UK’s Bike Safety Effort: A Model to Emulate?

Bikeability UK logoRecently we posted about Confident City Cycling, a bike skills & safety class conducted by Sustainable Streets. The class fell short of the skills necessary for LA-area streets, we thought, but compared to no bike education it was a useful introduction. Where is our national bike ed program like they have in the UK with Bikeability?

Classes like Confident City Cycling suggest the promise that local bike safety education may hold to get people on their bike and riding safely. It’s received the  stamp of approval by the League of American Bicyclists and satisfies one requirement for League recognition in its ‘League Certified Instructor’ program. The need for bike education is clear considering that:

  • We’re entering the fourth decade of our ‘bicycle renaissance’ yet the share of all trips taken by bike remains about one percent with only half that share for commutes nationally;
  • The number of estimated bike-related injuries has held relatively constant over the past decade at about 50,000 – many preventable;
  • The overall number of bike-related fatalities has also not appreciably declined, holding relatively steady at 700 deaths per year;
  • We have a significant childhood obesity problem yet kids in the US today fall far short of recommended physical activity show less interest in riding than their peers elsewhere do, or than today’s adults used to when they were young; and,

Bike and pedestrian federal funding chart 1992-2009As a nation we’ve not mobilized a coordinated and cohesive campaign (much less a nationwide education program) to address these problems. Indeed federal funding for all pedestrian- and bicycle-related transportation never even cracked 1% of total federal transportation dollars prior to 2009. (Facts concerning mode share and funding can be found in the National Bicycling and Walking Study of while guidelines for activity are presented in detail in the Physical Activity Guidelines For Adults from HHS.)

Moreover, there’s a perception problem. We’re predisposed to viewing urban streets as too dangerous to ride. So our overwhelming share of our short-hop trips is made by car, even though cycling often presents a convenient option; and parents refrain from encouraging their kids to bike to school like they did in an earlier era.

Why No National US Bike Education Program?

But the success of the UK program begs the question: Why don’t we offer safety education and bike-handling classes through the departments of Health and Human Services and/or Transportation? After all, childhood health and road safety are squarely on the President’s agenda, and so is emissions reduction. Why not make bike ed a national program, perhaps administered through the League?

Into the breech has stepped cities like West Hollywood, Culver City, and Santa Monica have each established city-sponsored bike classes for kids and adults. (Not Beverly Hills, which hasn’t even posted a single bike safety tip on the website.) But that’s no substitute. Well-established programs as in the Netherlands and upstart programs like the UK’s program show us it can be done. Yet federal efforts to promote cycling and transportation alternatives remain administered at the local level – and without significant national coordination.

The federal transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU in 2005 funded a four-community pilot program “to demonstrate the extent to which bicycling and walking can carry a significant part of the transportation load.” The legislation provided $600+ million over five years to State transportation departments for ‘Safe Routes to School’ in order to encourage and enable kids to safely walk and bike to school.

And pro-bike programs rely heavily on private sector nonprofits. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, for example, launched a ‘Cities for Cycling’ project to spread the word about bicycle facilities like bicycle boxes, bicycle signals, and colored bike lanes – innovations long familiar to European countries with high rates of cycling. But still no national education program despite the existence of good models.

More About Bikeability in the UK

Bikeability UK 3-levelA good model for US adoption exists in the UK. The Bikeability program (“Cycling Proficiency for the 21st Century”) brings bring safety education and bike-handing skills to a nation of primary school children. The program’s 3-level training regime ranges from elementary skills in primary school to dealing with road hazards and “on-the-move risk assessments” in secondary school, as we must  every day in challenging traffic situations. In sequence, the three levels of classes:

  1. Cover basic skills like starting and stopping, signaling, and changing gears (an effort-maximizing concept that eludes adult cyclists sometimes) conducted away from traffic;
  2. Offer “a real cycling experience” (like cycling to school) where practical skills are put to use in everyday bike handling and traffic negotiation;
  3. Tackle a variety of traffic conditions in smaller groups (up to three) where participants learn to navigate multiple-lane streets and busy intersections using a thorough understanding of road rules.

The aforementioned introductory Confident City Cycling class here attempts to roll a bit of each of these areas into a single class but can’t possibly do enough in each. And while the class has practical benefits, it seems possible to inspire unwarranted confidence, which is a problem in situations that call for detailed knowledge and complex bike-handing skills.

Bikeability UK, by contrast, reaches into schools as a national initiative – a reach not afforded League-coordinated programs here in the US. Next year, Bikeability expects to reach a half-million kids – a magnitude we can only match here in the States in our drivers’ ed programs. But our schools don’t offer comprehensive mobility education much less focus on cycling.

Bikeability UK GamesBikeability also provides materials that make cycling accessible and fun. “Bring Bikeability into your classroom with our range of games, interactive discussions, creative ideas and lesson plans – all designed to get the whole class inspired to get on their bikes,” it says. Those materials include a step-by-step guide complete with wall chart, lesson plans, and teaching guide.

Road skills is only one part of the program. There are the games like ‘Build a Bike,’ which gives youngsters a hands-on feel by matching bike parts to their names as they put their ‘bike’ together. “You have received your new bike, and it needs assembling!” the game says. “Do you know your bike parts?”  Likewise, the ‘Know Your Area’ game encourages kids to plan a cycle route to school and keep a diary of their travel.

Even the website makes cycling look fun. Making cycling fun and an integral element of the school (and travel-to-school) experience is an approach that we don’t take in US schools. To our detriment!

How is Bikeability Administered?

The Bikeability program is co-coordinated and funded by the Youth Sport Trust and the UK Department for Transport in conjunction with British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling in the UK (hey – we need one!), the Department for Education and road safety organizations. And it’s not an ‘unfunded mandate’ as we like to complain here in the States. If schools choose to extend training beyond the required level I, they can apply for $60 per student. And it’s not throwaway money; schools must meet targets to keep it flowing.

Bikeability UK promo imageHave a look at videos that promote the program to parents and teachers. And think about why we don’t have a national governing body for cycling or a nationally-coordinated program run out of the US departments of Education and Transportation in conjunction with the League of American Bicyclists.

Wouldn’t a nationwide program encourage our kids to take to the bike while providing them with traffic safety and road skills that currently elude even most adult cyclists? You bet it would. Have a look at the Netherlands example. Unbelievable.

Self-Reliance Grows in the Utrecht Traffic Garden from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

2 thoughts on “UK’s Bike Safety Effort: A Model to Emulate?

  • January 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Bikeability is a good training programme. However, don’t expect it to actually make a difference to how much people use bicycles. The UK has had training programmes since the 1940s. Cycling has declined for the 60 years since they were introduced.

    If you want to emulate something which has lead to an improvement in both cycling modal share and cyclist safety you need to look not to Britain, where cycling is as unpopular as it is in the United States, but to The Netherlands. The Dutch have increased their cycling modal share and improved the safety of cyclists since the 1970s due to following the principles of sustainable safety. The improvements started after campaigning in the 1970s about the death toll on the roads.

  • January 1, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Thanks for the comment, David. Love the blog!
    I like the ‘sustainable safety’ principles; they make all the sense in the world. To see them implemented on streets in the Netherlands is a thing of beauty. It suggests the what’s possible after a cultural transformation. And I agree: the ‘strict liability’ law may have emotional appeal for us who feel unprotected on the streets today, but this narrowly-tailored legislation may not solve our problem. As you note, they are political (allocation) and cultural, rooted in an outmoded mobility paradigm and by definition as a paradigm, slow and resistant to change.
    That said, never underestimate the American appetite for a simple legislative fix to complex problems! Like your capital punishment argument suggests, sometimes these approaches find traction in their appeal to the irrational within us. Often we just don’t want to do the lifting necessary; there exist many folks here who argue that the high incidence of murder is due not to complex causes or a misapplied sanction but rather that we’re just not applying it efficiently enough. Those are some of the same folks who would argue that a cyclist accepts the danger if they bike the streets.
    Political considerations aside for a moment, liability has been somewhat effective in other arenas. The US may have have as extensive a regulatory regime as some might like, or as efficient a system for meting sanctions, certainly, but our courts are reasonably effective at discouraging wholesale disregard. Perhaps a strict liability law – not obscure but well-publicized – is enough of an attention-getter to make motorists think again about taking care, or might minimize intimidation. It certainly won’t stop the vehicular assault types. It might raise awareness though. My experience suggests that driver ignorance, as well as political & professional irresponsibility, is at the core of the American cycling experience. Thanks for the Dutch vid- poetry in motion!

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