Not dying is a low bar…

Written for the London Cycling Campaign’s blog during Road Safety Week.

The title of this post is inspired by a feminist slogan I read: “Consent is a low bar. Aim for enthusiasm”.

On the streets, not dying is a low bar. But a really important one. I dream of not needing to worry about ending up at A&E in the morning, rather than at work.

And injury prevention’s one of the motivations behind the Near Miss Project. We’ve got data on the kind of incidents where, but for luck or skill, someone could have ended up dying or with serious injuries. We are starting to explore these from an injury prevention perspective, looking at how infrastructural or other changes might help reduce the risk represented by these experiences.

We’ll be able to pinpoint problematic commonalities of behaviour or road design and make recommendations for policy and practice. We hope this will contribute to making our roads less dangerous for cycling and reducing those risks which while in ‘absolute’ terms are low, remain unacceptably high. Unacceptably high in that most cycling deaths wouldn’t happen if we had a safer cycling system, of the sort that’s four hours from Central London by train.

But I didn’t only want to focus on injury prevention. My background is in sociology. I’ve long been fascinated by what the organisation of public space tells us about societal values and inequalities. So something else we’re looking at in the Near Miss Project is the emotional impact of incidents, using this to explore how the city feels from the saddle.

Of course, we are predominantly getting the negative side in a project focusing on ‘incidents’. On a good journey – and many journeys are good – nothing bad may happen, except the odd minor annoyance, which may be something we all need to learn to deal with better. I remember hearing about a study into levels of ‘frustration’ on greenways, and wondering whether I could imagine living or working in contexts where no one ever frustrated anyone else. (From a frustration point of view, I reckon even imperfect greenways generally beat meetings).

But if bad and inequitable experiences are structured into daily movement – by way of design, policy, legislation, practice and/or behaviour – then there is a problem. The literature suggests this is important. Emotional benefits from cycling are highly valued but threatened by poor cycling environments. (See my report for British Cycling on the Benefits of Investing in Cycling). So if cycling – which should be fun and joyful – is regularly becoming unpleasant and stressful, this is a big deal, and not only because injuries may result.

The Near Miss Project data includes lots on emotional impacts, and we’ll be exploring which kinds of incidents are most stressful for cyclists. We can look at what other vehicles were involved (if any), what the road conditions were, what kind of incident it was. And through this, get a sense of why cycling can sometimes feel so intimidating or scary, and what can be done to reduce this, as well as to reduce injuries.

As part of the project I’ve had a lot of people contact me about their experiences. One thing that comes out clearly is that often it’s not just one or another specific incident. People weave their experiences of incidents into a broader story about what cycling’s like for them in their city, town or village. For example, Jenny (not her real name) writes:

‘Having commuter-cycled solidly in London for 4 years I feel the hatred is getting worse and worse, and am at my wits’ end. Because I do not pedal in the gutter or door-zone, I am frequently the target of deliberate dangerous driving and abuse. The repeated attempts on my life (because that is what they are) are getting so bad that I keep having nightmares, particularly while I’m just nodding off. What I cannot know is how many times I have saved my life from those who do not wish me harm, and who could see me coming. I hope that by using some of those flight-or-fight chemicals by the actual exercise of cycling I might not get some serious anxiety-related symptoms, but I’m considering stopping the very thing that used to make me feel SO happy, SO liberated and independent.’

These kinds of feelings, and the effects they have on people, should influence street design, transport planning and policy. Jenny speaks of a continuum that ranges from everyday incivility to abuse and harassment. I think this has deep roots and involves infrastructural, legal, policy and cultural inequities. The motor dominated society in which we live structurally marginalises and intimidates those perceived to be weaker, slower, and less powerful.

Behaviour that would be outrageous elsewhere becomes normal in our streets. Just last week I had an ordinary experience riding on Middleton Road, a residential street and priority cycle route in Hackney – and also unfortunately a rat run. A van driver overtook me with inches to spare, apparently annoyed at my leaving a door’s width from the parked cars. I caught up with him at the next junction, saying ‘You were too close there’ as I passed. He leant on the horn hard and gave me the finger to show me what he thought of this.

Risking my life, and then abusing me: a normal experience on our streets and a sign of how motor dominance makes public space hostile for those outside a motor vehicle. Of course, cyclists are not immune from this kind of behaviour. Last week I also heard a man riding on the canal towpath shout abuse at parents whose kids were having fun ‘in the way’ – the same attitude as the van driver, if not the same level of horsepower.

But those who cycle and walk – or would like to, if the streets were safer and more inviting – are disproportionately harmed by structural inequalities and violence on our streets. We all have much to gain from a more humane system prioritising happiness and health over power, time and speed.

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