Claims that cycling is much safer now than in the past are met with scepticism by those (including me) who were around at that time. In the 1970s, the Highlands could be savoured from the main roads without undue stress from motor traffic. I toured the south of England in the mid 1980s, without any particular reserve in using A-roads. It is very hard to put a time on when the situation changed, but anecdotally, the early 1990s tend to get cited as the period when many cyclists noticed a distinct worsening of perceived danger. Motorway speeds on country A-roads became the norm, speeding behaviour spread to B-roads. There was a rising sense of fear when riding in the country.
Notwithstanding this, reliable evidence from long term records makes it clear that the actual risk in cycling is much less today than it used to be. As a broad average, the risk in cycling is nowadays less than half of what it was in the mid 1970s.
The greatest obstacle to any explanation is the drift in perceptions over time. Our memories are relative to what we were, and what was taken for granted at the time. Many things taken for granted decades ago would be viewed with askance today: smoking in the workplace; industrial pollution; drinking and driving; the flimsiness of cars; the stink they made.
Perhaps the roads of the past were not so rosy as we remember them? I would suggest there are a number of factors that have contributed to a rising sense of danger. The rising sense of danger is real. Resolving it is fundamental to the normalization of cycling.
Popularity of Cycling
Cycling was more popular in the 1980’s than today. After a long post-war decline, cycling recovered in the early 1970s and had grown about 70% by the mid 1980s. Unfortunately the government of the time was committed to promoting car use, and the mini-boom in cycling petered out. By the mid-1990s, cycle use had fallen back to roughly where it had been twenty years earlier.
As investigated on this page, there is a “safety in numbers” effect for cycling. More cycling means safer cycling. This effect is probably a combination of factors. It is highly likely that where bicycle traffic is already low, a reduction in the number of cyclists will increase the risk per cyclist. It is a general rule of safety that rare events are more dangerous because they are unexpected. There is the potential for a “negative void coefficient” of further declines as perceived danger increases until there is no more cycling.
Drivers as Cyclists
Well into the 1980s, it was still customary for children to use their bikes as transport. A substantial proportion of drivers would have been cyclists as children and would retain some insight of cycling on the roads. In contrast, the majority of today’s drivers have little, if any experience of on-road cycling. It is very difficult to judge how this affects driver attitudes. My suspicion is that it is material and negative, although virtually impossible to quantify.
Evidently cars have got larger, more powerful and far more agile. Modern cars are visibly more heavily constructed than those of thirty years ago, with less window area and thicker pillars and doors. The sense of encapsulation from surroundings is stronger. The typical driving speed on traditional country A-roads (i.e. not dual carriageways or modern trunk roads) was about 40 mph in the 1980s. That reflected what was comfortable for most drivers given the handling, noise and power of the cars of that time. In a modern car, even the average driver can reach 60mph on such roads. The cars may have improved, the sight lines and driver reaction times have not.
The width of cars is of particular importance for cyclists. Two popular cars of the 1980s were the Vauxhall Cavalier and the Ford Sierra, of about 1.72m width. A large car of the time was the Jaguar XJ6, width 1.77m.
Many cars of today are much wider than this. The Ford Mondeo is 1.85m. Most so-called SUV’s like the Land Rover Discovery are almost 2m wide. This is within an inch or so of being as wide as the biggest American “gas guzzlers” of the 1960’s.
This tendency towards American car dimensions on British roads has, naturally, taken space that would have been available for passing cyclists. Almost a foot of extra width is taken by larger modern cars. This equates to two feet less space for cyclists on a single-carriageway road.
These interactive factors of design and behaviour have combined to create forbidding conditions on many rural roads, especially during commuting periods. Are these roads are actually more dangerous than they were in the past? My judgement is that they are. The apparent improvement in safety is due to cyclists’ having withdrawn to a restricted choice of routes, or no choice of routes at all (i.e. no more cyclists in that area).
It is not all bad news. Better car design protects cyclists on roads where traffic speeds are low. Urban traffic speeds are falling as 20 mph zones spread. Let us hope that similar rural zones are introduced with enforced 30 mph speed limits and traffic restrictions on lesser roads.
Amount of Traffic
Traffic levels continue to rise, as they have through most of the post-war period. Taking 1980 as an arbitrary base, the amount of traffic on British roads has doubled. Quiet roads are getting rarer. The government continues to indulge the house building industry in supporting suburban sprawl and rural housing developments, which in turn ingrain car dependency. Even given the sharply rising concerns about climate change, official action to reduce private and commercial road traffic is non-existent. Houses and cars are still the panem et circenses (bread and circuses) of our times.
The Number of Cars
The average car spends 95% of its life parked. Car ownership has spread to a broader social inclusion. Urban districts that were once poor have been gentrified. Congestion from car parking has become endemic. In a compact city like Edinburgh where I live, most of the arterial roads are narrowed by parked cars along at least part of their length. Some roads are simply impractical for cycling: there just is not enough space for cyclists to share with motor traffic. This is a problem in most British conurbations.
The clearing of car parking from arterial roads is a reasonable expectation. Arterial roads should be for moving traffic, not storing vehicles. As yet, progress in reforming the situation is limited. Local authorities in the UK remain apathetic about challenging established parking habits.
The apparent paradox of improved statistical safety amid rising perceived danger is most likely due to reduced choices for rural cycling and less space for urban cycling.
Cyclists have been “driven off” many rural roads that could be used comfortably thirty-plus years ago. This trend can only continue to circumscribe choices for cycling unless specific actions are taken to protect rural access. This could involve adding (properly designed) cycle tracks alongside rural A-roads and enforcing reduced speeds on lesser roads. Alternatively, more rural cycling networks could be developed.
On the positive side, conditions for urban cycling should get better as lower speed limits become the norm and quality standards for cycle networks improve.