Bike safety: how much risk do cyclists pose on London’s roads?

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Bike safety: cyclist in Old Street, Hackney
Credit: Amelia Glean/Hackney Post
Advocates hail them as clean, green commuters who reduce congestion on London’s roads while keeping themselves fit. But to plenty of motorists and pedestrians, Britain’s cyclists are lycra-wearing, red light-jumping, pavement-riding hooligans, who frequently ignore the Highway Code.

Road safety for cyclists has received a lot of attention in recent years, but how much of a risk do the bicycles themselves pose on the nation’s roads?

Nineteen-year-old Charlie Alliston is currently facing charges of causing “bodily harm through wanton and furious driving” in relation to a cycling incident in Shoreditch in February 2016. The teenager is thought to have been riding a Planet X track bike without a front brake when he crashed into Kim Briggs as she crossed the street. Paramedics and an air ambulance attended to the 44-year-old mother of two, who was taken to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. She died of her injuries two weeks later.

Biking accident
Credit: Ette07 via Wikimedia Commons

This is not an isolated incident. In 2015, a 30-year-old man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, suffered head injuries when he was struck by a cyclist in Vauxhall. In 2007, Rhiannon Bennett, 17, was killed when she was hit by a bike. The Old Bailey heard how cyclist Jason Howard had shouted at her to “move because I’m not stopping.” Howard was fined £2,200 but avoided a jail sentence. Figures from the Department for Transport (DfT) show that cyclists killed 19 pedestrians, and injured 431 between 2010 and 2014. Over the same period, motorists were responsible for the deaths of 1203 pedestrians, and injured a total of 19,802.

The difference there may sound significant, but when the number of injuries are measured in relation to the distance travelled, there’s not much to choose between bikes and cars. In 2012, cyclists in Britain injured 21 pedestrians per billion kilometres travelled, compared with 24 pedestrians injured by motorists.

In 2015, DfT figures revealed that pedal cyclists accounted for 6 per cent of road deaths. But without data providing information for which type of road user was affected, the absolute number of pedestrians killed by cyclists after 2014, is unknown.

The Times claimed in 2014 that cyclists were creating “an army of walking wounded”, and over recent years, the idea of the militant cyclist has gained traction, with social media enabling the spread of Go-Pro style videos.

Hackney, the central London borough with the highest proportion of cyclist commuters, is not immune from the issue of pavement cycling, which particularly endangers pedestrians.

Tompion Platt, Head of Policy at Living Street, a London charity representing pedestrians, told the Hackney Post: “We know most cyclists prefer to use the road, but a small minority continue to ride their bicycles on the pavement for reasons of convenience or safety. This can make pedestrians feel vulnerable – especially those who are visually impaired, suffer hearing loss or have mobility issues.

“Pavement cycling is illegal and should be enforce using common sense and discretion. We want to see more done to make cyclists feel safer on the road so they aren’t tempted to use footways,” he said.

Paul Dimmock, 54, cycles from Farringdon Station to his office near Liverpool Street every morning. He told Hackney Post that he often encounters ‘Boris bike’ users who do not consider themselves as part of the road traffic.

“I get frustrated with cyclists who jump red lights and ride on the pavement. It gives us a bad name. I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever the mode of transport, people get lazy, and if they can take a short cut they will, which causes accidents. Although not in London, I have been a victim of reckless cycling when a cyclist hit me from behind on a pedestrian walkway, lacerating my calf and hospitalising me.”

Cyclist in London
Credit: Amelia Glean/Hackney Post

Some cyclists are certainly ignoring the law by riding on the pavement, but it is important not to overstate the issue. Popular perceptions of the ‘rampaging pavement cyclist’ are not always supported by the facts, as the number of serious accidents each year are relatively low. Around 20 pedestrians are seriously injured each year by cyclists taking to the pavement. DfT figures from 2007-2008 show that 60.7 pedestrians were killed on the pavement by motor vehicles, compared to just 0.5 killed on the pavement by cyclists.

Mr Alliston may be facing charges for his conduct in the saddle, but cycling certainly should not be discouraged. Perhaps, as Mr Platt says, we should be focusing on increasing the number of safe cycling routes in London to make cyclists less inclined to use pavements.

He said: “More people cycling is good for people walking and society more generally. We need to build safe and inviting infrastructure so people of all ages and abilities feel safe to cycle their everyday journeys.”