Has cycling become safer? (And if so, why?)

5th Jul 2022

The author of Designing for Cycle Traffic and professor of transport engineering at UWE, John Parkin, calls for caution when examining Great Britain’s latest road casualty figures. By Craig Thomas

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John Parkin, a regular CIHT contributor on sustainable transport and stalwart of cycling who has produced an e-learning course on sustainable transport for CIHT Learn, deep dives into the year-on-year reduction in pedal cycle fatalities.

The latest provisional road casualty figures for Great Britain for 2021 show a 20% reduction in fatalities among cyclists, compared with 2020. However, the number of pedal cyclist fatalities in 2021 was 13% higher than the 2017 to 2019 average, while, at the same time, overall cyclist casualties rose marginally, by 1%.

Of course, the year 2020 was by no means a normal one. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns had a major impact on traffic patterns, so identifying longer-term trends isn’t a straightforward proposition, says John Parkin, professor of transport engineering at UWE and author of Designing for Cycle Traffic.


More people cycling

“Many more people cycled in 2020, increasing the number of kilometres covered, because of coronavirus, but the traffic flows were also lower,” Professor Parkin explains. “You would expect, when you get more people cycling, things tend to be safer. When you get less traffic, things tend to be safer. But because there was a higher absolute number, the absolute number of fatalities in 2020 was quite a lot higher.

Parkin adds that the best way to consider 2021’s figures is by comparing them to the 2017 to 2019 average. “You need to be careful in interpreting the fact that there's been a decline in pedestrian cycle fatalities. I think we've got to wait until things settle down a bit to understand what the rate is compared to 2020.”

The likelihood is that many people continued to travel by bicycle in 2021, while car use returned to levels approaching pre-pandemic levels, thinks Parkin. However, he reiterated his caution against drawing too many conclusions just yet.


Improving infrastructure

When it comes to the effect of better cycling infrastructure on cyclist safety, Parkin sees improvements, but with significant variations across the country. “With better separated infrastructure for cyclists, the rates will be lower, as you would expect, because they are able to cycle in conditions that are safer. The level of infrastructure provided for cycle traffic is still, perhaps with the exception of London, small in most parts of the country. The casualty rates where there’s good infrastructure will be lower, but provision of infrastructure is patchy, so some areas will now be performing better and getting much safer, but other areas won't be getting much safer at all.”

Cycling infrastructure isn’t the be-all and end-all of safety improvement, though. Parkin suggests that alone, it isn’t sufficient to attract people to cycle. “Other things are needed to attract people to cycling, such as making it far less easy to drive short distances into city centres. But that's about the propensity to cycle, rather than any potential change in level of safety when you are cycling.”

When asked how CIHT professionals can make cycling safer, Parkin says “the most important thing, for every single professional engaged with highway and traffic engineering, and engaged in designing for cycle traffic, is to get a certain level of competence themselves as a cyclist, to really understand what cyclists require.”

The challenge for transport planners is clear: get on your bikes and ride!

Review the reported road casualties for Great Britain for 2021.

Listen to the CIHT podcast with Professor Parkin on The Dependencies of Sustainable Transport from April 2022.

Take Professor Parkin’s e-learning course on Sustainable Transport for CIHT Learn.

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