Rachel Aldred has a unique perch from which to observe the rapidly changing landscape of London as a city for cycling. The sociologist and Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster is a leading expert in the way we get around — and a specialist in cycling safety. She’s also one of more than 150,000 people in the capital who regularly get to work by bike. 

Aldred crunches numbers for breakfast but her six-mile commute, from Hackney to Westminster, reveals much about the patchwork nature of cycling in the city, and the way often fearful riders respond to it. “The first three boroughs I go through aren’t too bad,” she says. “Hackney, Islington and Camden have tried to slow motor traffic down and reduce interactions with cyclists. I feel more relaxed, but then I get into Westminster and it’s all oneway streets with parked cars and a 30mph limit.”

Aldred knows that many of her understandably nervous friends just wouldn’t countenance her commute. And for would-be (or would-rather-not) cyclists, it isn’t enough to spout statistics showing how safe cycling really is. And it is statistically pretty safe. Cycling deaths per year in London hover at around a dozen, or one per month (lesser reported pedestrian deaths happen typically well over once a week), compared to an average of 16 per year from 2005-2009, when there was also a lot less cycling. Serious injuries have also come down to fewer than 700 a year. 

No number is acceptable, but given the huge amount of cycling in the city — a record four million kilometres every day in 2018 – those odds are perhaps better than the average Londoner might guess. “But we need to understand what people mean when they say cycling isn’t safe,” Aldred says. “They mean it’s uncomfortable and frightening. Telling someone the specific objective risk is not necessarily helpful. It needs to feel safe.” Even near misses and minor scrapes, which don’t make the statistics, can induce fear. For campaigners, targeting a sense of danger is as important as bringing the death count down to zero. 

There is an understandable temptation among many new cyclists to arm up like knights preparing to joust, with layers of safety gear and a war mentality. But safety is more complex. London is striving to emulate the cycling infrastructure and culture of Dutch and Danish cities, where cycling rates are higher and death rates are lower while people ride in every day clothes, typically without helmets. 

The difference in Amsterdam or Copenhagen is that roads are designed with separate space for cycling. When cyclists and motor vehicles are  expected to share Tarmac, the likelihood, speed and force of collisions are higher. A helmet is not going to save anyone from the wheels of a 30mph cement truck. There is also evidence in places with compulsory helmet laws that they put up a practical barrier, while adding to a sense of danger, reducing cycling and the health benefits that come with it.

The segregated cycle lanes now – belatedly — spreading across London are design to prevent the most dangerous collisions from happening in the first place. The effects are already noticeable. “They are enabling more people to feel safe and enjoy cycling,” says Will Norman, London’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner. “This has traditionally been a hostile place for cycling and hostility breeds hostility. As you make a place safer and more relaxed, people are more relaxed. 

“I have noticed that the spread of intelligently designed cycleways, with dedicated traffic lights and segregation, encourages more sensible behaviour among all road users. We wait patiently in long queues at cycle traffic lights. Gone, in these places at least, is the dread that comes with advancing from the scrum of lorries when the lights go green. On a lot of the quiet ways I use, I’m also noticing more women and fewer people dressed for the Tour de France,” Norman adds.

They call this the “normalisation” of cycling. By encouraging more — and more diverse — people to ride in whatever gear or clothing they want, safety in numbers means drivers become ever more used to cyclists. Segregated lanes reduce hostility as well as that feeling of danger. New cyclists tell their friends, potentially inspiring people to switch. “It creates a virtuous cycle,” Norman says. 

Meanwhile, campaigners push for more direct measures, including laws to improve the vision of lorry and bus drivers, the further spread of 20mph limits, and quicker progress among laggard boroughs (TfL only controls 5% of the city’s roads). 

Tom Bogdanowicz, senior policy and development officer at the London Cycling Campaign, also encourages more people to embrace Bikeability We need to understand what people mean when they say cycling isn’t safe… It needs to feel safe. training schemes. “Even after decades of cycling I learned new things,” he says. 

Everyone accepts there is still a long way to go until London becomes truly bike-friendly city, but Aldred has been encouraged to witness progress from her desk and her saddle. “What we are aiming for is a cycling environment where people don’t feel that they have to tool up,” she says. “Just like walking around you shouldn’t feel like you have to don hi-viz clothing — it shouldn’t be like that for cycling.”