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More cyclists = bad news, suggests silly press release

Chris Peck's picture
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According to a new 'study' put together by a PR company, the fewer cyclists there are the more 'cycle friendly' a town is. This is exactly the thinking that has held back cycling for so long.
Apparently lots of cyclists means 'cycle unfriendly' according to new research
Apparently lots of cyclists means 'cycle unfriendly' according to new research

A press release for Virgin Money - which has been widely picked up by local news across the country - has attempted to determine the most 'cycle friendly towns' in Britain. They've tried to do this by collecting four types of data:

  • numbers of cycle casualties
  • numbers of cycle thefts
  • number of specialist bike shops
  • lengths of 'cycle routes'

Now, the first two of those should already be ringing alarm bells. As CTC has said time and time again you shouldn't measure cycle safety by numbers of injuries. If you do that you will simply find that the places where cycle use is very high have more people being injured and more bikes being stolen.

To a certain extent the numbers of bike shops and perhaps cycle route network are useful (though even they need careful definition - vehicle restricted city centres are far more valuable than miles of muddy rural cycle path). However, it is clear from the results that the casualty figures are a big part of the weighting.

At the Transport Select Committee a similar error was made (perhaps more egregiously) by the ministers responsible for cycling, when they pointed to figures of cycle fatalities per person to demonstrate that Britain had a 'superior' safety record to that the Dutch, Danes or Swedes. Pick the wrong measure and you will not only get the wrong result, you might even get the opposite to that you are seeking.

CTC wrote to the ministers, and an extract from that letter follows.

Interestingly, according to Virgin Money, St Helens is 4th most 'cycle friendly', while Dudley is 7th. Yet both these towns have some of lowest cycling commuting levels in Britain. By contrast, York, Hull or Cambridge - places where cycling is much more popular - come much lower: York 41st , Cambridge 60th and Hull doesn't even feature.

Virgin Money have made the same mistake as the ministers - measuring numbers of injuries rather than risks of cycling. But whereas the ministers' comments can be counteracted with a letter, the press release had already gone out to hundreds of local newspapers before anyone had a chance to check the maths.

The frustration is that officially the Department for Transport has bought the argument that CTC presented in its 'Safety in Numbers' campaign - that cycle safety should be measured per cyclist or per mile, or even on the basis of the perception of danger, not just numbers of injuries.

Without this, local authorities find themselves with perverse incentives: increase cycle use and, even if risk of cycling falls, endure criticism as cycle casualties increase; or ensure that no-one rides a bike, thus allowing casualty numbers to fall, even if congestion, pollution and waistlines all increase.

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  • President: Jon Snow
  • Chief Executive: Paul Tuohy
  • Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC): A company limited by guarantee, registered in England no.25185. Registered as a charity in England and Wales No 1147607 and in Scotland No SC042541

 

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