Road casualty statistics show that investment in cycle infrastructure must not be confined to urban areas. A Department for Transport report shows a sharp rise in the rate of cyclist fatalities on rural A-roads, while the death rate on urban roads continues to fall.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic more people have been using their bikes as an alternative to the car or public transport – since 2019, the distance cycled across the UK rose 46% year on year to 5.03 billion miles. However, along with the rise in distance cycled the total number of cyclists killed on British roads in 2020 was 141, up 41% from 100 in 2019.
Cycling infrastructure tends to be focused on urban areas where there are greater numbers of people to move around and space is under more pressure. However, while the rate of cyclist fatalities on urban A-roads fell 10% from 48 to 43 per billion miles cycled, on rural A-roads the figure was 210 per billion miles cycled, an increase of 43% on 2019. Overall, 89 of the 141 cyclists killed last year died on rural roads, or 63%. This compares to 60% in 2019, and 54% on average between 2015 and 2019.
Safe cycle routes are needed in rural areas
Keir Gallagher, campaigns manager for national charity Cycling UK, said: “This raises serious questions about the provision of safe routes for cycling in rural areas, especially direct routes into towns, which people are likely to rely on for commuting and other essential journeys. It also raises questions about whether a default speed limit of 60mph on winding and often relatively narrow rural roads is appropriate. It’s clear from these figures that we urgently need more investment in safe space for cycling across the country, and rural communities must not be left behind.”
City roads may, at first glance, appear more hazardous to cyclists, there is more traffic and less space, but on rural roads speeds are frequently higher, despite the often-narrow lanes and poor visibility. With fewer cyclists and walkers around, drivers may be less aware of vulnerable road users. Rural A-roads may have less traffic so feel quieter to the bike rider, which can give the impression of greater safety.
The total of 141 cyclists killed – a revision of the previously reported figure of 140 – represents a 41% increase on the previous year, albeit against a background of a sharp increase in cycling during the Covid-19 lockdown. Gallagher commented: “Statisticians might expect this increase of cyclist casualties at the same time as more people took to their bikes during lockdown, but 141 deaths is still 141 tragedies that could have been avoided.”
Better planning for rural areas
Considering safe routes and infrastructure between town and country is an essential part of a joined-up approach to active travel. Many small towns become islands marooned in a sea of busy A-roads when the options for cycling or walking safely to the next town or village are neglected. This encourages people to drive, even if the distance is one they could comfortably cycle.
Rural A-roads form the route out of towns for those seeking quiet spaces for outdoor exercise. Often you must tackle a fast or busy main road for several miles out of a town before you can get to areas more suitable for leisure cycling. A safe cycle route from town to countryside would allow more people to enjoy the outdoors away from busy towns.
Gallagher concludes: “The DfT statistics also show that motor traffic was 21% lower in 2020 than in 2019. With traffic now returning to pre-pandemic levels, the need for safe cycling space is even more urgent.”