Lies, Damn Lies and …Statistics


This is certainly true when people come to talking about cycling. They measure cycling by “trips”. Now, what on earth is a trip? Apparently it’s a calculation of how many times you get on and off your bike – as simple as that. If I ride round the park starting from home, coming back to home and not stopping en route, that equals one trip. If I ride to the post office, stop to post a letter, ride on to the supermarket and stop to shop, then ride home – that is not one but three trips. Home to Post Office, Post Office to supermarket, supermarket to home. The total mileage might be considerably less than I did going to the park but for the purposes of statistics I have done 3 times as as much! How’s that for massaging the figures!

To take a more extreme example: The official record for a non-stop end-to-end (Land’s End to John O’Groats) is 44 hours 4 minutes on a conventional bike and 41 hours 4 minutes on a recumbent tricycle. Both these did the journey without a break, so I assume their epic rides count as single trips!

When the government talk about increasing cycling they measure it in number of “trips” per cyclist. Much better to look at distance, For example in September last year I rode a total of 300 miles; this year I did 250. (I’m getting old, you see.) But there are all sorts of other things – maybe I went on a (non-cycling) holiday for a couple of weeeks, maybe I was ill and didn’t get out on my trike as much as usual, maybe all sorts of other things affected the number of miles I rode.

Another way statistics are so often skewed is the confusion between “frequent” and “regular”. A frequent worshipper attends church every Sunday; a regular attender could be someone who never misses Christmas Day or Easter Sunday. Spot the difference?

You also find newspaper headlines that make things seem worse than they are. Here is an example from the Lancashire Evening Post:
ONE cyclist every day is killed or injured by motorists on Lancashire roads, shock new figures reveal.
Reading this, you might be forgiven for thinking “one cyclist a day! Wow! Does that mean 365 in a year?”

In fact when we look at the figures, things don’t seem so drastic. “KILLED OR INJURED” doesn’t even specify seriously injured, so in these stats, a cyclist lying dead at the roadside is counted alongside one who falls off his bike and bruises his knee and rides away otherwise unscathed.

I don’t know what is the best way to present cycling statistics. Should we talk about numbers of people riding bikes? Should this include the person with a bike in their garage that gets used perhaps twice a year when the weather is good and the grandchildren have come to visit? If we try to estimate distances ridden that’s a whole new problem. Very few, even among the keen cyclists keep a meticulous record of distances ridden. (But it you once get hooked on taking readings from a cycle computer it can be addictive. I’ve been there.)