Does more bike riding deliver a road safety ‘Nirvana’?

11 February 2019

We have seen a ‘safety in numbers’ argument that claims by getting more people cycling, bike rider safety will increase.  This is often accompanied by the following OECD graph or similar:

[OECD report p.114]


The argument is simple, appealing and wrong – it makes two important mistakes.

Firstly, it confuses correlation with causation.  Did the increase in rider numbers really cause the fall in the death rate?  Or was the fall in deaths just associated with increased rider numbers, and was actually caused by something else?

Secondly, the argument ignores the reasons why more people do not ride bikes.

As the original OECD report pointed out [p. 57-8] increased rider safety could be due to a range of explanations, including that cycle-safe traffic systems attract more cyclists.  Rather than ‘safety in numbers’ this is more like ‘numbers through safety’. Improving safety for bike riders causes the increase in numbers – not the other way around.

To understand what’s really happening we need longitudinal studies that measure cycling behaviour before and after safe, separated infrastructure is built. If we don’t ask what causes increased rider numbers, we risk sabotaging the safety and interests of bike riders.

Building safe, separated infrastructure requires sustained investment, effort, and a change in road priorities, that have historically favoured motor vehicles.  Campaigns telling people they should ride more often are far cheaper, but unlikely to persuade the 70% of people who say that safety issues and convenience are their reason for not riding.

The ‘safety in numbers’ argument holds some weight in that drivers who see people riding bikes more often become more accustomed to driving around them.  Unfortunately seeing more people riding bikes is no guarantee drivers will behave more safely, especially if social norms, road infrastructure and speed limits remain unchanged.


Bicycle NSW calls on the NSW Government to:


Painting a line that creates a ‘bike lane’ in the door-zone beside parked cars or bike diagrams on busy roads is inadequate.  This sends the message that the safety concerns of potential riders, the needs of children, parents and elders are being ignored.

“We need bike riding infrastructure that is safe and convenient for everyone to use,” said Bicycle NSW CEO, Alistair Ferguson.

Expecting rider numbers to increase, or road safety to improve with inadequate provision for safe cycling is ‘magical thinking’ that has failed, and is contradicted by data.

The City of Sydney and City of Parramatta have shown that when safe, separated bike infrastructure is built, bike riding rates increase, including more women riding. Bike share companies have demonstrated that more people ride bikes when they are placed in convenient locations.

“Bike riding can help people stay healthy and reduce congestion, but NSW participation is falling because governments are failing to provide for riders,” said Alistair.

Significant, sustained investment in bike infrastructure that is safe for all riders – from young children to elders – has worked overseas to increase safe cycling participation.  ‘Nirvana’ needs infrastructure to be built, because road safety for riders does not happen by magic.