Take Away Space From Cars to Reduce Congestion For All

Time and time again in discussions of walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure I hear the argument that ‘we don’t have space’ to allow for these modes because we have to provide for cars – but does this argument stand up to scrutiny?

This picture gives a clue:


This picture isn’t without its issues – for example it assumes one person per car, and full occupancy for the bus.  Typical occupancies for cars are 1.6 overall and 1.2 for commuting journeys.  The time that space is most critical is at peak times, i.e. when the majority of traffic is people commuting. Let’s assume (generously) that we can squeeze the number of cars down by 1/3 by fitting in 1.5 people per car. They’re still taking up a lot more space than 60 bicycles and way more than one bus. Of course, one person per bus would not be a better use of space than one person per car; clearly.

But there are also other factors at play here – space taken up is one factor affecting congestion, but it’s clear that smooth flow of traffic and speed of movement are also important. So we’ll have to dig out some traffic count data to get the full picture (sorry!).


This makes it pretty clear – the photo is, roughly, representative – if you have a limited amount of space to fit a critical number of people through in a limited time, you should prioritise trams and light rail, walking, then cycling, then buses; and your last port of call should be the private motor car (at nearly 10 times less space efficient than walking).

I argue that cycling is the one mode of transport that we generally don’t provide for in any meaningful way in the UK – most people feel it is not possible for them to cycle, because of how hostile roads feel.  It is here that there is the greatest unmet demand.  It’s also incredibly cheap compared to other ways of moving people around and provides paybacks in the region of 40:1; 4:1 just from the health benefits.  It is here that we should focus our efforts in the short term.

Not only will investing in cycling, and to a lesser extent, walking and public transport mean that more people can move around, but it means that those who have longer journeys to make who can’t possibly walk, cycle or take the bus will benefit too – this is backed up by data from TomTom who ranked the most congested cities – all the top 5 had less than 2% of trips done by bicycle, and data from New York which suggests that even when segregated cycle lanes take away space from cars that they increase traffic speeds.

That’s right, building cycle infrastructure is what’s best for those people who will never travel by any other way than driving too; as well as what’s best for people who cycle, pedestrians and everyone in the town or city (from less noise, less pollution, less road danger).  Less people driving means faster journeys for drivers, users of public transport, pedestrians and cyclists.  It’s not a zero sum game where we take from one and give to another – everyone wins from cycling, even those that won’t ever cycle.

The argument that says that where we have a limited resource (in this case, space) that we should prioritise use of it for the least efficient use of that resource (cars) is fundamentally flawed.  Let’s end the nonsense of using it to prevent the implementation of decent quality walking and cycling infrastructure and the closing of bus lanes. Let’s allow people to walk, cycle and take public transport for more journeys if they want to, by making it quicker, easier and safer to do so – saving money for individuals and vast amounts for government. Let’s allow those people who need to, to drive on less congested streets.

Yes, that means some short term pain as we take back space from the motor car – there will be increased congestion in the short term in certain places; but in the longer term, behaviour will change as we grow comprehensive networks for walking, cycling and public transport and within the first year or so of this kind of effort, the congestion will decrease, freeing up more road space for more ambitious walking, cycling and public transport projects.

Everyone will end up a winner; why would you not?


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Motorists are responsible for most cycle-car collisions in London – what can people on bikes do to protect themselves?

This article in the Times – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafetyarticle3758677.ece –  quotes a study by Westminster Borough Council which shows that 68% of accidents involving bikes and cars are the fault of the driver rather than the biker.  As well as being an eternal geek, I’m also a qualified cycle instructor – so I thought I’d look at the most common types of accident and look at how these can be prevented.  Many of these will be obvious to experienced cyclists – but some types of accident may not.  This type of analysis should show up the type of accident that people are failing to predict (because they otherwise wouldn’t be getting hurt in them) and that you might think that you therefore might not spot.

First note: Cycling is pretty safe.  We’re talking 120 deaths across the whole country per year, and 10 across London  – as compared to 100,000+ from inactivity nationally.  You are much more at risk from sitting on your sofa than you are riding a bike!  However, knowledge is power and knowing more about keeping the type of accidents that cause harm to cyclists will help you protect yourself.

Second note: Reading a blog on the internet isn’t a replacement for cycle training, which will cover many the points discussed below and go into much more depth on a riding style for you.  I thoroughly recommend considering cycle training.

I started by looking out the most common causes of accidents involving bikes and cars, from this report by TfL from 2011: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/pedal-cyclist-collisions-and-casualities-in-greater-london-sep-2011.pdf

Table showing conflicts causing deaths of bike users:


Table showing most common conflicts causing serious injury to bike users:


What conclusions can we draw from this information?

1. STAY OUT from the left hand side of HGV’s, skip lorries, cement mixers etc.  These have a habit of turning left over cyclists, and caused 3 deaths in 2011 and 2 serious injuries.  Stay behind these unless there is plenty of room to get past and out of the drivers ‘blind spot’ (basically to where you can see the driver’s eyes).  You might be better overtaking on the right where there is space to do so.  Never pass a lorry that is indicating left on the left hand side!  If you get caught out alongside a HGV then get the bike out of the road and onto the pavement.

2. Look behind you!  It’s critical that you don’t pull out in front of moving traffic – another 3 deaths and 25 serious injuries were caused by bike users either exiting the footway into the path of traffic, or changing lane into a moving stream of traffic. Check behind you before you set off, and before moving out to pass parked vehicles.

3. Avoid the door zone (the bit where car doors might open into).  Door zone accidents caused 1 death and 48 serious injuries in 2011.  Anticipate well ahead and  move out away from parked cars – leaving a car doors width.  Motorists might not expect this – so make sure you’re observing point 2.

4. Anticipate others’ mistakes.  A vast chunk of accidents causing injury and death to those on bikes are caused by drivers making ‘looked but failed to see’ errors.  Moving out before passing junctions (don’t forget point 2!) will allow you to see cars exiting junctions better (and allow them to see you better) as well as giving you more time to react in the case of them not spotting you – covering the brake levers also allows you to brake quicker in case of need.  Of course – covering the brakes is no good if they aren’t working effectively so make sure your bike is in good order!

But what about helmets?

If you think you might fall and hit your head and you don’t mind wearing one, wear one.  I don’t think they’re anywhere near as significant for safety as learning to avoid crashes in the first place.  You may wish to look at www.cyclehelmets.org for more details.

How do I get cycle training?

Generally training is available through your local council – take a look at their website and find the cycling pages – or give them a call!

Cycle trainers may wish to comment below with how potential customers can get in touch, where you train, and whether you can get funding for training.


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Who you calling stupid? The cycle helmet debate…

It is funny that one of the few areas of life where people feel able to criticise others’ approach to risk and safety is in cycling.  I repeatedly hear people make comments about how I ‘should always wear a cycle helmet’ – this even after I explain that I have looked into the evidence and am making a conscious decision not to wear a cycle helmet for some journeys – e.g. cycling to shops or around town (note – I think the situation is rather different when cycling as a sport – at high speed, in a group etc; for this, I wear a helmet).  So, how dangerous is cycling without a helmet – and if we’re going to criticise others’ for not wearing helmets while cycling, what else do we need to criticise them for?

Let’s compare to some other everyday things and see how dangerous it really is…all figures are from the UK, and while they may be from different years (because that’s what was available) they are representative.

Cycling deaths per year (2012 – total): 120

Cycling deaths that could have been prevented by cycle helmets – DfT figure: 12 – 19*

Walking deaths per year: 420

Deaths from inactivity caused Coronary Heart Disease/Stroke: 57,000 (McPherson, Klim, 2002)

Deaths from inactivity caused Cancer: 28,000 (McPherson, Klim, 2002)

Deaths due to smoking : 114,000 (NHS figure)

*Note this figure is widely questioned as detailed here, and should be considered an upper end estimate: http://tinyurl.com/oxm2a3r

About 25% of the population smokes, about the same proportion as cycle; the population judged to be ‘inactive’ is actually of the order of 75% of the population.  We can put these numbers into a table showing risk per person carrying out each activity – let’s call it ‘Relative Cycling Helmet Stupidity Index’ – working out the risk of dying per person doing each activity and standardising it against the difference in risk between cycling with a helmet and cycling without.

Cycling helmet stupidity index Adjusted for health benefits
All cycling


Cycling w/helmet



Cycling w/out helmets



Difference in risk – w/helmets and w/out;




Risk from inactivity


Smoking related deaths


So, so far we can see that in order to criticise those who choose to cycle without helmets, we need to criticise smokers 3000 times as much for putting their health at risk as cyclists; and those who are couch potato’s about 750 times more.

Note that the risk per person walking is roughly equivalent to the risk per person cycling (I assumed 100% of the population walks).

However, this is before we adjust for the health benefits of cycling.  I added the inactivity figures to show that, as has been found repeatedly by medical studies, it is many times safer to ride a bike than not – here are a few example medical studies: “Benefits outweigh dangers 13:1” (Woodcock et al, 2009); “Life years saved outweigh those lost by 20:1” (Hillman, 1992), as well as this one which states a 77:1 benefit: risk ratio (but was carried out in Spain, not in the UK) http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d4521.

I used the most conservative estimate of the relative benefits to adjust for health benefits of cycling, which is the third column.  The negative number in this column means that you are many times less likely to die if you cycle than not – even if not wearing a helmet.  This is even when we use the most conservative number for the benefits; so the likely benefits are many times this number.

So in fact, you are 38 times more likely to live longer because you’re cycling, than to die because you’re not wearing a helmet.  To be clear, on average, you are 38 times more stupid not to ride a bike, than you are to ride a bike without a helmet.  That’s using the most conservative numbers available – the likely benefit:risk ratio is many times higher.

I believe in free choice and wouldn’t criticise anyone else for the choices they make – smoking or being inactive.  I believe that people are best placed to make their own decisions.  However, if you are to criticise others for not wearing a helmet I think that you’re missing the point.  Especially if you don’t ride a bike yourself – who you calling stupid?


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Safety in numbers – a myth untrue for the UK, or the real deal?

Safety in numbers (SN) is a phenomenon, popularised by Peter Jacobsen in an article published in 2003 (abstract here: http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/9/3/205.abstract), that appears to show that as numbers of walkers and cyclists increase, that the number of injuries does not increase in line as you might expect i.e. if we double the number of cyclists on the road, the number of cyclists being injured does not double – it either increases by a small amount, stays the same, or, counterintuitively, leads to a fall in cyclist injuries.  This has then been backed up by various studies and organisations coming out in support of SN – e.g. the BMA (British Medical Association).   The suggested mechanism for this effect is that more cyclists on the roads means more awareness of cyclists, with motorists better able to predict their movements and more likely to be looking out for them.  Of course, more cyclists means that motorists are also highly likely to be cyclists themselves, meaning a higher level of concern for their wellbeing.

I have seen it suggested in a few places on the internet recently that the ‘Safety in Numbers’ effect for cyclists is an effect caused by an improvement in road safety that leads the increase in cyclists.  I do not believe this to be true, for reasons explained below, and think from looking at the data that the single biggest thing we can do to make the roads safer for cyclists is to get more cyclists on the road – obviously better infrastructure which reduces conflict, particularly on higher speed roads, will also reduce deaths and injuries and I would not suggest for a second that we do not need this infrastructure to allow all levels of cyclists to make safe journeys.  In fact, I think that a marked growth in infrastructure, e.g. in towns, will lead to cyclists growing in confidence and then moving onto cycling between towns on rural roads.  However, I do think that more cyclists on the road will reduce the number of cycling casualties and that the SN effect is valid.





Looking at this graph of death rates per distance travelled and distance travelled in the Netherlands, it’s clear to see that as the distance travelled increases from the 70’s, that death rates fall as levels of cycling increase.  We know that it was in the 70’s that the Dutch started building their cycle lanes – so maybe it’s true that safety leads cycle numbers?  It’s certainly true that a perceived lack of safety is the single biggest barrier to more people cycling, so it seems rational, right?

Take another look at the graph.  What about before the 70’s?  We can see a steep drop off in numbers cycling as cars take off, and the death rate per distance traveled soaring.  There were cycle lanes then, but not in the same way – they were not connected and of very mixed quality.  However, it still seems clear: when less people cycled, the roads became more dangerous for cyclists.  There were less cars, sure – just as we’d expect now if more people cycled.  As an aside, you might be interested to watch this video ‘how the dutch got their cycle lanes’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuBdf9jYj7o

Clear correlation, plus a plausible explanatory mechanism means that I think the evidence, on balance, supports the idea that more cyclists will reduce the number of deaths per mile cycling.  To those who argue that the statistics seem to show that rising numbers of cyclists being killed here in the UK disproves SN, I would say that SN cannot trump all other factors.  In the UK, historically we have low numbers of cyclists which means that we have lost the knowledge of cycling – from how to make sure your brakes work properly, to riding away from car doors to avoid being doored – apart from in a few very experienced, determined cyclists.  We have a large number of new cyclists taking to the road who may not have ridden on the roads before, and who may not know someone that does to teach them – this means these new cyclists can be expected to have a significantly higher level of risk than the experienced cyclists; but the benefits of cycling still outweigh the risks many many times over, even for the newest cyclists (ref: http://cyclehelmets.org/1015.html).

To reiterate, I am not saying that this is an argument for not providing infrastructure.  I believe that large scale, safe cycling comes from starting large numbers of people riding their bikes young, getting them cycling  before they set up habits of driving everywhere.  The road system is cycleable in safety currently, but to reduce the risk to a level on a par with driving requires a large amount of training and experience – thousands of miles of riding.  How are people to know that this barrier is worth overcoming, if we don’t let them see the benefits of cycling?  We cannot start hoards of children riding – to school, to the shops, to the park – without a network of cycle infrastructure.

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Show respect, get some in return….

What I’m going to say now is a move away from my usual tack, deeply unscientific and in no way backed up by any data for much of it, so make of it what you will.  I’d be interested to hear your comments below.

I was watching a video a while back featuring James Cracknell cycling in London, and was struck by something that he said whilst riding – he gave a driver a thumbs up after being allowed to move out and commented ‘Give respect, get some in return…’  Waving and smiling at drivers is something I’ve always done, but this comment got me thinking about why I’d decided to do this, and what the possible benefits could be.

Often, when I raise the problem of bad driver behavior with drivers I’m friends with, their first comment is ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights/cycle on pavements…’  I certainly feel that when I’m riding on the roads somewhere where the drivers aren’t used to me riding, that I’m not given equal respect as would be shown by a car – this is displayed in the form of close passes, driving close behind with engine revving whilst waiting for a space to overtake etc (although noticeably less so over the last year, when Bradley Wiggins got hit there seemed to be a sea change in driver behaviour).

Personally, I think that the jumping red lights/pavement cycling thing is not the root cause of aggressive driver behaviour.  Various sources seem to show levels of red light jumping to be relatively low amongst cyclists.  Drivers regularly break what they see as trivial laws – making use of mobile phones, speeding, driving into cycle boxes at traffic lights or mandatory cycle lanes and drivers do not express anger at this behaviour, so it is not as simple as cyclists breaking the law.

French drivers - more at risk than UK drivers but French cyclists, less at risk than UK cyclists. Note that drivers in the UK age 17-19 are the biggest risk - to themselves and everyone else!

French drivers – more at risk than UK drivers but French cyclists, less at risk than UK cyclists. Note that drivers in the UK age 17-19 are the biggest risk – to themselves and everyone else!

It is clear from the rate of motorist deaths that driving is safer in the UK than pretty much anywhere in Europe, indicating a high standard of driving, but that the rate of cyclist deaths is noticeably higher, even than those countries which do not have lots of cycle infrastructure (e.g. France).  This suggests that there is a problem with either cyclist behaviour, or driver behaviour around cyclists in the UK.  I would suggest that although there is may be slightly more of a cycling culture in France, that cycling levels are similar (3% modal share, compared to 2% in the UK), and I cannot see a mechanism for cyclist behaviour being considerably better in France.  Certainly anecdotally, the most likely follow up to someone beeping at you while cycling in France is someone shouting ‘Allez, allez!’ as opposed to what you might hear shouted here (normally completely incorrect advice that you’d be safer riding closer to the kerb…or just abuse).  This goes hand in hand with bad, aggressive driving.

My view is that when people break out the ‘yeah, but cyclists jump red lights’ meme, they are trying to give justification to a feeling of a ‘lack of respect’ which is also often cited by drivers justifying bad driving around cyclists.  Usually in everyday driving, there is a constant interaction between motorists – a wave here, a nod there, establishing a rapport.  Often, cyclists are not confident enough to look behind them long enough to catch a drivers eye and acknowledge their presence, or take a hand off the handlebars to give a wave of thanks, so I think that this rapport does not exist as often between cyclists and motorists.

I wonder whether a movement by cyclists to make an effort to be seen as ‘more human’ might help further improve driver behaviour, and move us towards a safer road system.  Chatting to motorists at the lights, waving to say thanks when a driver has waited in a considerate manner, a smile and nod to say thank you are all things that could break down the perceived barriers between motorists and cyclists (I say perceived, because most cyclists are also motorists!) and help make the roads safer for cyclists.

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This is a really interesting project that is revitalizing one UK town. I definitely recommend taking a look if you’re interested in urban design!


In England, the Village of Poynton has implemented a bold transformation of its centre, Fountains Place, which is located at the crossing of three major routes, London Road (A523), Chester Road (A5149) and Park Lane. Nearly 26,000 cars pass through the large intersection in the heart of the village every day. This traffic and the design of the intersection had a significant negative impact on the community. As Hamilton-Baillie Associates write in the Poynton Town Centre Study:

Pedestrian activity on Fountains Place is constrained by the layout of the junction and intrusive impacts of the large volumes of traffic. Street activity is limited to the functional, with pedestrians moving around the margins of the space and opportunities for pedestrians to move through and across the junction compromised by the limited crossing facilities. The church is particularly isolated by the lack of crossings from Park Lane.

In order to revitalize the centre, Hamilton-Baillie proposed…

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Boris’ big cycle plans – a look at the objections

It has been two days now since the announcement about Boris’ new plans for Londons cycle network, and there seem to be two complaints being made about them.  Firstly, that it will affect traffic flow.  Most people, logically at first sight, assume that cutting down the number of traffic lanes will increase congestion.  Secondly, people are objecting to money being spent that is ‘only going to benefit cyclists’.  I’d like to discuss the issues around these arguments and explain why I think the positives outweigh the negatives for everyone.

To tackle the second point first – the government has to spend money to help people to move around.  This has economic benefits in helping people to work and allowing businesses to function.  For 2013, that amounts to about £9 billion/year in London – i.e on average, about £1100/head.  The cost of the planned cycling budget is £0.9 billion over 10 years – 90 million a year, which comes to about £11/head, or about 1% of travel spending in London.

So how many journeys are made by bike?  Well, the best data I can find shows 2%, from 2011 – I would speculate that this is a massive underestimate at current levels, there having been a big increase in the number of people I’ve seen cycling on the roads over the last few years.  In any case, we can see that the % of transport spend is lower than the % of trips – cycling is still being shortchanged, even with this announcement.

To look at the first point, certainly, if we reduced the amount of road space for cars but kept the number of cars the same, then this would increase congestion overall.  However, where good standard cycle lanes have been introduced elsewhere, we’ve seen massive increases in levels of cycling – the Netherlands, and Copenhagen in Denmark being the typical examples.  We can expect the same here as the number one reason that people state when asked why they don’t cycle is that they don’t want to cycle in the same space as cars.

Less cars = less congestion, and we can fit an awful lot more bikes in the same space as they take up about 10% of the road space of a car.  I think that this picture illustrates this quite nicely!


As an aside, I was giving a talk recently about what’s been successful in promoting cycling elsewhere, and mentioned Copenhagen – one lady piped up to say that ‘no wonder everyone cycles in Copenhagen – there’s no traffic – we went through at rush hour and we didn’t get held up in a single traffics jam!’  With 35% of their trips being made by bike and less than 25% by car – no wonder.  They haven’t even stopped there, with a target of 50% of all journeys by bike.  This has all been achieved in a city where at one point even the town squares were being used for car parking before a concerted effort to increase cycling.  I believe similar levels of cycling can be achieved in London over time.

To summarise – Boris’ new plans go some way to evening things up, but cycling is not receiving more than it’s fair share of funding, in fact rather to the contrary, and these plans can be expected to deliver reduced congestion, as well as better air quality, reduced spending on health, and reduced spending on road maintenance (it should be clear that bikes cause breakup of the road than cars, due to lower weights).

Final thought – I know that there is a strong feeling against cyclists in some portions of society – but are these routes really for ‘cyclists’?  I’d argue that ‘cyclists’ already cycle on Britains roads – they don’t need cycle lanes.  Indeed, there’s a faction that object to the infrastructure being in place, worrying that they will be forced to ride in it, rather than on the road where they can currently make faster progress (they’re called ‘Vehicular Cyclists’ – look it up if you don’t believe me!).  The people who this is going to benefit are just people who happen to think that using a bike could be a good way to get around – cheaper, cleaner, healthier and with the right infrastructure, easier.  People, perhaps, like you.


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