One of the greatest barricades to the success of bicycle education in this country is that the core value proposition marketed for it is ‘safety.’
Nothing is wrong with safety. Effective bicycle drivers exhibit behaviors that add to their safety.
But let’s be honest: The fixation on safety is born of fear. Fear of the road. Fear of cars. Fears that may or may not have anything to do with actual statistics, and fear that can be mitigated though appropriate bicycle driving behaviors.
Safety and fear also end up as poor marketing messages to another whole segment of the biking population: Those who aren’t scared. Unfortunately, for many of these riders, a few tips on effective riding would really be a good thing. However, they see bike education as something for the novices and the hesitant. Safety is boring.
Studies suggest that the confident and/or fearless cyclists make up about 8% of the population. Another 60%, though, rate as “Interested But Concerned.” Finding ways to get these people on bicycles is essential for the growth of active transport in this country, as it provides significant political and social support for the practice.
As well, data from Portland (OR) and New York City suggest that cycling may improve traffic safety overall – not just for cyclists. More cyclists and greater acceptance of their road rights lead to greater caution shown by motorists and others.
There are a lot of challenges in the fear message. As Elly Blue writes in a great piece entitled Don’t fear riding a bicycle, “The real thing that’s killing us is that we continue to create places that impose barriers to actually being able to move your body.”
Roadway design and Complete Streets policies help, both with removal of barriers, and mitigation of fear. Providing a variety of different on- and off-street options for cyclists is typically more effective than trying to convince people that they’re being irrationally fearful, although it can be expensive.
Education, while less expensive, continues to have a lot of marketing barriers and participation issues. Programs like Bikeability in the UK show one model of removing the fear-safety marketing and achieving widespread participation. Various programs in the US take innovative approaches to increasing participation rates. But many programs continue to be marketed with fear as a motivator, and I think that ends up counter-productive to the movement as a whole. While there there is clear basis for the target audience being receptive to a message of fear, fear also prompts people to keep their kids inside, not ride themselves or only ride on recreational trails and not for transport, and other limiting behaviors.
The safety and fear factors should be kept in mind by cycling advocates when working for bikeway development. The interested/fearful population do not think that cycling advocates are ‘like them,’ and really – bike advocates tend to be confident and passionate, and thus somewhat separated from the fear. The confidence can even be off-putting to those who are generally fearful. This is not to say “become less confident,” but consider how to make projects relatable to that group without relying too heavily on perpetuating fear. Together, advocates can come up with positive approaches and achieve greater buy in with less fear.