Safety and Numbers: the sad case of Bolton.

There has been a report circulating recently about the relationship between cycling safety and the number of people cycling, which uses available data to show the rather unsurprising negative correlation between the rates of injuries and deaths of people riding cycles and the number of people, as a proportion of the population, who regularly ride cycles.

The correlation is clearly apparent in the this graph showing the level of cycling on the X axis against the risk (cycling casualties per thousand riders) in each of a number of towns and cities across England:

The report was brought to my attention particularly because of the position of my home town of Bolton at the top left of this graph. I have long maintained that Bolton is one of the worst (most unpleasant) places in the country to ride a bicycle and has one of the lowest levels of cycle usage, and this graph supports that view. It also supports very clearly the correlation between real danger and low cycling participation levels

So why is this correlation unsurprising? Well, because if the roads are dangerous, or feel dangerous, then people will be reluctant to cycle on them. Real or apparent danger leads to avoidance, and people do feel that riding cycles on the road is dangerous. This is not only obvious; it is supported by research such as the Bike Life survey carried out by Sustrans.

The report unfortunately draws the fallacious conclusion that this correlation shows that having greater numbers cycling will lead to increased safety for cyclists. That assertion may or may not be true, but it doesn’t follow from the data presented, despite the clear correlation; correlation on its own can never be assumed to imply causation.

The implication of the report, and its conclusion, for Bolton is that all we need to do is get more people cycling and the roads will suddenly become much safer for those riding their bikes. The reasoning for this is that drivers will be more aware of cyclists, so will no longer accidentally run into them, and that drivers will be more likely to be or know a cyclist themselves, so will be likely to have more sympathy for the needs of cyclists on the road. Unfortunately, even if true, this is useless; no amount of cajoling will get more people to ride cycles on the hostile roads of Bolton – common sense and history support that view.

Below is a system diagram showing the most obvious factors at play here. The “safety in numbers” assertion made in the report is shown in the red vertical line on the left, with the main mechanism claimed for it shown in the red curve between “Numbers” and “Driver awareness/education”.

I would assert that the most important factor affecting numbers cycling is perceived safety, and that is supported by many studies, including the Sustrans study I linked above. That perception is determined primarily by the standard of driving, and the degree of separation between people on cycles and motor vehicles. Even if the safety in numbers assertion is correct, there is a feedback loop in this system that ensures that numbers can never be inccreased without other measures from outside the loop: poor driving -> perceived danger -> low numbers -> poor driver awareness -> poor driving.

I am of the opinion, as a result of my own expriences of riding bicycles here and interacting with the Bolton police, that lack of police attention is a significant reason for the extremely poor safety record of Bolton. In the short term, the only way to break that circle is for the police to start paying attention to the problem; something that other police forces are doing successfully. Unfortunately, policing priorities here do not give me any hope that this will happen soon, and it anyway addresses only one of the factors that influence the willingness of people to ride a cycle on the roads.

I would further assert that the only reliable way to break out of that loop is to redesign our infrastructure so that motor vehicles are kept away from people on bikes as much as possible, and that where the two do have to interact, speeds are kept low and the interaction is designed to be as safe as possible. Fortunately there is a way to do this, known in the Netherlands as “Sustainable Safety”, which is explained very well in this video from the USA. Even more fortunately, it is already very clear that the investment required to implement these measures will pay itself back many times over:

and will result in benefits to far more than just cyclists or potential cyclists.

So come on Bolton, do we really wish to be the “sick man” of the whole country as far as cycling is concerned when we could improve our whole environment so effectively?

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4 Responses to Safety and Numbers: the sad case of Bolton.

  1. jon says:

    Bolton is such an interesting case too. For a start, it is in the absolutely perfect position for a base for recreational cyclists. So many wonderful rides in stunning scenery could start in Bolton, it could be the gateway to the East Pennines. Personally I rarely ride through Bolton any more for all the reasons you have described. The road down through Daubhill is particularly terrifying, very little cycling provision and some truly awful driving behaviours.
    Secondly, it is quite hilly and while I’m reluctant to ever cite hills as a reason utility cycling has not taken off, due to Bolton lying at the base of a steep sided valley I think this may have some bearing.
    Bolton has really good public transport too with a strong bus and train service these will be more attractive to those without cars because they work.
    There’s also a high student contingent which you’d think would bring lots of cycling with it, but it doesn’t seem to.

    Ultimately though I think you’re correct, it’s the complete lack of investment in good, well thought out cycling infrastructure that causes the most harm.

  2. I have to wonder though is the “risk vs number of people cycling” equation around Bolton also adversely skewed by the condition of the roads rather than just by the standards of driving. I’ll admit that driving standards – and provisioning for cycling – are woefully inadequate around here and are probably responsible for a lot of the ‘collisions’, but the rutted, potholed, glass and rubbish littered, roads have been more of a hinderance to my cycling than drivers. A cycling casualty doesn’t necessarily involve any other road user as the main cause. I can imagine more than a few cyclists have been victim to bike damage from the roads being a contributory factor to their status as a casualty in a collision.

    I’m not sure where I stand on dedicated, segregated, infrastructure for cycling, where it is adjacent to roads at least. I can see it being an advantage in some ways but in other ways marking out clear cycling provision can lead to more confrontations between cyclists and drivers as the “you should be in the cycle lane” arguments start when someone is cycling on the road instead. Which is weird, since the people who argue that as cyclists we should use the cycle lane because “it’s the law” (huh, who knew) are often the same people that stop at traffic lights fully in the ASL thinking it’s a “quick take off box” or something. Of those two scenarios only one is actually against the law, and I wonder which one? Have to agree that a bit more policing of things like that wouldn’t go amiss.

    Jon, I have to admit I’ve not usually had much of a problem going down Daubhill. Until the bus lane runs out occasionally that is, then it’s a bit manic. And the main drag down past the retail park towards Trinity St is awful, even though it has (what used to be) clearly marked cycle lanes and ASLs (see my comments above).

    I can’t see things changing around here though. We have a cycling forum that meets very rarely (although oddly I think we’ve got our second in three months coming up soon), and a council that is ONLY interested in investment that brings more profits, houses, and vehicles to Bolton.

    • I would agree that there is a serious problem with motorists who believe cyclists should be using the very poor quality and often downright dangerous cycle lanes we have here at the moment. However, my experience is that the very best “cycle facilities” around here are on a par with the very worst cycle facilities in Denmark or The Netherlands (see: and even some other places that are not quite so well known for cycle infrastructure have places that are are far better than here (see: In Amsterdam, I found that the facilities were so good tht I wouldn’t even want to use the road.

  3. Niall Murphy says:

    I admire your positive attitude and thorough research but Bolton, in common with other deprived areas, will never be cycle friendly given the reduction in public spending on roads in general, the lack of interest by the local council and the failure of GMP in such initiative’s as safe passing distances or rigorous policing of mobile phone use by motorists.

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