Skyrides, and suppressed demand

Going on a Skyride is a curious experience for someone interested in increasing the use of bicycles as a mode of transport; both uplifting and dispiriting in equal measure.

It’s uplifting, because seeing thousands of ordinary people out on bikes shows you what Britain could be like. Skyrides demonstrate that the British public really quite enjoy riding bikes, and that antipathy to ‘cycling’ comes purely from the conditions they are usually forced to ride them in; namely, on busy roads, in close proximity to motor traffic. Create pleasant conditions for riding, and people will do so. Skyrides are a clear rebuttal of the tired argument that the British public are too lazy to ride bikes; that when they say they want cycle paths, they are actually coming up with excuses that cover their laziness. Thousands of people battled into the centre of Southampton yesterday for no other reason than the desire to ride around on a loop, in safe conditions.

The dispiriting part comes from the knowledge that these events are one-offs, and all that suppressed demand that is so visibly on display will go back to being suppressed once the closed roads ‘go live’ again. Indeed, the whole concept of Skyrides unintentionally serves to demonstrate the abysmal state of cycling in Britain. Children and their families can cycle pretty much anywhere, at any time, in towns and cities in the Netherlands; in Britain, by contrast, they have to make do with a small closed road loop event that occurs once a year.

Southampton yesterday was no exception to the general pattern of these events. Plenty of evidence about how families had arrived at the event – with bikes strapped to cars.

DSCN9977 DSCN9978

Several families we spoke to at the event had arrived by train. Southampton’s roads did not seem to be a particularly appealing prospect for those with children.

On the closed loop, of course, things are very different, and children – even very young children – were whizzing about enthusiastically.

Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 11.42.53

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Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 11.35.34The classic guiding ‘hand on the shoulder’ on display in these photographs reminds me of how Dutch parents cycle with their children; indeed, strip away the hi-viz and the helmets, and change the bikes being ridden, and these could actually be Dutch scenes. The demographics of the people out riding were similar to the kinds of people you see riding in the Netherlands; the young, the old, males and females in roughly equal measure. A pretty close approximation to the general population, instead of the usual domination by white young and middle-aged males.

It was quite depressing to see the hi-viz vests being enthusiastically touted by a man with microphone in the Guildhall square, urging people to take them home so they would “be safe” and that “cars could see them”. The take-up was high – not as high as I had thought it might be – but enough to turn the square into a sea of dayglo.

IMG_2259Presumably (and understandably, given the amount of promotion) this is how the people attending think ‘cyclists’ should look, and how they should keep themselves safe – by making themselves as visible as possible.

Once the event was over, people started to head home. I briefly stood and watched as people left the closed roads, and headed off along Commercial Road, back to the suburbs.

On the pavement.

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Like the thousands of others who attended the Skyride yesterday, these are the people who want to ride bikes; the people who want to make short trips around towns and cities. They are being frustrated.

I suspect the most valuable role of Skyride events is to demonstrate that they exist.

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22 Responses to Skyrides, and suppressed demand

  1. I declare an interest as I used to work with British Cycling to develop the promotion of Sky Rides and other ‘cycling for fun’ opportunities. A few thoughts. The events are, sadly, one-offs (though British Cycling offer tons of local rides for small groups too). It’s largely due to the high cost to the local authority of the road closures etc. At these large and expensive events it is perhaps inevitable that families often bring, rather than ride their bikes to the start. Hopefully, this will change as new bike riders find out more about routes and tracks, and grow in confidence. The day-go bibs are (primarily) for marketing purposes clearly, though many riders do take them home. And yes – having so much high-viz at a traffic-free event sends a confused message! What could a more sustainable model of family mass participation traffic-free riding look like? Perhaps a casual half day road closure every 4th Sunday in the month? Getting everyone in the town or city used to opening the town to traffic-free cycling by involving the retailers, residents etc

  2. It’s the same story at Thetford Forest. You see car after car parking with bikes on them, I find it so depressing to think this is the only experience they dare to have of cycling; on the weekend in the forest. Nice it may be but they needed half a tank of petrol to make it happen. There is a train from Ely to Brandon but the train only allows 4 bikes on if you are lucky so it’s not something many would do (not to mention it being a Sunday service with one carriage in total!).
    We are trying to organise family rides round here but routes are limited and all involve crossing major roads with no crossing points. (that according to highways are safe because no-one yet has died – possibly because most aren’t reckless enough to try it).

    • Gareth Rees says:

      I agree: the road network around Thetford Forest is one of the most cycling-hostile parts of East Anglia. There’s no safe and pleasant way to get throughor around the concrete triangle of the A11, the A1065, and the A134. The club I ride with (CTC Cambridge) ride all over Cambridgeshire and the surrounding counties, but the area around Thetford is a no-go area for us.

  3. fonant says:

    The “going home” photos are very revealing. Lots of road space allocated for multiple lanes for motor vehicles, some space for pedestrians, but absolutely no space at all for people on bicycles.

    To answer SJ Gray: the sustainable model of family mass cycling is clearly visible, and has been well-refined over several decades, in the Netherlands. There children from the age of 8 upwards routinely cycle to and from school on their own, in complete safety due to the simple realisation that people on bicycles are not pedestrians and they are not motor vehicles either. We just need to re-allocate road space so that there are three types of road space (carriageway, cycleway, footway) instead of two (carriageway, footway). The cycleway can easily accommodate some other transport modes that are poorly provided for in the UK, such as faster mobility scooters. As London is showing, this can quickly lead to more than half of rush-hour traffic being people on bicycles: a MUCH more efficient use of space than the one-person-per-car we see too often.

  4. OldGreyBeard says:

    Putting the bike on the back of the car to drive to the safe place to cycle. It’s the same where I live.

    I actually took my 11 year old daughter who has Bikeability level2 out last week and what a worrying experience it was. The traffic free bits were great but to get to them we had to use the roads. These were pretty quiet often 20mph roads but what did we get?

    Car parked on double yellows in the cycle contraflow lane
    White van came through a no vehicles except buses and cycles section of the High St
    On my own road, which is 20mph, a car beeped us for being in the way

    That’s not even thinking about the gaps in the routes that require either mixing it with HGVs or cycling on the pavement.

    No wonder people drive to the safe place to cycle. I might start myself.

  5. Very good piece. Suppressed demand is enormous for cycling in the UK. As it happens, I had much the same thought, prompted by the mass rides in Assen over the last two weeks.

  6. Gareth Rees says:

    Those pictures of families attempting to cycle home are really sad. There is no way for them to do it that’s both legal and safe, and the road environment makes it clear that they are unwelcome.

    S. J. Gray’s comment above is also sad. Even in the imagination, apparently the best that can be hoped for is “Perhaps a casual half day road closure every 4th Sunday in the month?” What about imagining a network of high quality routes that allow families to safely cycle wherever they want, whenever they want?

  7. Nico (@nfanget) says:

    Although I appreciate the effort put into increasing cycling’s profile, I have never been on a Skyride, for the simple reason that I think it is pointless to ride around in a circle. I want to go to a destination, not a loop, with my bike and my kids, and right now I can’t do that.
    Take the eldest to school by bike? Can’t. Do the shopping by bike with the family? Can’t. Take them out to another park from the usual one? Can’t. Take them to a museum? Can’t. Go to the cinema with my wife? Can’t. Go on a corralled ride squeezed in with thousands of others in a loop once a year while serving as advertisement for Sky and PR for Boris? Meh.
    Also seeing the incredible popularity of those ride I think it has been clearly demonstrated that people want to cycle, they just do not want to do it with cars/buses/cabs/lorries.

  8. fred says:

    There’s a nice loop of road in London that could be made family-friendly for cycling with very little work – the Outer Circle in Regents Park – it’s already used for sport cycling, but isn’t suitable for families because of fast commuter drivers and taxis using it as a shortcut. Take out the through-traffic and you have have a great cycle route both for families and for commuter cyclists heading in and out of town. Would make the park better for pedestrians, too…

  9. farnie1 says:

    Its also why Centre Parks holidays are so popular. Families yearn for a weekend where car culture is suppressed and every ones gets about under their own steam. Y

    • Har Davids says:

      People who yearn for the suppression of car culture are usually part of it. They drive their kids to school because traffic is so dangerous, do their shopping by car because of the convenience of it. Skyrides are nothing but rides in a very controlled environment, showing you what you can’t have on a regular basis, unlike some West-Europeans. In spite of economic recession people still use their cars for every little trip they feel they need to make, wasting money they could put to a better use. Just think how much more pleasant life would be if we weren’t so fond of our cars.

  10. Tim says:

    On hi-viz, I think that for Sky they’re a marketing thing, and part of the reason people take them is that everyone loves a freebie. I know I’ve grabbed a couple for me and the kids before and they’ve never been out of the cupboard under the stairs (and not due to lack of cycling).

    On helmets, Sky say “You might also think about bringing a helmet”, and their website has lots of photos of non-helmeted riders enjoying the wind in their hair, so while I don’t want to get into another helmet debate I was pleasantly surprised to see they’re less strict than I thought.

  11. Pingback: links for 2013-07-29 » onionbagblog

  12. I have mixed views on these events as well, but they do show that people love cycling and on balance it gets images and messages of cycling out there which must have more of a positive effect that any “official” encouragement schemes.

    I am taking Ranty Junior to the London Freecycle on Saturday. Trains are out as they are always busy at weekends and so we need to get our bikes to London. Sadly, part of the journey will involve the bikes thrown in the car, but we are going to park near Barking and use CS3 to get into the City – Tower Gateway is a stone’s throw from the closed route.

  13. We came as a family to Southampton and really enjoyed ourselves, After one lap together, my 9 and 11 year olds went around the circuit on their own. It was lovely to see that they could enjoy freedom and build confidence. We saw parts of Southampton we had not seen before, particularly around the docks area.

    We had been to the Bournemouth ride last week, and were disappointed by the capacity of the short route, at just a couple of k, there were bottlenecks and the crowds meant it was easy to be separated from the children. We only did one circuit, then gave up and went home.

    We liked the greater length of the Southampton ride, as there was plenty of room to ride as a family.

    We came on the train from Bournemouth and were turned away from the first train as they had no room. When the next train came, the bike provision being limited to 3 meant there was a possibility that we would not able to travel together as we had 4 bikes. luckily one was small enough to squeeze in without blocking the walkway.

  14. Lap Chan says:

    Reblogged this on The Lapmosphere and commented:
    This echos my thoughts on the upcoming Skyride thing in London.

  15. ThinkPurpose says:

    Superb post. Especially those returning home photos. Am re-blogging as I type this.

  16. ThinkPurpose says:

    Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    Look at what happens when half tons of metal aren’t whizzing by 6 inches away. People in the UK DO want to ride bikes like normal Dutch people can, but they CAN’T. We know how to “encourage” car driving: build more roads. So how to “encourage” cycling? Hmm, a knotty problem. Surely there isn’t a country only 100 miles away who had solved this insolvable problem? Mustn’t be. Lets be America instead.

  17. dancarins says:

    I’m not so sure about the responses to the points about the going home on pavement cyclists – we don’t need cycling infrastructure: it’s already there. It’s called “roads”. There’s no reason why those people cycling along the pavement can’t be on the road.

    My theory is that UK society has swallowed the “success is driving a car” mantra so much, and we defer to successful people so much, that we don’t want to inconvenience them at all. Wouldn’t dream of it. It’s evident in those people who refuse to press the button at pedestrian crossings for fear of slightly inconveniencing drivers, or people who do that silly quick walking thing when they’re crossing at zebra crossings or across road junctions.

    Another theory is that cycling is actually very much bound up with class. The hi-viz jackets, the helmets, the cycle lanes, the lycra, the bikes themselves – it’s all very segregated, compartmentalised, delineated, restrictive – and acquisitive. Maybe some people simply don’t want to be part of that crowd, but don’t have the car and can’t afford the bus – so the only option they have is to cycle on the pavement because cycling on the road would mean they’re part of the nice, suburban Waitrose set that hates them so much.

    I’ve seen plenty of people cycling on pavements adjacent to cycle lanes on quiet roads – I don’t think it’s entirely about lack of infrastructure or fear of traffic (although they are of course massive factors). Class has a large part to play too.

    • Tim says:

      Dan. You’ve got a couple of things confused here.

      Some people have no interest in cycling generally. You are undoubtably right to suggest some of the reasons behind this relate to the inspirational nature of car ownership and the cultural position cycling and cyclists occupy. I would recommend Dave Horton’s Thinking About Cycling blog for discussion of this sort of issue.

      But some people who clearly do want to cycle under certain circumstances – perhaps skyrides – don’t generally cycle on an everyday basis. And when asked in surveys, they overwhelmingly say that it’s because sharing roads with fast or busy motor traffic scares the bejeesus out of them. Do you not have friends, relatives, colleagues who feel this way? I know I do. I cycle around town because it’s so convenient that I can’t bring myself not to but I still wince every time a bus gives me a close pass.

      Those guys aren’t on the pavement because “success is driving a car”. Telling them that “we don’t need cycling infrastructure: it’s already there!” helps on-one. That suggestion is old and tired and glib and misses the point.

  18. donk says:

    “Class has a large part to play too.”
    I don’t think it has. MAMILs and fixie hipsters are doing it coz it’s currently cool or whatever – and that’s nice, the more the merrier but for a modal change we need to be looking at the people who just want to get to places in an easy, cheap, convenient way or just get out for a bit of light exercise with the family. How cool would it be to be able to wheel your bikes out of the shed the whole family ride down to the park, bit of a ride round there, maybe a picnic and ride home? Or ride to school, the shops, cinema? Sky and similar events show there’s plenty of interest in cycling just not on the current road system the way it runs day to day.

    Those riding home shots are pretty depressing really :-(

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