Read this book!


At the founding of the RDRF in Leeds in 1993 we were confronted with the issue of, well, what would our name be? Would anybody understand or use the phrase Road Danger Reduction? I think we can give ourselves a pat on the back: RDR has been formally endorsed by (among others) the CTC (National cyclists’ organisation), London Cycling Campaign, RoadPeace, Living Streets, Twenty’s Plenty, the Environmental Transport Association, and the Road Danger Reduction Charter signed up to (if not actively pursued) by a number of local authorities. Of course, getting the approach understood – differentiating us from “road safety” and publicising the sustainable transport agenda – is another issue from getting it accepted by the powers that be.  After the Comprehensive Spending Review, it looks like we’re going backwards – or at least not forwards…

But now the good news: if we can’t actually get the RDR programme on the official agenda, we have got a forceful endorsement of RDR in this superb book: “Real road safety means reducing road danger, which implies far fewer motor vehicles travelling at much lower speeds” (p.84) and, on the twinned themes of the book:” The only practicable response to climate change and population weight gain is that walking and cycling are re-established as the predominant modes of urban transportation“(p.119).

Epidemiologist Professor Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is well known to us for his work on the effects of 20 mph zones and his critique of  the pressure for road building from the global “road safety”/car industry lobby in developing countries. As with his previous work, the links between different parts of the effects of mass motorisation are established. Except it is not just the two main themes of the health disbenefits of mass car use and the greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, but road danger, the effects on local community, and dependence on oil. On top of this, obesity and global warming are shown to be linked more intricately and deeply than we might have ever thought. All of this is presented in a polemic fuelled by (justifiably) righteous anger and backed up by a solid evidence base.

We have some criticisms (see below) but this short book is a must read for transport practitioners with a conscience and a genuine interest in the problems of the current transport system – and at least an indication of what we can and should do about it.Roberts and Edwards raise the issue of the costs of motoring:  “ way to tackle  (oil addiction) would be to make sure that motorists pay the full cost every time they fill up..”(p.79) These costs include “..millions of rent-free parking places expropriated from the civic space”  (p.79): one of many instances where motorists do not “pay for the road”  A crucial element of any civilised transport policy must be appropriate costing or rationing of the different transport modes: we really need to tackle the idea that motorists have paid their way, not least to tackle the “I pay a tax” abuse levelled at cyclists. We have raised the issue of  increasing the price of petrol, which only the Green Party has done out of the political parties – and which none of the transport planning professional groups have done. Indeed, apart from the occasional lack lustre support for local “road pricing”, this crucial issue seems to be off the agenda. It’s a tricky one: cost-benefit analysis always tends to come out in favour of the status quo, so one needs to tread carefully. One way of moving beyond the morass of cost-benefit analysis and appraisal studies is to go straight for Roberts’ solution: carbon rationing based on the Global Commons Institutes principle of contraction and convergence: a measure which would reduce fuel consumption and redistribute wealth towards those using motor vehicles less.

While Roberts (and Edwards – sorry to miss his long time collaborator out!) show how reductions in casualties are often achieved by the movement of the most benign mode transport users from the road environment, there is more to the story of  casualty reduction since the start of motorisation than this: a review of  John Adams’ work on the Smeed curve could have been usefully included. The positive side of adaptive behaviour/ risk compensation can be explored, showing the effects of critical mass  of cyclists and pedestrians, and the potential for motorists to drive more carefully. This is one of the many areas of this excellent book which should be further developed.

On a minor note: “They (the media and the Government) blame you for being killed on the roads,..”.While there is a long tradition of victim-blaming for pedestrians and cyclists, the thrust of road safety ideology has been away from blaming motorists: road side trees and cars being insufficiently like humvees or tanks are likely to be fingered as “the problem”.

I think that the profound psychological grip of car culture needs to be approached more carefully than happens in this book: but that is just another of the topics for debate which should be sparked by this superb work.

So: did you know that “we are eating less food now than previously” (p. 49 – also p.27)? Roberts and Edwards show obesity to be part of a low physical activity lifestyle, rather than due to food packaging.  Did you know about the health risks of not cycling (p.108) – in fact there is even more dramatic evidence on this than that quoted; or the “safety in numbers” effect of increasing cycling?

No? Well, then read this book.