Cycling in the city: With friends like these who needs enemies?

— Another Irish Times dig at cycling… this time a well-written rant after a twitter rant.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS:Cyclists need to take criticism to win friends” is the headline on an article in The Irish Times today written by venture capital investor Brian Caulfield who comes across very reasonable in the article, but is it that simple?

The headline is not written by the author and is the most reflective thing in the article about The Irish Times on-going mess of coverage of cycling, which has been covered on this website many times before.

It is important that we cover their poor coverage because narratives that point towards greater law breaking among people who cycle and collective responsibility (strangely just for people who cycle bicycles) feeds into the good old nonsense that cycling infrastructure should be delayed or not built because a minority of cyclists are reckless. If you don’t think it does, you have never really listened to objections against cycling infrastructure.

In the article, in his own words, Caulfield said: “So why is it apparently completely unacceptable to say that cyclists also have responsibilities to themselves and other road users?” The problem is that’s not what Caulfield said on Twitter which attracted attention.

On Twitter, Caulfield said:

…and to unfortunate pedestrians that might be be crossing the road, significant. I walk most places around Dublin and cyclists are a much greater danger to me than cars…

He said in The Irish Time that he used “loose language” without clearly stating what he said.

Referring to being challenged about the real source of danger, in his article he said: “As an engineer, I found that funny. I wasn’t questioning either the statistics or the laws of physics.”

Even if he didn’t mean it at the time or in retrospect, Caulfield’s tweet clearly stated that he is at greater risk from a person on a bicycle than a person driving a car. His problem here with citing that he is an engineer is that it’s not just a matter of physics but a matter of psychology (see here and here etc).

As is normal for any outgroup, the perceived risk from cycling is overblown in the media and on social media. The reality is the risk level of cycling is on the same scale as that of walking — deaths serious injuries from walking and cycling collisions are rare, and the person injured or killed in such freak collisions can be the person on a bicycle.

Meanwhile the risk from motorists to people walking is underplayed.

Around 1-2 pedestrian deaths in a year in Ireland can be caused just by motorists running red lights when the people on foot had a green man shown. This rarely or never makes it into Irish Times editorials or onto talk radio.

The more obvious fact that motorists keep running into Luas trams also goes nearly unnoticed. Red light cameras some how see things differently than the human eye — that’s about more than physics:

About 15 days ago, RTÉ reported: “A survey has found that two thirds of Irish motorists admit to using their phones while driving, while 45% admit to other distractions, such as eating or applying make-up at the wheel.

Meanwhile, the last published free speed surveys by the RSA show that 82% of car drivers surveyed exceeded the 50km/h limit on urban national roads.

The RSA are not known to be cycling friendly and often come out with blunders on their communications relating to cycling. But according to other research conducted for the RSA, only 1-in-8 cyclists were observed passing through red lights — that’s based on movements of 25,126 cyclists at 60 junctions across Ireland.

Of course, it varies by junctions and area — so you will get problem areas with high numbers of cyclists wrongly running red lights. One case is along the Grand Canal, where all motorists are stopped and cyclists go slowly on the pedestrian phase — but a recent set up shows when the sequence is reversed, pedestrians jaywalk on the cycling phase.

There seems to be little evidence pointing to cyclists being much different than any other road users — if anything, cyclists break the law less than motorists.

Caulfield speculates that people on bicycles hit pedestrians and this goes unreported because these are mainly minor collisions. With no awareness that the same thing is happening with motorists hitting pedestrians. These also go largely unreported in the media unless there’s a court case.

Over the years, including recent years, people walking on footpaths have been killed and injured by motorists who have mounted footpaths. But the perception is that footpaths are safe beyond approach, if it wasn’t just for lawbreaking cyclists.

Caulfield didn’t just engage with the reasonable people on this issue, but he also decided to engage with people with only a handful of followers making off-the-wall comments and then wrote for The Irish Times about these people as if they represent people who cycle.

Remarks by other twitter users are listed in the article as if those are something the “cycling community” agreed with in their yearly meeting last month where everyone got together to agree policy. For clarity: that doesn’t happen.

The apparently all-powerful “cycling lobby” in Ireland is actually made up of volunteers who punch above their weight.

Unfortunately, cycling here has a strong level of what could be called ‘soft support’ — this means a large amount of people support things like segregated cycle paths in theory and Government policy is to enable cycling. Yet, when international delegates to the Velo-City conference visited Dublin less than two months ago they were left shocked at how little progress Dublin has made in making its streets safe and attractive to cycling.

Caulfield also expresses soft support for cycling — but the only evident example of such is when he’s using his pro-cycling views as a defence of saying silly things like cyclists are a large source of danger.

Today, defending his article he said on Twitter that “Optimising safety for all road users should be our goal.”

But back in 2016 when 30km/h speed limits were being expanded he said that it was “Idealogical lunacy, which is opposed by vast majority of people” — 30km/h speed limits are dripping in research to back their safety effects, especially when engineering and enforcement follows.

And, defending his views against lower speed limits, he said at the time: “I hardly drive at all. I walk to work and walk in the city. I am in more danger from cyclists than speeding cars.”

Caulfield was shocked by the reaction for some. I’m not defending the idiots who were irrational, but their irrationality is often because they have been run over or seen friends run over and are fed up with hearing cyclists are more dangerous than motorists. Twitter also sometimes doesn’t bring out the best in people.

Caulfield didn’t write the headline that “Cyclists need to take criticism to win friends” but within the article he did said: “There are many, many cyclists who are impeccable road users, but it might just help to win (and keep) friends and allies to accept that that’s not universal and we need to be able to have conversations that recognise that.

It’s like for decades cycling campaigners and others who support them haven’t had to preface half of what they said with something along the lines of “cyclists should follow the rules” or “I know there’s bad cyclists” etc. They have, yet, people looking for a more balanced debate are often claimed to be condoning others who are reckless.

Given his sign-off, it seems only right to follow it and ask: With friends like these who needs enemies?

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

2 Comments

  1. Also note that pedestrians often collide with people on bikes and injure them. These too also often go unreported. I myself have been knocked off my bike by a pedestrian who was fully in the wrong. In the last cyclist-pedestrian collision that resulted in a death, it was the person on the bike that died. And it was the person walking who was at fault.

    In addition, pedestrian – pedestrian collisions and injuries are also NEVER recorded.

  2. Pedestrians just stepping off the pavement without looking have caused me the most grief in recent years. Not drivers, which is surprising.

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