Cycling may help save the planet – but more must be done to save the cyclists, researchers say.
It is much more hazardous to travel by bike in Britain than in Holland or Denmark, and unless policymakers act to make cycling safer, efforts to persuade more people to switch to two wheels are likely to fail, they warn.
Injuries to cyclists in Britain are disproportionately high compared with those to drivers and passengers in cars. From 1999 to 2004, 35,000 cyclists were injured severely enough to be admitted to hospital in England, compared with 71,000 occupants in cars.
Yet the ratio of one cyclist injured to every two car occupants is dramatically out of line with the numbers of cyclists and cars on the road. On average, more than 637 trips per person are made by car travellers compared with 15 by bike.
"If car and bicycle journeys were equally safe or hazardous, trip for trip, one would expect 40 times fewer admissions for injuries to cyclists than to car occupants.... Per trip, cycling is more risky, as measured by hospital admission, than travelling by car," the researchers from the University of Surrey, Guildford, say in the journal Injury Prevention.
Compared to the UK, where just four per cent of the population use bicycles, cycling is much more popular in Holland, with 25 per cent of people getting about by bike, and Denmark, where one in five trips are made by bicycle. But these countries have much lower injury and death rates, suggesting that there is safety in numbers. International comparisons show that English cyclists are three times more likely to be killed or injured per mile travelled than their Dutch or Danish counterparts.
The town of Groningen in Holland has pursued a consistent policy of promoting cycling for the last 25 years, and 60 per cent of the population now regularly travel by bike – more than twice the Dutch average and 15 times the UK rate.
In the early 1990s, politicians in Groningen backed radical proposals to dig up city centre motorways and rid the town of traffic chaos and create a virtually car-free centre of green spaces, pedestrianised streets, bike paths and separate bus lanes.
Although retailers feared a mass exodus of shoppers to out-of-town malls that could be reached by car, the reverse happened, and local businesses have since demanded more "cyclisation" of streets. City planners say the reduced congestion has steadily benefited jobs and businesses. Faster journey times for employees have meant better productivity, and a cleaner, safer environment has brought in extra shoppers. Cycling has become more convenient than motoring, with a network of bicycle routes stretching nearly 200km.
In the UK, cities such as York, Hull and Cambridge, where up to 20 per cent of journeys are made by bike, have demonstrated what determination and long-term planning can do. Half a dozen other towns have received grants of more than £1m each from Cycling England to boost bike travel in their localities.
The barrier they have had to overcome is the perception that cycling is dangerous. Yet the more cyclists there are on the road, the safer it becomes as drivers get used to them.
In the University of Surrey study, researchers found that although there were more injuries in the summer – because there are more cyclists on the roads – injuries in the winter were more severe. "There may be an effect of safety in numbers – increased awareness of cyclists by car drivers – when the use of cycling increases in the spring and summer," they say.
A third of the injuries to adult cyclists, and a fifth of those to child cyclists, involved collisions with a vehicle. However, this may underestimate the number of accidents in which vehicles were involved, as a cyclist may be forced to take evasive action when a motorist passes too close or opens a car door. Potholes and other problems with the road surface may also cause accidents.
The authors point out that increasing the number of journeys by bike will help combat obesity and save the planet – but when people feel it is unsafe, they may be right.
"Encouragement of walking and cycling needs to be accompanied by serious efforts to ensure that safe traffic environments are established for pedestrians and cyclists. Better separation of pedestrians and cyclists from motorists, and greater awareness among the latter of the risks faced by pedestrians and cyclists, are important."