How to lie with statistics.

A couple of days ago, the local newspaper “Wigan Today” published an article crowing about Wigan’s position of 3rd best place in the UK for cycling in a league table published by a claims management company “The Compensation Experts”. I will not link to the company here because that is clearly what they want.

Now, it certainly seems true that Wigan Council is one of the better performers in implementing Greater Manchester’s Made to Move strategy, but by no stretch of the imagination is it the third best place in the UK for cycling.

The story gets even more ridiculous when we see it revealed that Bolton is in 5th place! The fact is that Bolton is a dreadful place to ride a cycle and probably one of the worst places in the country. In census after census it has been shown to be well below both the national average and the regional average for cycling to work – the only measure of cycling that is included in the census.

Of course, it is that last fact that gives a clue to why this company has come up with such perverse results. They are rather vague about how they determined the scores that were used, though they do provide some links to Government datasets, but it is possible to get an idea from this table included on their page.

Without a clearer account of their methodology, we can only guess at what they really did, but an intelligent guess would suggest that they compared “Cycling Accidents” and “Numbers of bike thefts” to the overall population. In the most extreme case, this approach would give the result that a town that is so hostile to cycling that absolutely nobody owns or rides a cycle would come top in these two measures, because there would be zero “Cycling Accidents” and zero “Bike Thefts”.

The mysterious figure of “Cycling enthusiasm score” appears to be linked in some way to the Department for Transport’s various Cycling and Walking datasets, but they don’t say how. It would be reasonable to assume, though, that it relates somehow to the numbers of people cycling, which would explain why Cambridge, at the number one position, has “Cycling Accidents” at 476 compared to Bolton’s 115, and “Number of Bike Thefts” at 2,257 compared to Bolton’s 203.

It would also appear that the reason why Oxford and Cambridge escape these statistical distortions to some extent, despite such high “Cycling Accidents”, “Traffic Score” and “Numbers of bike thefts”, is simply because of their extremely high “Cycling enthusiasm score”, with Cambridge at 20 times the level of Bolton in this strange measure.

From the Wigan Today article, it would seem that at least some people in Wigan Council are extremely pleased with this, which is fine if it encourages them, however flawed the “analysis” is. The problem will arise when Bolton’s Council leaders latch onto this and start drawing stupid conclusions from it. It is very reminiscent of the ridiculous assertions made by MP Norman Baker almost a decade ago regarding cycling safety in the UK compared to The Netherlands.

Of course, this kind of stupid stuff is to be expected from a company that just wishes to promote its brand to people who probably not even bother to question the statements. However, a newspaper reporter should be expected to dig a little deeper and make sure they are getting their facts right rather than just quoting fake news. Shame on you, Andrew Nowell and Wigan Today.

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