Dr Rachel Aldred, cycling safety researcher
Cycle safety is a hot topic, with a lot of opinion flying around on all sides. But for positive change to happen you need action, and for the right action you need research into what is actually going on on our roads. You might be surprised to learn there isn’t as much evidence of that as you’d hope, but one researcher, Dr Rachel Aldred, is changing all that.
Dr Aldred is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning and Management at the University of Westminster. She’s has led a number of ground-breaking studies into the experience of cycling in the UK, with the most recent being the Near Miss Project which aimed to quantify the number and type of ‘near miss’ experiences cyclists have in a typical day of riding.
“We have this really weird approach to injuries on the road in the UK, particularly compared to other industries like the air industry or the rail industry. We don’t do anything until deaths and injuries happen – campaigners tell us that they can’t get something changed because ‘no-one’s died’. It’s shocking! If two aircraft had a near miss, that would be a big issue and a lot of work would go into finding out why it happened, and stopping it happening again."
This was the concept behind the Near Miss Project. Thousands of cyclists across the country kept a one-day diary over the same week in November, charting the riding they did, the routes they took, and the number of near miss incidents they experienced along the way.
“We had nearly 1700 people who kept diaries. Around 4,000 [near miss] incidents were reported, so you’re talking about each person reporting on average nearly three incidents over their day of cycling which sounds like a lot."
Dr Rachel Aldred
“We also asked people to categorise how annoying or scary these incidents were, and about 1 in 7 were really scary, like big HGVs close overtaking or cars pulling out of side roads. A lot of the incidents were close passes, about a third of them. “
And a significant portion of this close overtaking was happening on link sections, rather than at junctions which are traditionally viewed as the main danger point for cyclists. The full results will be published shortly, and Dr Aldred already has plans to work with local interested local authorities on addressing near miss hotspots that appeared in the data.
The project is about more than just avoiding injury, however.
“It’s also about improving the cycling experience. Those of us who cycle regularly know that the chances of being injured are really very low indeed. There are also on-going debates about how people feel about cycling – do they feel it’s too dangerous. “
“That for me is important if we want to get more people cycling. We can’t just say you’ll be safe, we need to be able to say you’ll feel safe too. “
Although an keen cyclist herself, Dr Aldred didn’t set out to work in transport planning and infrastructure at all. ‘I did a PhD about the Sociology of Healthcare, and I was doing a lot of walking around areas of East London that have a big problem with ‘severance’.
It’s got rail lines and roads and the river and canals. The people who lived there couldn’t get to the shops because there was transport infrastructure in the way. So I got interested in that."
Her first funded project was ‘Cycling Cultures’, a fascinating study that threw up issues with infrastructure, but also another element that regular cyclists will be familiar with.
“There was a lot of hostility towards cyclists. They were seen as incompetent road users, and then also because they are told to wear helmets and high viz, they were then seen as too competent – the stereotypical lycra lout. It’s almost like people couldn’t win."
Dr Rachel Aldred
Her research threw up Hull as having a particularly toxic view of cyclists, where cycling was and is seen as the only transport choice for people who have no alternative. “For people in Hull, [cycling] was an identity threat as well. If you were a cyclist, you didn’t have any money and that’s quite threatening for a lot of people."
As the Senior Lecturer on the Masters degree course in Transport Planning and Management, Dr Aldred is seeing an increasing number of professional planners coming through the door from organisations like Transport for London and the Mayor of London office. They are increasingly aware of the need to plan for cycling and walking, rather than just driving.
“We are trying to do something really different. What London is doing is unprecedented. You are saying ‘we really want to have more cycling and walking. How are we going to achieve that’.
Having that academic perspective; what do we need to focus on, what do we need to learn, what are the gaps, is really important. A lot of this stuff hasn’t been done before, and people expect evidence to be there that isn’t. We’ve often built such terrible infrastructure, we haven’t been able to study the effect of good infrastructure."
An attitudinal shift is also required, according to Dr Aldred. The stereotypical image of cyclists needs to change, and not just from road users. Politicians, planners, and local authorities should rethink what they imagine a cyclist to be, and the cover of the book Cycle Infrastructure Design, still the main handbook for transport planners, is a case in point.
“The cover has a guy in his forties, wearing a helmet, looking sporty, leaning forward and being overtaking by a HGV very closely. That that is our image of what cycling should be like is just crazy! If you show that to people from other countries, they’ll look at you like ‘what on earth?!’"
“It’s a problem because it effects what we plan for – we plan for that guy, in his lycra, when actually there are all these other people who are cycling or want to."
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