As Easy As Riding a Bike blogged recently (https://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/talking-about-danger-again/) about a phenomenon known as ‘dangerising’. Basically this suggests that cycle campaigners in particular should avoid talking about the alleged dangers of UK cycling policy which in general requires cyclists to share the carriageway with fast-moving motor vehicles. The reason for this, it is asserted, is that talk of danger puts people off cycling. A further twist is the assertion that cycling in the UK is not dangerous and also the idea that training and learning about ‘taking the lane’ can improve (even, in some claims, guarantee) safety.
Over the years campaigning for British authorities to adopt continental-style cycle networks, primarily because of the unsafe and unattractive cycling environment of mixing it on the road, I have repeatedly heard the claim that I am putting people off cycling by doing so. We are told that cycling on British roads, whatever our own experience, is not dangerous.
As Easy As Riding a Bike’s blog cited Anna Glowinski (cyclist, clothing designer and Cycle Show presenter):
“I think it can be quite damaging to talk about how ‘dangerous’ cycling is. I really don’t think it is that dangerous.”
Bob Davies of the Road Danger Reduction Forum (ironically given the name of his forum, Bob is a leading proponent of the ‘don’t emphasise the dangers’ tendency and author of a book entitled Death on the Streets) wrote:
“I think there are indeed issues associated with the talking about danger which are highly problematic and worthy of consideration. “Dangerising” is a real issue. Often, in everyday discourse, the use of the word “danger” and associating it with cycling is not (just) about danger to cyclists. It is implying that cycling is indeed (whatever you correctly think) intrinsically hazardous. It also involves the association of cycling with endangering others.”
I added comments to the blog asking for the evidence to show that campaigning against road danger discouraging people from cycling. Bob conceded that there was no direct evidence and he linked it a wider range of negative attitudes to cycling. He said:
“The area I’m trying to analyse is that of beliefs, ideas and culture (as used in the anthropological/sociological sense). I can’t give the kind of evidence requested because it is either difficult or impossible (depending on what philosophy of social science you adhere to).”
Other comments re-asserted the link, but offered no proper evidence. Colin McKenzie said:
“The point about dangerisation of cycling is not that it will put people off cycling. It already has, massively, and continues to do. For evidence, look no further than the catastrophic decline in children cycling to school since the 70s. Over that time, the roads have not got more dangerous for cyclists (actually they are safer), nor has the traffic got significantly scarier.”
What I struggle with is the mechanism by which my and others’ campaigning about the dangers of cycling in the UK influences the wider population. The best coverage we had for years in the media was the occasional letter, written by a cycling campaigner in response to a consultation or crazed coverage of cycling, in a local newspaper. In Camden we could get an article in the local newspaper, the Camden New Journal, if we could get a national celebrity photo-shoot opportunity – fortunately local resident Jon Snow called be called upon now and again to get us a bit of coverage. No national celebrity, no coverage. (That Camden borough council was becoming one of the handful of local authorities starting to transform UK cycle policy was beyond their news agenda.)
I doubt that in pubs, cafes, hair-dressing salons, schools, factories, office, canteens and shops throughout Camden, let along the whole of the UK, people were excitedly discussing the latest press release from Camden Cycling Campaign calling for safe cycle tracks:
“I was thinking of cycling, you know, but I read a quote from a cycling campaigner in the local paper about how dangerous it is, so I’m not going to bother with that now even though I’ve already bought a bike.”
As has been discussed by other bloggers, ordinary people think cycling is dangerous because of what they can see happening on the roads. They think it is dangerous because it is obvious that mixing vulnerable flesh and bone travelling at 15mph with a ton upwards of metal travelling at 30 to 60 mph in a contested space is inherently dodgy. They do not think cycling is dangerous only because someone else has told them that it is. The ‘dangerisation’ thesis is so patronizing.
The danger of ‘dangerisation’ is a common theme too among those who promote cycle training as providing more than it can in fact deliver in an anti-cycling public environment (which denies people the opportunity to gain vital experience). David Dansky wrote:
“While this is happening [i.e., cycling is on the increase and safety improving] the voices shouting how dangerous it is have been getting louder, more strident, and calls for separation and the introduction of Dutch infrastructure all paint (pun intended) quite a negative picture. Apart from these scares putting off some new riders there is also an effect of not acknowledging progress and successes that have been achieved without Dutch style infrastructure.”
This is weird as, if one thinks about it, those engaged in training are among the biggest ‘dangerisers’ of all. They must be, they have to alert trainees to dangers, such as dooring or guttering, that they had not previously thought of. Understanding the dangers of cycling empowers people to be aware of those dangers and to take action to minimize them. This applies to campaigning as well as to individuals; we will make no real gains if we deny actuality. Recognizing the reality of road danger has galvanized the UK cycle lobby over the past decade or so.
There seems to me that there is another flaw in the ‘dangerisation’ argument. The starting point here is a graph showing the age and gender profile of cyclists in the UK (and other countries).
The first set of graphs dates from the late 1980s and was compiled by the OECD one of whose remits is the preparation of internationally comparable statistics. It should be noted that the vertical scales are different, having been adjusted to use the whole space available for each graph.
Three things stand out about Great Britain: the low number of cyclists comparable with Denmark and the Netherlands (reflected in the different vertical scales used); the overwhelming dominance of men in the British cycling profile (unlike the Netherlands and Denmark with a balance and Finland with more women cyclists than men); and the very rapid rate at which male cycling declines with age in Great Britain.
The second graph for the UK only is somewhat more recent, coming from around 2010 (http://cyclinginfo.co.uk/blog/2636/cycling/stats-uk/). It is essentially not very different from the late 1980s in terms of gender profile and rapid decline of male cycling rates with growing age. One difference to note is that the first set measures distances cycle per day, while the solo UK graph measures number of trips per year. Whichever way you look at it, cycling in Britain is predominantly a male activity and there is a fairly rapid fall-off rate as these men age. This has been true for 25 years or longer. We can surmise that we are looking at clear structural features that endure over long periods of time.
Leaving aside the main lesson about the higher cycling numbers and better age and gender profile of countries with plenty of high quality cycle networks (such as the Netherlands, Denmark & Finland), what conclusions can be drawn from such graphs regarding ‘dangerisation’?
The high rate of decline of cycling with growing age, sometimes called a high ‘churn’ rate, implies that there must also be quite a high rate of take up.
If one simply looks at figures of total UK number of cyclists, miles cycled per year, cyclist trips, etc., measured over a number of years, the most obvious feature over the past few decades is the drastic decline in cyclists. But the age profile statistics reveal to us the rate of churn that exists within those total figures. (And it is relevant that people who give up cycling most commonly cite road danger as the main reason for doing so.)
The argument about so-called ‘dangerisation’ is drawn from statistics showing a long duration decline in cycling in the UK. It is assumed, wrongly, that this means that people are being put off cycling. A closer look shows that there is a much higher up take of cycling than the total figures show. Bike sales in the UK have remained more or less level for the last ten years, another indication that loose talk of ‘dangerisation’ is not endangering the desire of people to cycle.
‘Dangerisation’, is thus a phenomenon that is contradicted by the statistics and has no mechanism for its propagation. It is a myth, not a reality.
So what lies behind it? In the case of traditional cycle campaigners such as Bob Davies of Road Danger Reduction Forum and Colin McKenzie I suspect that they have simply heard and taken up an argument that they can deploy against something that they dislike: continental-style cycle networks.
‘Dangerisation’ is a tool, a device to be deployed in argument. David Dansky makes this clear in the quote from him above where he explicitly asserts that it is those who argue for segregated (actually for high-quality continental-style cycle networks) who are, not just putting people off cycling, but arguing for an unnecessary approach because of the advances being made in Britain without such networks. Dansky is antipathetic to cycle tracks except in very specific and limited circumstances and he is just adopting the myth ‘dangerisation’ to attack something he disapproves of.
‘Dangerisation’ should be added to the list of urban myths that circulate in the anglophone cycling world, along with the thoroughly disproven assertion that high-quality cycle networks are less safe than cycling in the road and that in countries that have pioneered their use are now in the process of getting rid of them, as asserted in the blog comment above. I’ve been hearing that last claim, about the Netherlands and Denmark consigning cycle tracks to the “scrap heap”, for the last two decades; despite the clear evidence to the opposite, this claim is another one that just won’t go away.
It’s time to do away with this nonsense about cycle campaigners and ‘dangerisation’ being responsible for the decline in cycling in Britain, but I expect we will continue to hear it rehearsed for some time yet.