Cycling routes and cyclist safety

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Key facts

  • In Great Britain only 2% of journeys and 1% of miles travelled are by bike [1];
  • In 2015, there were 100 cycling fatalities and 3,239 cyclist serious injuries on the roads in Great Britain [2];
  • Transport accounts for a fifth (21%) of UK greenhouse gas emissions [3];
  • Physical inactivity accounts for one in six deaths in the UK [4];
  • Deaths due to physical inactivity are believed to cost the wider economy £7.4 billion; [5]
  • Almost three quarters of collisions with cyclists occur at a junction [6].

Introduction

Cycling is one of the healthiest, cheapest, most environmentally-friendly forms of transport available. Unfortunately, the UK lags behind many other countries when it comes to cycling levels. A study by the European Commission in 2010 found that just 2% of people aged 15 and over in the UK use a bicycle as their main form of transport – the seventh lowest level in Europe [7]. In Great Britain only 2% of journeys and 1% of miles travelled are by bike. A survey of UK teenagers by Brake and insurer RSA Group found that one in four (23%) never cycle, and only 9% cycle weekly or more [8].

A lack of safe cycling routes may be a key reason for the lack of cycling in the UK. A survey of UK drivers by Brake and Direct Line indicated that almost four in 10 (39%) non-cyclists could be persuaded to cycle if there were more cycle routes and trails connecting their home to local facilities [9]. Sadly, cycling on roads continues to involve risk: in 2014, 100 cyclists were killed and 3,237 seriously injured in Great Britain [10].

The benefits of safer cycling

Making cycling safer can encourage more people to get about by bike, which benefits the environment and communities, by reducing the number of cars and harmful vehicle emissions. Transport accounts for a fifth (21%) of UK greenhouse gas emissions, with road transport making up the most significant proportion of this [11].

Increased cycling can also significantly improve people’s health. Currently, physical inactivity accounts for one in six deaths in the UK, with half of women and a third of men damaging their health due to lack of physical activity. Public Health England advises that over a week, people should carry out at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate intensity activity, separated into periods of over ten minutes each [12]. Regular cycling is suggested by the NHS as a means to lose weight, reduce stress, reduce the likelihood of depression and improve fitness: an 80kg (12st 9lb) person will burn more than 650 calories with an hour’s riding [13]. Improved health from cycling would also benefit the economy; deaths due to physical inactivity are believed to cost the wider economy £7.4 billion [14].

Encouraging more people to cycle could also improve safety further due to fewer motor vehicles. Almost all road deaths and serious injuries are caused at least in part by the actions of drivers [15], so if individuals drive less or not at all it means they pose less danger to others. There is also some international evidence for the “safety in numbers” theory that more cyclists on the roads creates a safer environment for cyclists. For example, cycling in London increased 91% between 2000 and 2009, and cycle casualties fell 33% in the same period [16]. European data shows that countries with high levels of cycling, such as Norway and the Netherlands, have lower cyclist death rates [17]. This is thought to be down to factors including: drivers become more used to sharing the road with cyclists, so are more careful around them; drivers are more likely to be cyclists themselves, so understand cyclist behaviour; more people substitute cycling for driving, meaning fewer cars on the roads; and more people cycling means more political pressure to improve road conditions for cyclists.

Preventing cyclist deaths and serious injuries means preventing needless and acute human suffering and carries a significant economic benefit: every road death is estimated to cost the British economy £1.8 million, due to the burden on health and emergency services, criminal justice costs, insurance pay-outs, and human costs [18]. This means that in 2014, cyclist deaths alone cost Britain £180 million, alongside thousands of families having to face the horror and trauma of a bereavement or serious injury.

Take action: Make the Brake Pledge to minimise the amount you drive, or not drive at all, and get about by walking, cycling or public transport as much as possible.The Pledge also asks drivers to stay well within speed limits and go 20 or below around homes, schools and shops, to protect people on foot and bike.

Protecting cyclists

Evidence shows that taking a concerted approach to encouraging cycling does make a difference: the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have far higher rates of cycling compared to the UK, across all sectors of society [19]. A developed cycling infrastructure makes cyclists safer; as one of the most important factors affecting cycling levels is people’s perceptions of cyclist safety [20], improving the infrastructure increases the number of cyclists.

Safe routes

Improving cycling infrastructure is a key way of making it safer to cycle. These routes should form networks that are useful, joining places where people live and work, as well as giving access to public transport.

The safest routes for cyclists are where cyclists are physically separated from motor traffic. A Canadian study found that cyclists on these routes have one ninth the risk of injury compared to a busy road with parked cars [21]. The impact of a well-designed cycle route can be dramatic, and benefit all road users: building a cycling route along Prospect Park West in New York City reduced crashes resulting in injury by 68%, plus far fewer cyclists rode on the pavement inconveniencing pedestrians, and travel times for drivers did not increase [22]. Shared-use paths are shared between pedestrians and cyclists. If properly designed, and wide enough for both to use comfortably, these can also be a safe option [23].  

On-road cycle lanes, where there is no physical separation between cyclists and fast-moving traffic, can be of limited benefit, especially if used in isolation without other steps to reduce risks and hazards for cyclists, such as junction improvements. These can be considered a quick and cheap option, yet in fact need to be designed as carefully as any piece of infrastructure. Transitioning from a cycle path and entering traffic can be dangerous, and any design has to take this into account.

With three-quarters of collisions with cyclists happening at junctions [24], any cycling infrastructure must be designed with junctions particularly in mind. Care and attention must be given by councils and traffic authorities for designing infrastructure that is properly designed and effective in preventing casualties.

Speed limits

Lowering traffic speeds is one of the key ways our communities and country roads can be made safer for people walking and cycling (read our fact pages on speed in the community and speed on country roads to learn more). This is crucial alongside having traffic-free routes, especially so people feel able to cycle around their own neighbourhoods. In 2015, 80% of cycling collisions occurred on a 30mph road [25], this is why Brake campaigns for the national default urban speed limit to be reduced to 20mph and for lower speeds on country roads.

Take action: Campaign in your community for 20mph limits by downloading our GO 20 toolkit and using our community campaign guide.

Vehicle design

Cyclists are particularly vulnerable at junctions: three quarters of collisions involving cyclists are at or near a junction [26].

While all drivers must take care to protect vulnerable road users, larger vehicles pose a particular risk when turning and manoeuvring as a result of their larger blind-spots. There are technologies that can reduce blind spots on these vehicles, including sensors, and CCTV systems. In London, the CLOCS scheme has set standards for construction vehicles in the capital for protecting cyclists.

Read more: Advice for protecting vulnerable road users for employers with staff who drive for work is available for members of Brake Professional.


End notes

[1] National Travel Survey 2015, Department for Transport, 2016

[2] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2015, table RAS20006

[3] 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2014

[4] Working together to promote active travel: a briefing for local authorities, Public Health England, 2016

[5] Working together to promote active travel: a briefing for local authorities, Public Health England, 2016

[6] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016, table RAS20006

[7] Future of Transport: analytical report, European Commission, 2011

[8] Make streets safer for cycling to build on Tour de France fever, Brake and RSA, 2014

[9] Brake and Direct Line Report on Safe Driving: A Risky Business, Brake, 2011

[10] Reported road casualties in Great Britain: main results 2013, Department for Transport, 2014

[11] 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2014

[12] Working together to promote active travel: a briefing for local authorities, Public Health England, 2016

[13] Benefits of cycling,NHS Choices, 2014

[14] Working together to promote active travel: a briefing for local authorities, Public Health England, 2016

[15] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016

[16] Safety in numbers in England, CTC, 2009

[17] Pedalling towards safety, European Transport Safety Council, 2012

[18] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016, table RAS60001

[19] Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The  Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, Rutgers University, 2008

[20] The Dutch Reference Study: Cases of interventions in bicycle infrastructure reviewed in the framework of Bikeability, Delft Institute of Technology, 2011

[21] Route Infrastructure and the Risk of Injuries to Bicyclists: A Case-Crossover Study, University of British Columbia, 2012

[22] Prospect Park West Bicycle Path and Traffic Calming, New York City

[23] Guidance on shared-use paths, Gov.uk 

[24] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016, table RAS20006

[25] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016

[26] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016, table RAS20006

Updated August 2016

Tags: road safety Sustainability cycling pedestrians vulnerable road users health pledge