Today on my way to work on my bike I was hit by a car. The driver had made a snap decision to turn left into a side street to avoid a traffic jam. In his haste, he executed the manoeuvre quickly and without checking his mirrors or indicating. I was filtering down the left hand side of the lane past the static traffic and went into the side of his car. Through skill, good fortune and thanks to my awesome disc brakes, I avoided any damage to myself or my bike. The guy’s wing mirror came off worse in fact. If I could choose the outcome of being hit by a car I would certainly choose this.
Anyway, this got me thinking. If cycling is truly a safe activity (and we are regularly told that it is a statistically safe activity), why do I, and everyone I know who cycles, have so many stories about near misses and collisions?
One of the statistics that regularly gets rattled off is that cycling is safer per kilometre travelled than walking. But most people I know, myself included, have no such horror stories of near misses and collisions while walking. I am beginning to doubt that this statistic holds true.
Either way, a reason why one perhaps hears relatively few horror stories from walking occurred to me. There is effective segregation between motor traffic and pedestrians – people walking have dedicated space in the form of a pavement and separation in the form of a kerb. With the exception of road crossings, which are often in controlled circumstances at pedestrian crossings, pedestrians never have to mix with motor traffic. Hence the reason pedestrians are free to relax, to amble, to be distracted by kids, music, mobile phones, etc. without fear for their lives.
In contrast, to survive while cycling in the midst of motor traffic, as we are obliged to do in London, requires a state of hyper-alertness at all times (“having your wits about you” as Boris Johnson calls it). While I do really enjoy my cycle to work, this takes its toll and even while maintaining this hyper-alertness, near misses and occasional collisions are clearly unavoidable. I am more convinced than ever that we need safe space for cycling in London. Take a look at the Netherlands, where they have consciously in the last 40 years decided to make space for cycling. Statistically, cycling is safer there than it is in the UK but that only tells one part of the story. Take a look at photos of people cycling there – I have added a selection from Flickr below. Take a look at the demographics – men, women, the young, the old, families, people from all walks of life. Finally, take a look at their faces – they are clearly relaxed and enjoying cycling. They are not in a tense state of hyper-alertness waiting for a driver to do something unexpected that may endanger their lives.