Freewheeler over at Crap Waltham Forest has been doing an excellent series of posts on how how the various cycling measures being pushed by the cycling 'establishment', including shared space, 20MPH zones, cycle training and so on, won't bring about mass cycling.
The main argument of the cycling 'establishment' is that cycling on roads is relatively safe (although it can usefully be made safer) and that off-road or segregated cycle paths are no safer or possibly less safe than cycling on a road. Therefore, if that message gets across, everyone will come to their senses and start cycling.
Now, statistically that may or may not be true that cycling on roads is safe enough. But it doesn't actually matter.
The mistakes that the vehicular cyclists make are twofold:
1. Assuming that people make decisions about cycling rationally. No-one gets the statistics together, compares the probability of getting run down while cycling with the probability of living a longer, healthier life due to the health benefits of cycling, and then decides to cycle. If they did, there would be a lot more cyclists than there are.
2. Confusing 'risk' with 'fear'. Risk is a measure of the probability of an adverse outcome (a crash in this case). Fear is the emotion associated with the prospect of an adverse outcome. The two are only loosely connected.
It's not just decisions that relate to cycling that are not rational. If people made rational decisions about their transport mode, there would be no Range Rovers. People make decisions emotionally, and they try to justify their decisions post-hoc. "This car is safer. I need the space and practicality. I have a dog. I need a prestige car because my customers expect it. " All this is rubbish. People make many decisions in their lives based on their emotions, their core values, their aspirations, their perceptions, their insecurities. But they largely don't make them based on a rational assessment of available facts. Instead, they look for facts that justify their decisions and reaffirm their values.
I've spent many years cycling on roads, and it's only recently I have become comfortable with it. Partly, I think I've become more able to sense and avoid danger; partly I've become desensitized to bad driving. But even now, I avoid busy roads when I can. I'm convinced that everyone is born with a primeval fear of external threats, and now we've wiped out most of the higher mammals, it's motor vehicles that are the main danger. It's a pretty basic biological survival mechanism: we're programmed to be afraid of bears, tigers, sharks - anything that could do us harm. The facts that bears are usually more afraid of us than we are of them, and bear attacks in the wild are very unusual, are of no real comfort. Motor vehicles are a lot bigger and harder than we are, and they are not remotely afraid of cyclists or pedestrians. We're afraid of motor vehicles, because we're afraid of getting hurt and we know that motor vehicles can hurt us. That's why an unofficial 'highway code' has arisen where pedestrians will almost always give way to cars, no matter what the official Highway Code says about right of way. For a cyclist, no amount of statistics can take away the fear of traffic: it's awakened every time some idiot tailgates you, overtakes too close or cuts in front of you at a pinch point. Once awakened, the fear is likely to stay with you long enough to make cycling a unpleasant experience for a while. You only have to be snarled at by one dog to be wary of dogs for a long time.
So how do the vehicular cyclists propose to convince everyone that cycling on roads is safe? Even if they could actually lock everyone up in a room for a couple of hours and evangelise about cycling, statistics are never going to trump what people fear or what people see with their own eyes. You cannot tell someone they shouldn't be afraid, any more than you can tell them they shouldn't be in love. The idea that people are afraid of cycling because they've been indoctrinated to believe that cycling is inherently dangerous is false. It may be true that cycling isn't as risky as most people think, and that the 'road safety' ideology is wrong. It may also be true that of the perceptions of cycling as a dangerous activity are constructed, but the terror of the 'near miss', and the prospect of it is the root cause of the fear - not the actual risk. People are afraid of cycling because it is scary, not because society has told them it's risky. People do many things despite society telling them about the risks: it's the actual experience of fear, rather than perception of risk that tends to drive people.
It could be argued that people who don't cycle don't actually experience the fear - they only have the received wisdom that cycling is risky. I don't accept that, because most people use roads either as a driver or a pedestrian, and they witness bad driving and cyclists in close proximity to danger. Watching a horror movie is enough for you to be scared by it.
A minority of people in this country do cycle. For some, it's simply the cheapest or most convenient way of making certain journeys. Those people may be blessed with off-road paths or quiet routes that take them from their house to their destination. There are others who simply enjoy cycling, and some who enjoy the buzz of getting to their destination despite the danger. There are some who cycle for environmental reasons. Some do it for fitness reasons. Some do it for a mixture of the above. For the majority of non-cyclists or off-road cyclists though, the fear of traffic outweighs all these reasons, so if cycling involves mixing with traffic, they won't do it, and there is really no intervention that will change this.
So all the vehicular cyclists will achieve with the sum total of all the non-segregationist measures - 20MPH zones, shared space, cycle training, strict liability, share the road, etc., is to make conditions a bit safer for existing cyclists. There's a few people who might be persuaded to cycle if some of the above measures make their particular journey subjectively safe enough, but for most people there won't be continuous routes that get them where they want to go that don't involve a significant number of frightening encounters with traffic. The only way you can get large numbers of people to cycle is to create barriers between the cyclists and the motor traffic. Whether or not that's necessary or sufficient for safety, or even detrimental to safety, is not important, but it is necessary to take away the fear.