Three views on safety and cycling – And why we need a new, comprehensive view

More and more children get a small helmet. A remarkable social trend that has been visible in many foreign cities such as here in Cambridge (England). The helmet is an expression of a predominantly technical and individually oriented focus on safe cycling. Apparently it can always be safer. Photo: Rob van der Bijl, Cambridge, UK, May 1, 2017

Blog by Rob van der Bijl (RVDB Urban Planning, GoDutchCycling, for Fietscommunity.

The Bicycle Community is working hard to map bicycle research in the Netherlands and to fill the matrix that has been designed for this purpose. Many projects have already been collected. In addition, three working groups have been set up to map out research projects on the themes of bikenomics, environment and social inclusion respectively. But we are not there yet, because there are also some ‘big issues’ that deserve special attention. One such topic is safety. At the meeting last year of the Bicycle Community in Utrecht, Netherlands (Wednesday May 10, 2017), a lively discussion took place on this, among other things on the basis of the presentation by Peter van der Knaap, director of ‘SWOV’ (our national scientific institute for road safety research). By the way, safety is certainly not the only major issue; our shortlist also includes health, governance, culture and logistics (ideas for other topics are more than welcome, by the way).

Safety is a difficult subject. It is complex and closely linked to a variety of opinions and emotions. It is therefore important to carefully and accurately review this subject and to systematically map the associated ideas and concepts. Safety is expected to affect many fields of research. In anticipation of future exploration of safety by the Dutch Fietscommunity, I would like to share with all of you three views that make me think of the stories of Bob the Builder, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Very Hungry Caterpillar respectively.


For years I have been working on the subject of safety focused on the theme ‘social safety and built environment’. That was in times when crime figures were still rising, domestic burglaries were increasing and being in public space was at least unpleasantly. It struck me that safety was often seen as an intrinsic property of the built environment, as if it were a kind of filler that sticks to buildings and urban spaces. The idea was, if Bob the Builder constructs thoroughly, safety will be good. But it does not work that directly and straightforwardly. A safe situation is not simply the result of built or infrastructural characteristics, but it is the result of the way in which these buildings and infrastructures are used. Aiming on various way of use Bob the Builder can do useful work in order to optimize a house, a street, or a bicycle way. But even then the safety result is only achieved during the actual use of that house, street or a bicycle way. From this point of view, it is striking how infrastructural and technical issues dominate thinking about safety and cycling, while actual cycling behaviour remains underexposed.


A second view of safety addresses the individual interest. If my home is vulnerable for burglary, I try to protect it with my available resources. My individual safety, not to say security, comes first. The idea here is that safety can be guaranteed on an individual level, for instance by wearing a cycle helmet. It reminds me of the spoiled children who are staged in Roald Dahl’s famous book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. During the factory tour of Willy Wonka, these children considered themselves as the centre of Wonka’s chocolate universe (with fatal consequences for them). If we cherish our children as princes and princesses, it will be all right. But for the second time, it does not work that easy. Safe situations are not simply the sum of individual safeties. Safety is not only an individual, but also and especially a collective matter. For example, an exaggerated focus on an individually safe living environment leads to ‘gated communities’, gloomy ‘techno security’ in urban environments, or technocratic ‘bicycle highways’, while, consequently, overall collective security deteriorates. On the other hand, safety necessarily is a social issue and only arises when, at the same time, sufficient justice is done to collective and individual interests and considerations. It is therefore questionable that thinking about safety and cycling often starts from the individual road user, such as the cyclist equipped with a helmet, without taking into account safety consequences of that individual behaviour  for society as a whole.


A third view on safety is about a continuous improvement of safety. The living environment, public space and the city can never be safe enough. Safety is so important that it is always justified to increase its level. Here comes the image of The Very Hungry Caterpillar who is always starving. No matter how much he eats, it is never enough. But that is not how we should deal with safety. Every social measure must remain in proportion. This also applies to safety measures for cycling. Beyond a certain level, striving for even more safety leads to disproportionate social costs, not only financially, but also functionally. The pursuit of safety then leads to the deterioration and exclusion of social activities. In the long run, this endeavour will prove to be counterproductive, because exaggerated attention to safety will stimulate feelings of anxiety rather than temper. That is why experts and thinkers about safety and cycling should at least remain modest. There are many other important topics to focus on.

Comprehensive view

For a comprehensive and sensible approach of cycling in our (future) cities, I will advocate examining and scrutinizing the three perspectives in any case. Moreover, I expect that it won’t help to focus exclusively on ‘bicycle safety’, but to consider bicycle safety as inseparable part of road safety and even more importantly, as a quality of safe staying, being and walking. This is my comprehensive view.