Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Would I Want My Wife to Cycle?

Looking at statistics, cycling is safe.

Looking at my videos might appear to tell a different story, but statistically cycling is safer than walking (per unit distance) in the UK. However, statistics are a dangerous beast, and can often hide horrors under the surface. So is cycling really safe?

Humans are often very poor at perceiving risk. We often overestimate it. I know from previous work I have done how scared of small doses of radiation people can often be, with little or no basis in reality. This is often the case with cycling. Often when I mention to people that I cycle commute I get replies like, 'oh, isn't that dangerous', 'surprised you're still here', and 'you must have a deathwish'.

Yes, things could go wrong, but then then things can go wrong gardening and I no-one bats an eyelid when I take the lawn mower out.

However, recently during a conversation with my wife I realised something. First, I realised that I had a wife, which is something that many Youtube pundits suggest would never happen. More importantly though I realised that whilst I would love my wife to cycle to her work, I would actually be concerned for her if she did it.

So I am happy to cycle to work myself, but don't want my wife to? Double standards?!

This is not a picture of my wife.

The difference is that I have been cycling in the urban environment for nearly six years now. I started off quite timid (using the odd pavement!) and over time have grown more confident, and capable of mixing safely (fingers crossed that continues) with heavy traffic. I enjoy mixing with traffic. Not as some might suggest for the conflict that occasionally occurs, but for the days when you glide with, through and around the traffic seamlessly. I find it immensely enjoyable when it all works.

My risk of incident over the years has probably remained the same. When I started and my skill set was smaller and rode more timidly. As I got better and started mixing with the traffic my risk remained fairly steady as I had developed the skills through practice. Thus my cycling is probably as safe now as when I cycled on the odd path.

However, if someone was to start out now, and try and cycle as I do, they would be at significantly increased risk. There is no way I could expect my wife to filter through two lanes of slow moving traffic safely. I have become this 'vehicular cyclist' because I enjoy challenges, and I don't mind taking the leap into the unknown. Not everyone is built like that. Not everyone would enjoy what I do, day in day out. In fact I can understand why some might be completely terrified to do it. So whilst I was able to mix more with traffic whilst keeping my risk the same, others might not be able or even want to do that.

So expecting a majority of people to become 'vehicular cyclists' from day one will never happen. Yet, cycling on the paths is not the answer either.

So that is why I wouldn't want my wife to cycle the way I do.

She doesn't have the same attitude to risk as I do, and most importantly she shouldn't need to.

Riding a bike, should be as easy as....well, as easy as riding a bike. As things currently stand, it isn't.

So, this is why I am changing my attitude to the building of and campaigning for separate cycle facilities and changes in the law to protect cyclists. People like my wife should not have to build up a new skill set over a number of years. They should not have to be concerned with the principles of traffic herding, lane control or SMIDSY avoidance techniques. Everyone should be able to cycle with the minimum of preparation.That can be achieved through infrastructure and new legislation that is designed both to ease the passage ot the cyclist, and to encourage drivers to drive mores responsibly.

Yes, it will take time, and texts like Cyclecraft, are certainly relevant now and will always have some relevance in the future where the lanes come to an end. It's a book I'd highly recommend. However, how many people in Copenhagen or Amsterdam have read Cyclecraft? They don't have to.

However I hope, soon, a day will come where my wife can just ride her bike without having to becoming an expert in urban cycling techniques.

Edit: Please note, the fact that my wife is a woman (I'm quite pleased she is) has nothing to do with my fear of her cycling. She is a better driver than me, and a MUCH better horse rider than me, so I don't doubt for a second that she could be a safer cyclist than me. Its the fact that she would be new to cycling, and any new cyclist if trying to cycle on busy urban roads (and they can be very busy in Glasgow) has a steep learning curve. There shouldn't need to be a steep learning curve. If my wife was a man (personally I'm quite pleased she isn't) I'd feel exactly the same.  

Phew! Glad that's clear up! :-)


  1. I suppose I have a similar feeling in a way. I once did a short ride out to a local shops with my mum and my eldest. As we headed along some busier roads I took up a "rear guard" position in an effort to control the traffic and so I could watch them both and try and yell advice when I felt the need to :-)

    I also quite like the term "vehicular cyclist" it's one I hadn't heard much before until Gaz mentioned it on his blog and I then realized that is how I also ride. I treat my bicycle and view myself just like a motorbike. I'll happily split lanes in busy traffic and don't often ride in the gutter unless I'm (stupidly) squeezing past traffic on the "wrong" side!

  2. I hope that one day conditions on the ground will make your wife comfortable riding a bike too. Of course we can all train ourselves in SMIDSY avoidance and taking the primary and all of the other fairly unpleasant things we current cyclists must do, but the crux of course is that we shouldn't have to, and it's never comfortable.

    As you rightly point out, the subjective safety is more important than the statistical safety; it's how riding a bike on roads makes you feel that makes people decide whether they want to or not.

    A really good post Tom.

    Lastly, that photo is bloody terrifying!

  3. Are these nation wide statistics or London statistics? In London we walk out in front of traffic, when I visit home my friends / family are shocked at how I respond to traffic.

  4. I am somebody's wife, and my husband worries, and i am somebody's mother, and my kids worry. This doesn't stop me riding; but i don't ride like a girl...or a man for that matter...i ride like a motorist.

    I do cycle on the wrong side of the law, but i NEVER cycle on the inside of a lorry. I ride in the middle of a lane, i avoid the kerb, i take advantage of pedestrian lights and i have been chased by the police for 'edging ahead of the lights' on more than one occasion.

    But i am safer and better now i have speed and confidence at my disposal, and i never ever take the kind of chances taht would prevent me from being someones wife or mother. Who knows, maybe one day it will be out of my control. I hope not, i really hope not. So until then, I am just going to enjoy the ride.

  5. Thanks for the comments guys.

    I will always be a 'vehicular cyclist', but I can see why that only a minority will want to cycle that way. That's why, despite my preferences I will be campaigning for new infrastructure.

    Mark S, yes I too like the VC term. It's a lot better than what I a normally called! :-)

    ibikelondon, Thanks. As you suggest, my wife is more than capable of learning the techniques (she's probably a better driver than me and certainly a better horse rider!!), but she should not have to. That won't change if things stay as they are.

    Rachel, a good introduction paper on this can be found here (

    Janinejoseph, part of the reason I feel safer mixing with traffic is that I am faster now. I can keep up with traffic flows better. We can't expect everyone to do that though. Mind you I do try my best to keep within the law.

  6. Nice blog and you are right you have evolved as a cyclist to counter the presence of motorists. Where as a new rider would probably be somewhat over powered. I do recall driving around Hyde Park Corner one night (possibly the craziest urban roundabout you can find) a couple of years back to be astonished to see a young lady riding it with no lights, regular clothes and seemingly oblivious to the risks. She looked French, so guess that explained why London traffic appeared quite tame to her espcially if she has cycled in Paris.

  7. What did you do when you came across someone with a fear of radiation? Did you explain to them that it's quite safe, or did you campaign for research into effective medical scanners that don't use ionising radiation ?

  8. Zarbio, thanks for the comment. Yes I think the risk in cycling, in general is self limiting. Those who are timid (like I was) tend to stay off busy roads etc. It isn't always an option, and you do get crazy riders who seem to have no concept at all of the risks they put themselves in!

  9. Anonymous, In fact I went and worked in MRI which has no radiation! :-)

    Radiation is a necessary evil in medicine (although low doses may possibly be beneficial!). I am in fact working on a project that may mean some imaging can be done on MRI scanners instead of PET, so yes I am campaigning in a way! :-)