EEN miss point of cycle death stats: cycle lanes aren’t keeping us safe

The Edinburgh Evening News’ shock at the cyclists killed in Edinburgh and Glasgow misses the point; non-segregated infrastructure might encourage cycling, but it does nothing to reduce deaths.

An article in the Edinburgh Evening News this morning claimed that Glasgow was more friendly than Edinburgh for people on bikes. This “shock statistic” was:

…revealed on a map showing the locations of the 41 fatal car crashes across Scotland from 2009 to 2013. Six cyclists were killed on Edinburgh roads in that period, while three lost their lives in Glasgow.

This is despite the Capital’s reputation as Scotland’s most “bike-friendly” city.
Edinburgh Evening News

I don’t want to suggest wild incompetence here, but we probably need to do a bit more digging on those numbers before we allow ourselves to be shocked by them. After all, we’ve had no deaths in Glasgow at all from hippo attack in the same time period, but no one is suggesting we should be exporting our big game management tactics to Africa.

As a slight aside, the article on the EEN’s website is anonymous. When I asked, their publishing desk told me the author was the freelance journalist Paris Gourtsoyannis. He denied all knowledge of the article on Twitter.

Make of that what you will.

How many people cycle in Glasgow and Edinburgh?

The most obvious question to ask: if twice as many people are killed on bikes in Edinburgh, maybe it’s just because twice as many trips are happening.

Literally three minutes spent on the Scotland Census website tells us our hunch is correct.

In the 2011 census, 325,698 people in Edinburgh and 368,414 people in Glasgow were asked how they got to school or work. In Edinburgh 12,526 said they go by cycle (3.9%), and in Glasgow only 5,227 (1.4%) [1].

There’s no reason to suspect that people in Glasgow are cycling twice as far as those in Edinburgh, so it seems a safe bet to say that around twice as many miles are cycled each year in Edinburgh.

So, the reason twice as many people are killed on bikes in Edinburgh is because twice as many trips are taking place.

So there’s nothing to conclude from the data?

Not true.

The EEN’s conclusion is definitely nonsense, but as they regularly put out clickbait rubbish about cycling, the author (whoever they are) probably didn’t spend a great deal of time on the quality of the product.

We can do better.

But first, accept the data limitations

It would be nice to have more data. Nine deaths isn’t enough to be confident on trends; a single driver could cause half of those in one incident.

We could include all serious injuries as well as deaths, which would bolster our numbers (between 2009 and 2013 across Scotland 41 people on bikes were killed, but 762 more were injured during crashes)[2].

Our mystery author says they just looked at car/cycle crashes, in which case we need to expand out to include all crashes involving cycles—there’s no point ignoring people killed by lorry drivers, for example. However, we can quickly determine that this is just lazy car-centric writing. It’s 41 people on bikes who have died on our roads between 2009 and 2013 from all causes. Many have indeed been killed by car drivers (19 of the 41, as it happens), but the data here doesn’t tell us that.

But let’s say we haven’t got time to dig up the serious injury numbers (although a few minutes of Googling finds them here, if you fancy looking yourself). Can we get anything just from the nine deaths and the numbers of cyclists from the census?

How about:

Whatever Edinburgh is doing, more people are being encouraged to cycle, but they’re just as likely to be killed by another road user as in Glasgow

The census data tells us that over twice as many people (in percentage terms) choose to cycle in Edinburgh, but we also know they’re being killed at roughly the same rate in both cities.

What could explain this?

If you’ve been in either city, you’ll notice that Glasgow has almost no cycle infrastructure at all. We all have to mix it up on the roads with cars, buses and lorries. By contrast, Edinburgh has lots more on-road cycle lanes, along with a couple of off-road shared use paths.

Our tentative conclusions, subject to the data limitations we’ve already talked about:

  • If you do nothing to encourage cycling (the Glasgow example), even in a primarily flat area very few people will choose to travel by bike (somewhere around 1.5%).
  • Slap down a bit of paint on the roads (Edinburgh), and you’ll probably double that percentage. Create the illusion of safety, and people will fall for it.
  • Unfortunately, on-road cycle lanes appear to have no effect on the death rate of cyclists compared to an unprotected road.

Our knowledge of London would back this up. Lots of painted cycle superhighways encourage folk to take to two wheels, but without some physical protection the deaths quickly began to wrack up (with six killed in one particularly grim fortnight). Only now is Transport for London starting to roll out segregated routed. 68% of people cycling in the UK capital believe their roads are unsafe.

Back to Scotland, and some more fun facts on the data between 2009 and 2013:

  • In Edinburgh, people on bikes make up 3.9% of road users but 14% of deaths. In Glasgow it’s 1.4% and 5.7% (in both cases, that’s about a fourfold difference).
  • Cyclist deaths across Scotland have risen steadily year on year.
  • Both councils are way off their 2020 target of 10% of all journeys to be done by bike.

So cycling is really dangerous?

From the data we have in front of us it’s hard to avoid that conclusion, and many of the lazier newspapers have been playing off that for easy articles. However, we’re missing half the story.

By choosing to cycle, the benefits to your overall health are so enormous that the slightly increased risk of some selfish idiot killing you whilst reading their mobile at the wheel vanishes into nothingness. Regular drivers might be slightly less likely to die on the tarmac than those on bikes, but without regular exercise they’re much more likely to die from a whole host of other things. Get on a bike. You’ll add years to your life.

But you already knew that.

There is a real danger though that the last few journalists still throwing out plain wrong articles about the dangers of cycling are scaring people back into their cars.



PS: Normal service will be resumed on Wednesday with the promised article on the next infrastructure quick win in Glasgow.

Where I got the numbers from

Because sometimes it’s fun to back up wild statements…

[1] From the standard outputs page of the Scotland’s Census data explorer, pick Transport as the topic and QS702SC as the table. Pick Council Area 2011 as the area type, then Glasgow City and City of Edinburgh in the areas box. View table.

[2] From the datasets page of the Reported Road Casualties bit of the Transport Scotland Website, you want tables 23a and 40 (they’re Excel spreadsheets).


Add Yours →

You rely rather too heavily on official reported figuires for cycling. Observation suggests that there is a substantially higher use of cycles in Glasgow than official figures suggest. Monitoring of cycle parking, with 200-300 public bikes stands installed per year at sites nominated by cycling groups or observed as requiring formal parking has show phenomenal growth in the use of bikes which are being parked AND taken away from cycle stands. At one location which now has 48 spaces, under cover and is often oversubscribed, there was just one parked bike in 1995 – so for this city centre site we might suggest a 5000% increase in cycle trips over 20 years (don’t you just love playing with figures…).
Significantly the Glasgow bike hire system has outperformed that in London in terms of hires and growth in memberships, with the well pitched pricing for day hire rates saving the company a major cost of cycle re-location, and many of the hire bikes used for early and late commuting whine buses, trains and subway are not available.

@Dave: agree the lack of available bike parking is a growing issue in the city centre (albeit quite a nice problem, in a twisted way). But I don’t think that suggests the percentages of people using bikes are any higher than 1-2%; there’s easily a couple of hundred people on a single busy train coming into Central.

And if I don’t use the official government figures, what can I use that would be robust? The latest measurements would be from the route tracking iPhone app, but the release of that data appears to have been delayed.

Finally, I agree the Glasgow hire bikes have gone well, strongly promoting the Glasgow brand as a bonus (they’ve certainly started the longest thread on CityCyclingGlasgow). But so many of people using them (many of whom we could probably assume are less experienced cyclists) feel forced to use the pavement to stay safe. We’ve got the bikes, just not the infrastructure to back it up.

@Claire: thanks, and I haven’t bothered. They’re ignoring my one-line emails trying to find out who the author of the original article was, so I’ve little hope they’d actually read my response!

I have the same concern with painted lanes. Our local town has just installed a few (going from nowhere to nowhere mostly) along arterial routes, with much fanfare. I’ve been on one twice and found cars came much closer than otherwise when I’m riding, possibly because by riding in the lane I’m over on the side of the road and therefore invisible.
Down the hill, the next town is slowly increasing the number of dutch standard cycle lanes on the streets, but our councillors don’t waht to know…

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