Recently I went on a work ‘risk assessment’ course where we had to identify measures that could reduce the risks in a given activity. We were instructed to start ’with the most effective safety measures that helped all of the participants’, and then work our way through to the most ineffective measures.
The ’measure of last resort’ - considered the least effective, most expensive and recognised that the risks could not be reduced in any other way - was to mandate safety gear such as goggles or helmets.
The UK’s approach to cycle safety is the measure of last resort by default. It’s one that is heavily focussed on safety gear - such as cycle helmets, fluorescent clothing and bike lights. Yet we have failed to create adequate cycling infrastructure or provide consistent cycle training which would be more effective and help everyone.
This approach conveniently shifts the responsibility of road safety from the government to the individual, who can do little to address the biggest threats to safe cycling – the planning of road junction layouts, traffic levels, HGV training and lorry routes for example.
Revealing its priorities, the current UK government has just axed Cycling England (which invested in local infrastructure projects and promoted cycling), and reduced funding for ‘Bikeability’ cycling training courses. Meanwhile there are discussions about cutting disability benefits to fund a freeze in fuel duty, and raising speed limits on motorways.
Sharp reductions in local council budgets over the next few years will make infrastructure improvements in the near future difficult. However the Government should show some leadership on the issue.
In 2009 the Dutch Bicycle Council produced a report that showed how the Dutch government spends some 30 euros (~£25) per person per year on supporting cycling. This is about the price of a standard bike helmet. Much of the Dutch cycling budget has been spent on creating high-quality cycling infrastructure (including segregated cycle lanes where needed, cycle underpasses and safe cross-country routes). This approach also tackles the chicken-egg paradox by providing the facilities for people to be able to choose to cycle in the first place. Funds have also provided cycle training and created media campaigns which encourage cars to watch out for cyclists.
Dutch spending focuses on preventing accidents in the first place - rather than offering partial protection during a relatively-minor crash (helmets are only designed for crashes of up to 15mph). It’s a more long-term solution too, as unlike helmets, infrastructure and training don’t generally demand comprehensive replacement every few years. As such, despite less of a focus on safety gear, the per cycle mile accident rate in the Netherlands is significantly lower than here.
The argument that the UK ‘cannot afford to invest in cycling’ is baseless. Putting the priceless value of human lives and wellbeing aside, a recent report by Sky aptly illustrates the stark economic argument:
- £2.9bn contributed in total to the UK economy
- Health benefits that save the economy £128m per year in absenteeism
- Frequent and regular cyclists could further save the economy £2bn over a ten-year period in terms of reduced absenteeism
- A 20% increase in current cycling levels by 2015 could save the economy £207m in terms of reduced traffic congestion and £71m in terms of lower pollution levels
- Latent demand for cycling could amount to around £516m of untapped economic potential for the UK
- The proportion of GDP spent on public cycling infrastructure by the UK Government has been lower than government spending in many other countries. Cycle investment would also be good news for people who drive. Not only are many drivers cyclists too, but when driving or cycling they’ll benefit from greatly improved traffic flows and reduced risks of road accidents.
If the UK provided Dutch levels of cycle investment this would equate to approximately £1.5bn a year. To put this in perspective, the estimated cost of obesity and overweight issues to the UK was already £7 billion a year in 2001, and continues to rise.
Our ‘austerity-era’ government has recently spent an estimated £1.75b on the Libya war. The government has also approved £897m of ‘road building schemes’ to ‘get the economy back on track’ - never mind that net oil imports already cost the UK some £60m a year, and will only rise as North Sea reserves rapidly dwindle. Furthermore, with air pollution costing the UK some £8.5-20b a year, and with the EU preparing to fine the UK £300m for consistently breaching air pollution limits, it seems if anything, we simply can’t afford not to invest in cycling.
Rather than relying on safety gear which arguably should be a last resort, why not lift our aspirations and invest for the future?
I’ve started a petition calling on the UK government to match Dutch levels of cycling investment. Please visit here to view the text, and if you support it, please sign.
To those that do, I take my bike helmet off to you.