British Study Finds Usual Reasons for Low Levels of Cycling

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published June 06, 2011

A recent article in the Guardian examines the reasons most Britons don't regard bicycles as a legitimate mode of transportation.

Bicycles parked outside Fortino's at Dundurn Plaza (RTH file photo)
Bicycles parked outside Fortino's at Dundurn Plaza (RTH file photo)

A British study interviewed many people to find out why they didn't cycle. (Note that the usual Hamilton argument - "it's colder/hotter more sparsely populated here" - doesn't work in the UK, since the Netherlands and UK share exactly the same climate and similar population densities.)

Many English felt cyclists are silly or strange, or that cycling was just for children or the sporty. In other words, cycling just doesn't have a good image in the UK. Those who tried cycling were rapidly put off by the stress of cycling in heavy traffic with inadequate facilities.

I lived and cycled in Cambridge for four years, which was was of the handful of high cycling cities cited in the study. In Cambridge the students led the way, but all ages cycled, from children to seniors (sometimes on adult tricycles!).

However, I have to say that the drivers in the UK (especially the taxi drivers) are even more aggressive to pedestrians and cyclists than in Canada. I can understand why someone trying to cycle in the average UK city would be rapidly turned off.

In brief, the study points to the same factors that make cities pedestrian-friendly: large numbers of cyclists (making cycling seem normal to both cyclists and drivers), appropriate infrastructure, and legislation that puts the responsibility on the most dangerous road users (the motorists) in the case of an accident.

Right now we have none of these ingredients in place, and so it is not surprising that cycling (and walking) remain fringe activities.

One of the recommendations in particular stood out: "Another reform would be a European-style 'strict liability' law in which the automatic assumption of responsibility would rest with the less vulnerable road user."

Local experience shows that motorists are not usually charged and convicted when they injure or kill pedestrians or cyclists. The book Carjacked by Anne and Catherine Lutz backs up this impression with statistics that show the same trend throughout North America: motorists very rarely face serious charges when they injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists.

In North America (and the UK) the assumption is that the pedestrian or cyclist probably did something wrong and the motorist shouldn't really be blamed for hitting them.

The mother of a friend of mine was hit crossing the street at the intersection, and the line of questioning from the police certainly seemed aimed at finding an excuse for the driver: "was she entirely within the white lines at all times," and so on.

The studies also strongly recommend physically segregated bicycle lanes as the single most important factor in getting people to cycle. Even a painted cycle lane makes a difference, but the segregated lanes provide an added safety level (and prevent cars from blocking them, as we see outside the Beer Store on Dundurn).

We don't have to resort to tortured arguments about how Hamilton is unique. In the relevant ways, it is just like all those other places that have low levels of walking and cycling (and underperforming downtowns).

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By Nord Blanc (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 11:18:53

In Sept 2009 paper Understanding Walking and Cycling: A Multi-Method Approach to Investigating Household Decision Making in Relation to Short Journeys in Urban Areas, Dr. Tim Jones (Dept of Planning, Oxford Brookes University) notes that "For the period 1997 to 1999, of the 1046 trips made per person per year, 70% were below 5 miles. Moreover, one quarter of car journeys were under two miles and over half (57%) were under 5 miles." Unsurprisingly, many of those short-haul trips are the ones most likely to favour pedestrians, cyclists or public transit. In fact, for trips under two miles, walking was almost twice as prevalent as driving prevalent than driving -- and for trips under one mile, walking was four times as favoured. Above 2 miles, however, the gap narrows -- and once you've passed 5 miles, cars win out overwhelmingly, being used for as many longer trips as bus and bike combined. The erosion in walking and cycling stats seems to be directly related to the observation that "the number of short trips is decreasing and being replaced by longer trips and that the car is being used more for all trip lengths. The trend, therefore, is towards fewer opportunities being available to conduct journeys on foot or by bicycle." I would imagine that as commute times extend and exurban development continues apace, that short-haul trips will become less and less frequent, and reliance upon motorized vehicles increasingly common.

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By Bikeritis (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 11:23:56

the brits know something everyone else does: bikes are dangerous

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By Dorkeritis (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 11:32:41 in reply to Comment 64628

And cars aren't???

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By Art Brut (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2011 at 11:49:47 in reply to Comment 64630

Careful. With talk like that, you're liable to wind up being bundled into a call for auto infrastructure enhancements or the suspension of bike lane initiatives.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 00:00:19

I believe you have things a little backwards. In Canada when a car is involved in a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist the automobile is automatically at fault. The onus is then on the driver to prove that the pedestrian or the cyclist is at fault. The police at the scene are charged to get the facts and if it is clear that the driver is not at fault then the case is closed. If there is doubt as to what happened the driver is either charged or the case remains open and the investigation continues. That is why sometimes months later there are no charges laid and the case remains ongoing. Even without charges the automobile insurance will automatically cover the pedestrian if the pedestrian has no coverage.

Up until now there is no requirement for cyclists to have insurance but there has been talk about that for a number of years and it is likely to come into effect at some point in the future.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 00:04:34 in reply to Comment 64630

Sure you can argue it but, that does not make it so.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 10:03:07 in reply to Comment 64658

You are correct that the highway traffic act does require motorists to exercise due care and attention at all times (although this is not equivalent to automatically assuming the motorist is at fault), however the statistics throughout North America show that motorists are only very rarely charged and convicted when they injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists.

In Ontario the worst that motorists usually face (such as the bus driver who killed a woman at Gore Park last year) is a few demerit points on their license or a fine of a few hundred dollars, even when they plead guilty. This hardly fits the seriousness of the crime.

In other words, the law is interpreted by the police and courts in a way that sets the bar very high. The statistics simply aren't consistent with an interpretation of the law that puts the responsibility on motorists. In those parts of Europe with a strict liability law charges and convictions are the rule, not the exception.

In fact, the friend who's mother was hit is a lawyer and pointed out to the police what the law actually states (i.e. that it is the motorist's responsibility to drive carefully and avoid hitting pedestrians). However, they insisted that if there was any indication that the pedestrian was doing anything even slightly "wrong" they would have no case.

Another example of this attitude come from Hamilton's Traffic department. The head of Traffic actually told me that if a motorist hit and killed a pedestrian crossing in a crosswalk not located at a signalized intersection (i.e. one with traffic lights or stop signs) the motorist would not be charged. Clearly this is not true according the letter of the law, but he presumably has had a lot of experience in how the law has actually been enforced!

In any case, the laws regulating traffic are provincial and vary significantly between provinces (although none has a strict liability law, as far as I know). In western Canada motorists are required (and actually do) stop on both sides of the road as soon as a pedestrian steps off the curb. This is true wherever the pedestrian is crossing (e.g. mid-block).

If you still don't believe that the lives of pedestrians are not valued very highly, read this article from the Toronto Star from May 27 2011 "Is a person's life worth $500? Highway Traffic Act says yes"

"For $500, you can buy a pretty nice 32-inch flat screen television.

It’s also the price you’ll pay for killing a pedestrian in Ontario if you’re charged with failing to yield under the Highway Traffic Act.

You won’t go to jail. You won’t even lose your driving licence.

“It blows my mind,” said Corry Kuipers, whose sister Tina, 65, was killed on April 13, 2010 when she was run over by a truck as she tried to cross Queen St. in Brampton. The driver of the truck pleaded guilty to failing to yield and was fined just $500."

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 11:14:54 in reply to Comment 64662

One other point of comparison: a hunter who mistakenly kills a person is usually charged with involuntary manslaughter.

This is obviously much more serious than a $500 fine (in the unlikely event the motorist is actually convicted). Why aren't motorists charged with involuntary manslaughter for killing someone with their vehicle, rather than simply being charged with a violation of the Highway Traffic Act?

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By Nord Blanc (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 14:34:50 in reply to Comment 64666

A salient point. Time to enlist the help of our representatives at Queen's Park... with an election looming, it might be a good time to stir the pot.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted June 07, 2011 at 14:41:32

Would be interesting to see the Hamilton equivalent of this:

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