The Safety Paradox
by Ian Fiddies (June 2007)

There are certain differences of opinion on the best ways to promote everyday cycling. One disputed area of cycle planning is the argument for or against separate cycle paths.

An American researcher, Forester, has the view that separating cyclists from other traffic is more dangerous than allowing cyclists to share road space. This is not as radical as it sounds. It would be highly impractical to construct a system of cycle routes in a city without some same-level intersections with the road network. These intersections become conflict zones between the separated traffic flows. If instead the cyclist is sharing the road then these conflict zones disappear, as the cyclist is a part of the same traffic flow as other road users.

Forester's theory has been criticized on the grounds that it doesn't appear to work. One critic, professor Pucher, makes the case that the cities that have a comprehensive cycle network have a greater number of cyclists and a lower incidence of accidents than cities without cycle paths. Pucher suggests that Forester's view is based on the idea that cyclists are well-trained with advanced cycling skills and are travelling at high speed. This group is a minority among cyclists. There is a larger group of cyclists travelling at more leisurely speeds that appreciate separated cycle ways.

Regardless which of these gentlemen is most right, this disagreement indicates that different cyclists prefer different types of infrastructure. Forester's view is based on riding at more or less the same speed as the motor traffic, or--to put it another way--using road space under the same terms and rules as other vehicles. It seems reasonable that he might choose a bike path instead if he could ride on it as safely at the same speed or faster than he could on the road.

On road-bicycle lanes are in reality less plagued by accidents than off road bicycle paths are. However, the off-road facilities are perceived by many as safer. This is particularly the case among those who either don't cycle often, or have recently taken up cycling and possibly lack the self-confidence in traffic of a hardened cycle courier. One might therefore come to the conclusion that separated off road paths are one investment that could bring more people to their bikes.

It seems reasonable to suggest that an increase in the number of cyclists in a city improves the general safety of the cyclists. Empirical data from a variety of cities around the world backs this up; figures show that both the total distance ridden and number of journeys is inversely proportional to the number of fatalities. This is a concept of safety in numbers. A lone cyclist approaching an intersection is more at risk from other traffic simply because the cyclist is not expected to be there. On the other hand, if there is a constant stream of cyclists continually passing the same intersection, other road users will be prepared and act accordingly.

This leads onto the theory that one way of increasing the safety of cyclists is to induce a feeling of security rather than pointing out the dangers. If citizens believe that a bike is an inherently safe mode of transport, they are more likely to cycle regularly, leading to a tangible increase in cyclist safety. On the other hand, placing too much emphasis on improving cyclist safety could induce the mindset that cycling is a dangerous business, thus discouraging would be cyclists.

This in no way means that safety is not a vital part of cycle planning and should be ignored. Rather, we suggest that public information on bike safety should be toned down. A city policy focused on reducing the numbers of deaths and serious injuries suffered by cyclists, whilst being commendable, could be counterproductive to encouraging cycling if too much emphasis is placed on the risks in publicity.

A study from Milton Keynes shows that the likelihood of an accident is higher for cyclists travelling on separated cycle infrastructure than for those riding in traffic on the road network. Taken at face value this would suggest that building separate cycle paths is negative for cyclist safety. This is the paradox. As European surveys suggest, it is cycling facilities such as bike paths that are the major (70%) encouraging factor to persuade people to cycle. Where there is a comprehensive network of cycle paths more people cycle, which in turn reduces the risk level for all cyclists

This is not the only way to look at the problem. If there were no other kinds of traffic in a city than cyclists, it would be totally unnecessary to build separate infrastructure for cyclists. There is of course more traffic in a city than just cyclists. An alternative way to improve the sense of safety for cyclists could be to look at the other traffic in the city and steer that to the benefit of the cyclists. Instead of asking where cyclists want to ride, assume that cyclists want to ride everywhere and integrate the rest of the city's traffic with that.

This article is an edited extract from "Get on That Bicycle and Ride: a Comparison of Methods to Promote Cycling in Three Cities" (PDF) by Ian Fiddies and Liv Markström

See also Do We Really Need Bikepaths?, Lessons Learned in Europe, and Mr. Fiddies' The Dangers of Cycle Paths.