enough to use, there won't be anyone left who wants to.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about cycling. Rare is the man who loses his leg after catching it in the chain. I'm an advocate of wearing helmets and not being stupid, and feel strongly if those two rules are followed you are unlikely to die purely of 'cycling' alone. It's not riding a bike that is dangerous, it's the context within which we do it that is. I know you think I'm splitting hairs, and you wouldn't be the first to point out that the various cycle safety campaigns are trying to engineer change in road infrastructure and traffic laws, but change goes deeper than that - and in the UK, we need to change the way we think about transport.

For every cyclist who has had a near miss there's at least ten, possibly a hundred, other people saying 'I told you so' before popping to the corner shop in their Range Rover, and that is a huge problem. Obesity, pollution, the rising cost of running a car, the increasing need for taxation to support road infrastructure, the world running out of oil, kids without road-safety skills... I could go on, but it's all been said before. The knock on effects of car usage are catastrophic, yet 79% of journey's under five miles are still made by car when they could be made by bike - and safety is a key issue.

Results of a Sustrans survey published on Monday show that 56% of us are too afraid to get on our bike, but it also suggests 65% of non-cyclists would if traffic in residential areas was restricted to 20mph. So while I salute and welcome Thursday's cycling debate at Westminster Hall, there seems little point in examining Danish plans for a ten storey building you can cycle to the top of until we can make the simple changes that encourage people to choose cycling as a common mode of transport. Copenhagen is often wheeled out at this point as an example of a city that has got it right. With its two lane cycle highways, it certainly presents itself as being at the forefront of a cycling revolution. But the really amazing thing about that city is the fact that cyclists take priority, not just in terms of traffic laws, but in the minds of residents, whether they are part of the 40% who regularly cycle or not. After all, the Danish Government didn't just wake up one morning in the early 1980's and decide to reduce city traffic by building cycle lanes - there was a need.

In order to effect change in the UK we need cycling density, a critical mass of people on two wheels. Currently, the Times cycling campaign and its friends are being spearheaded by a hardcore cycling clique who have a vested interest in talking about how horrific it can be. But to make cycling safer for everyone, we need to get the 46% of people who never cycle out on their bikes. We need casual cyclists to choose it as a commuting option. We need to make it more desirable to people who would normally use their cars and we need people who will always be in a vehicle to respect a cyclist's right to use the road - right now these are things the campaign is not doing.

In an article in The Independent criticising Ghost Bikes on 18 February, Christina Patterson suggests "You might want to explain (to friends and relatives) that people who took big risks did sometimes get killed". Is that what non-cyclists think? That pedaling to work is a 'big risk'? If so, then we've already lost the battle for change. Public perception is at the core of cycle safety, and while the media continues to discus cycling in terms of the risk you take when you get in the saddle, I don't believe we will make any head-way at all.

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