Wednesday, 7 March 2012

It may be fun - but is cycling part of the Good Life?

At the end of most weekdays during my first year of higher education, I would cycle to the central quadrangle of St Andrews University’s ancient buildings, head into a down-at-heel lecture theatre and ponder some of the biggest questions facing humankind. The most eagerly-anticipated Moral Philosophy lectures were by Gordon Graham, the department’s most charismatic lecturer. We teenage students would enter the room to find Dr Graham grasping the podium and peering keenly up at the rows of wooden seats. He brought to mind nothing so much as a hawk eager for some intellectually lazy morsel of first-year thinking to devour.

Praise from Dr Graham for one’s contribution from the floor would leave one feeling a little elevated for days – one enconium boosts my fragile ego 24 years later. Dr Graham’s scorn would leave a discernible chill.

The question is which side Dr Graham, who gave a particularly memorable lecture series on how to live “the Good Life”, would have come down on whether to get around a city by bicycle. The Good Life, Dr Graham eventually concluded, was “the rational life”, where one sought to do good to others, make the most of one’s abilities but also to be effective and rational. One should  reject mere gestures in favour of doing things that genuinely improved the human condition.

A cyclist in London rain: cycling feels part of the Good Life
some days more than others
I’ve dwelt in past posts on the irrationality of other road users’ behaviour towards me, as well as cycling’s capacity to spring sudden, joyful surprises. But are my own actions any more part of a rational life than those of the road-users I criticise? To put it less gracefully, would Dr Graham side with the tooth-suckers – the people who see my high-visibility vest and helmet, suck in their breath through clenched teeth and say, “I think you have to be mad to cycle in London”?

I should say at the outset that I’m not managing to live the rational life. A wholly rational person would drink less than I do, knowing that he was outweighing any health benefits by the damage incurred. A wholly rational person would eat less, weigh probably 20kg less, get more sleep and get less stressed about working in a job that, while it feels like one is writing the first draft of history, is ultimately fairly trivial. That’s even before tackling the subject of my wider belief systems, which I would stoutly defend but many people would criticise.

Nevertheless, it strikes me as more worthwhile to make a stab at living the rational life than merely to do what whim and hunch suggest. It’s consquently worth examining whether an activity that takes up at least an hour most days – more on many – and occupies an irrationally large amount of my waking thinking fits with such an aspiration.

It’s with the tooth-suckers that I most often discuss cycling’s rationality. The conversation generally starts with their saying, “I think you’re very brave” or “I love cycling but I wouldn’t like to try it in London” or just, “Isn’t it very dangerous?” The most depressing instance was the first time I met Geoff Hoon, then UK transport secretary, in his office. “So can you cycle around London?” he asked. I recognised how well pro-cycling initiatives would do under his leadership.

A big truck: the tooth-suckers think
one of these will get me some time
The tooth-suckers are ultimately claiming that any benefits I might gain from cycling are outweighed by a substantial risk that, sooner or later, I’ll find myself beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry. The hopeless dream that my steel-framed bike and vulnerable body could co-exist with trucks taking baked goods to Sainsbury’s will have literally been crushed.

My standard answer is to quote research conducted some years ago by the Cyclists’ Touring Club which showed the average British cyclist who cycled into middle age enjoyed life expectancy enhanced by two years, while risking on average losing only two months through cycling accidents. It’s a 12 to one benefit to cost ratio, I tell people. I even occasionally mention the subtle message of the obituaries page in the Cyclist Touring Clubs’ Cyclist magazine. Stories abound of wiry old devotees of the Sunday club run succumbing eventually only in their 80s or 90s.

Although I might have to hide a receipt for the latest £100 spent on my transmission while doing so, I could also point the tooth-suckers towards the financial advantages of cycling. Even with the amount of damage I seem to do to bike parts, I’m sure I’m spending less than if I commuted by public transport. I impose virtually no costs on others through wear and tear on the public roads.

There are also, of course, the environmental benefits, which many non-cyclists assume are a major factor in many people’s cycling. It is indubitably one of the few forms of transport – amid a motley selection including skateboarding and cross-country skiing – to involve carbon emissions only in the making of the equipment. It’s just unfortunate that one sounds so insufferably pompous talking about it.

The only time I’ve been tempted to raise my superior carbon status was when a woman honked loudly at me after I blew my congested nose’s contents onto a road at traffic lights. It was, I’m sure, not a pretty sight. But there was an irony in being reprimanded over my biodegradable mucus as she merrily pumped out long-lasting greenhouse gases.

While some motorists seem to regard me as a vast, insuperable obstacle in their way, it also seems rational to me to use a vehicle that takes up relatively little of the precious urban space devoted to roads. I'm sometimes tempted to ask motorists frustrated with being stuck behind me whether they'd prefer I was sitting in front of them in a car.

There is, meanwhile, scope for me to manage the safety risks. Although Transport for London research attributes blame for roughly two-thirds of accidents involving cyclists to the motor vehicles involved, there’s still substantial scope for me to cut down my chances of ending up in the road. Failing to look properly, failing to judge another person’s path or speed and being careless or in a hurry were the top three reasons for accidents attributed to cyclists. A careful cyclist can work at avoiding all of those.

Pedestrians: shouldn't they be
wearing helmets?
Yet there remains the objection I heard from one senior figure in my office. He had, he’d told me, been asked, on appointment to his present job, to stop cycling to work. He’d become too important to lose. To my point about cycling’s health benefits, he retorted that he went regularly to the gym. It is clearly true that the CTC’s averages for life expectancies mask very different distributions of the benefits and risks of cycling. Nearly every cyclist gets the extra two years – while the average lifespan lost through accidents represents an unfortunate few, each of whom may lose decades each.

Nevertheless, a check through Great Britain’s accident statistics for 2010 backs up a point I’d already deduced looking around my office. The intersection between colleagues who motorbiked and those to be seen outside with the smokers was striking. These are the real risk-takers - there were, I discovered, 36 cyclist deaths per billion vehicle miles in 2010, against a hair-raising 138 for motorcyclists. Even for pedestrians, the fatality rate per billion miles walked was 37. The only really safe group, I realised, was car occupants, wrapped in their steel shell and suffering only three fatalities for every billion vehicle miles. Each of the 111 cyclist deaths represents a real, avoidable tragedy. There should be far fewer. But I, for one, am prepared to accept the risks of an activity that, despite the appearances, is safer than walking.

Of course, it’s reasonable to ask whether any evidence I could have uncovered would have driven me off my bike. I would certainly be profoundly reluctant to give up the satisfaction of making my way around under my own power, feeling the wind on my face and hands and catching a sense of the city living around me.

But the powerful evidence in favour of cycling does, for me, improve the experience. It feels like the right choice, a rational choice. Then, occasionally, when the wind is in the right direction, the drivers polite and the roads clear, I even sense that I am, indeed, living the Good Life.

Are you making a rational decision to cycle? Are you making an irrational decision not to cycle? Are you making an irrational decision to cycle? You can work out roughly how these questions are working, so please just use the comments box to let us all know your answer.


  1. Your analysis is faulty. That 36 per million for cyclists includes the majority of people on bikes that die while doing really elementary idiotic things like riding the wrong way and shooting through traffic controls at the maximum speed of which they are capable. Such scofflaws represent, IMO, a far lower proportion of motorcycle and auto deaths. Of course, if your analysis is faulty, assuming you don't personally engage in the idiot acts, only makes your point more strongly. Indeed, in my LCI course, it was noted that the safest cyclists are those that ride every day. Whether with a vest like you use or in basic black which seems to be my own tendency.

    1. Steve A,

      Thanks for your comment but I'm not at all sure about your point here. As you'll have seen in the blog, I mention the TfL research that looked at the causes of bicycle accidents. If you look at the figures, you'll see that they attribute around two-thirds of cycle accidents to the motor vehicle involved. It should also be borne in mind that the analysis is based on the police's decision about who was to blame and, certainly in London, they couldn't be accused of pro-cyclist bias. Indeed, a number of accidents are attributed to the cyclist's breaking the speed limit, which, given that most of London has a 30mph speed limit, seems unlikely. Cycle accidents are mostly not, according to this comprehensive research, cyclists' fault. The one time I've been hit by a car in London - when the motorist came from behind, paying no attention, and cut across my path - seems to be fairly typical.

      But, as I outlined in a previous post ( I think it's important to follow the rules and be sensible. I don't run red lights or any of the other stuff, just as motorists shouldn't break the speed limit, drive while using 'phones or any of the multiple other ways motorists break the rules. And it absolutely is part of my argument that my decision to cycle is rationally partly because I'm minimising the risks to myself by how I use the road.

      All the best,


    2. Let us, for the moment, leave you and me out of this. We follow the rules. Let us instead read the crash reports. Honestly, I have to say that many crashes that might be attributed to a motorist were at least partly caused by the guy on a bike doing something really dumb (not just marginal) like shooting across a street in a crosswalk where the motorist had no reasonable chance to avoid the cyclist. If you rule THOSE out of the statistics, it really DOES suggest your risk is much less than the raw numbers and that your decision is more rational than you claim. Which is one reason I enjoy this blog.

      I am fortunate enough never to have suffered a collision with a car when on a bike. That means I don't have a meaningful personal basis for conclusions. However,
      I am not convinced that motorists are at fault more than cyclists. I have seen other reports claiming the opposite. Either way, questions of bias cloud the issue. All I can say for sure is that behaving more predictably improves results and that leads to better chances than the raw numbers. Certainly, my personal experience does not support the hypothesis that I am at MORE risk with motorists by behaving predictably in accord with traffic rules. In truth, I think we are in violent - AGREEMENT.

    3. Steve A,

      It obviously reduces the risk if one behaves sensibly. But the Transport for London research is very detailed and gives considerable detail about the scenarios that led to accidents. They're a result of things like motorists running red lights, turning across cyclists' path, opening car doors into cyclists' path and so on. This careful analysis - and others I've seen - makes it clear that the major cause of accidents to cyclists is motorists' failure to look properly. I know cyclists' misbehaviour stands out - but I trust this careful analysis.


    4. The analysis may be careful, but the authors are also careful to note that all this is based on police reports that may be subjective with no proper investigation? That probably explains cyclists speeding nearly as much as motorists while they NEVER are dazzled by the sun. In point of fact, most of the collisions in which the motorist is assigned fault can be easily avoided by a cyclist following the principles laid down by Franklin. And THAT cyclist is at less risk per mile than any other road user. Not that stuff doesn't happen, but happens far less often than to the average person, or even to the average motorist.

  2. Invisible Man, a thought-provoking post, giving much to consider as I try to be rational, too. One additional factor for moral consideration I suggest is that cycling reduces your odds of accidentally killing or seriously injuring another person to nearly nothing, compared to driving a car. The more cyclists on the roads, the better for everyone in this sense, too.

    1. It's an excellent point, JRA - and one I omitted only for fear of getting into a discussion of the "cyclists-run-red-lights-endangering-pedestrians" type. But it adds significantly to the moral appealing of riding a bike.

  3. Laying in bed propped up by 7 pillows reading a bike blog written by an overwrought intellectual seeking a rational path through every hook and crook of an irrational world,(should I be wearing a helmet in bed?),I curse your Prof for hampering you with a moral imperative that paralyzes rather than frees your relationship to pain and the great inevitability. Grow some stones, maybe read some Hemingway, get on your bike and damn the bulls!

    1. Hemingway? Never been my cup of tea, I'm afraid. But maybe some Joseph Conrad might serve roughly the same purpose...

    2. Yeah, Joseph Conrad would do, and not so many run on sentences as with Hemingway. However; my running with the bulls/lorry metaphor would not have worked so brilliantly with Conrad.
      The emotional trepidations of an insurance actuary are not for you, I see a sleeping prophet!

  4. Since giving up my car I haven't actually managed to save any extra money due to x+1.

    I agree though, never harp on about carbon, even if that ever figured in my reasons for cycling, which it doesn't really, just don't mention it, the whole do-gooder envirohippy thing is hugely off putting to many people, and deeply uncool.

    Really I cycle because I enjoy it; it's almost as fast as driving; you can fit exercise into your daily routine, rather than having to spend extra time going for a run or to the gym; I feel like I am interacting more in the community as I am not insulated away in a metal box; you can look people in the eye properly, give them a smile, a wave or a wink; also as John Romeo says, it significantly reduces your liability, the chances of you ever accidentally killing someone or ending up in court for any offence is almost zero, a benefit almost nobody considers because they never think they will be the one to kill someone as they are an above average driver
    I feel my own blogpost coming on...

  5. What a thought provoking post. Thank you.

    I've been struggling with my own views about risk and cycling recently. I wonder if you might help me wrestle with a problem?

    I wrote a recent post about why I personally don't like hi-vis clothing:

    I felt that this post clearly said that my problem is about the way my perception of risk is affected by the decisions I make before I ride. This in turn affects my actions which puts me more at risk. However, most people who have discussed it with me have understood that I want to take unnecessary risks. I really don't.

    As it happens, my partner read the post and then demonstrated to me just how invisible I was with the help of dusk and a camera phone, so I'm now wearing brighter clothes again. The question still remains though, is it irresponsible to not wear hi-vis clothing?

    1. Stephen,

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      High-visibility clothing doesn't look very nice. Maybe it doesn't feel very nice to wear. But I'm often struck by how, even when I'm wearing high-visibility clothing, motorists don't seem to notice me. Even I find it hard to spot some other cyclists who aren't wearing high-visibility clothing. Given that it's a relatively cost-free means of improving your chances in the traffic, I'd vote for saying you should wear it. The key, I'd say, is not to worry about it so much.

      But perhaps others will disagree,


  6. Hi-vis clothing, like speed and road position, tiredness, even lights, are just factors in your safety. Like any competent road user, a good cyclist takes account of all factors to ensure a reasonable level of safety: when it's wet, you slow down; wearing dark clothing, you avoid the faster road. Any of these alone is not critical, and all can be allowed for.


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