Why we need space for cycling

Ahead of today’s parliamentary debate on cycling, and subsequent Space for Cycling protest, I thought I’d give a brief reminder of why change is so urgently needed in Britain, and to persuade you to come along to the ride.

The first graph, below, shows the percentage of all trips made by bike – split by age group – in the Netherlands and the UK (click to enlarge) –

From City Cycling, eds. Pucher & Buehler

From City Cycling, eds. Pucher & Buehler, 2012

With the proviso that the age groups are slightly different, the contrast is remarkable. Note in particular the extraordinary differences in the amount of cycling in the under 16/17 age groups, and in the over 65s. Dutch people over the age of 65 make 23% of all their trips by bike; just 1% of trips by British over 65s are cycled. Likewise Dutch children under 17 make 40% of all their trips by bike; just 2% of all trips by British under 16s are cycled.

The young and the old in the Netherlands have considerably more freedom than in Britain. The young can travel independently, without having to rely on parents to ferry them about, as can the elderly, without relying on public transport, or cars which they no longer feel confident driving.

Safe cycling in Utrecht

Safe cycling in Utrecht

Safe cycling in Assen

Safe cycling in Assen

The percentage of short trips made by motor vehicle (either as driver or passenger) in Britain is huge. 55% of trips under 5 miles in Britain are made by car, and nearly 40% of trips under 2 miles are driven. This is a distance that can easily be cycled in less than 15 minutes.

Source - National Travel Survey

Source – National Travel Survey

By contrast, the percentage of short trips made by bicycle, to the same scale –

Source - National Travel Survey

Source – National Travel Survey

A tiny percentage of all trips, even at these short distances.

The comparison with travel patterns in the Netherlands for trips under five miles is revealing –

Source - National Travel Survey/Fietsberaad

Source – National Travel Survey/Fietsberaad (Dutch figures for 7.5km, or 4.7 miles)

Walking rates are broadly similar between the two countries, but while 34% of all trips under 7.5km are cycled by the Dutch, just 2% are cycled in Britain. The balance between car use and bicycle use for trips under this distance is remarkable, compared to the total imbalance in Britain.

This huge discrepancy between the two countries does not look like starting to close any time soon, for all the talk of cycling ‘booming’ in Britain. If we look at the total number of trips made by bike in Britain, we are still well below the number of trips made back in the mid-90s.

Source - National Travel Survey NTS0103

Source – National Travel Survey NTS0103

The volatility in the data is a consequence of the small number of bike trips being made by those in the NTS survey. But it’s quite obvious that cycling isn’t going anywhere in Britain, despite the distance travelled by bike increasing substantially in recent years.

Cycle use among British children is stagnant, while the use of cars to drive them around remains stubbornly high – higher than in the 1990s.

Source - National Travel Survey

Source – National Travel Survey

These statistics paint a picture of continuing failure. The reasons for this failure are not hard to discern.

It’s not because we’re a lazy nation, or because we have any kind of antipathy to cycling. There’s plenty of evidence that when conditions are right, British people will cycle in their tens of thousands, even if it means considerable effort just to get to those places where they can cycle in comfort and safety. Cycling gives children freedom and independence, and yet so few are currently able to do so on a regular day-to-day basis.


Nor are we wedded to our cars. For urban journeys they are often stressful, costly and inconvenient. Britain fell out of love with motoring a long time ago, but most people do not have a reasonable alternative for many short trips.

All the evidence suggests that there is enormous suppressed demand for cycling, suppressed by the physical conditions in which cycling currently has to be undertaken. People who want to use bikes to make short trips are confronted by a stark choice between cycling in motor traffic, or using poorly-designed ‘infrastructure’ that puts them into conflict with pedestrians, abandons them at random, and makes their journeys circuitous and awkward.

This has to change, not just for the sake of people who currently cycle, or those who want to, but for everyone. For motorists, whose journeys will be made easier with less traffic on the roads; for anyone who wants to see our villages, towns and cities become vibrant, thriving and pleasant places; for our own health and wellbeing.

That’s why I’m going to be in London this evening. I hope you can join me and thousands of others.

This entry was posted in Cycling policy, Go Dutch, Infrastructure, LCC, London, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Why we need space for cycling

  1. Great piece (as always!) and I think you’ve once again hit the nail on the head, what we need it safe space for cycling. This morning on my way to work I rode Streatham to the O2, about 12 miles in total along some fairly busy main roads (part of which I think is going to make up CS5?) it is acceptable for me as I fall quite nicely into the young,fit and fast type rider that is so typical on our roads now. However that’s not to say I don’t want things to change, I’d love to not have to worry about the HGV thundering up behind me or the idiot distracted by his mobile phone. Once I got to the office today I went for a quick ride round the O2 on the Thames Path and it was so much more relaxing, no big heavy vehicles and I could actually enjoy the simple act of cycling and the lovely views rather than having to be super alert to what’s going on around me to avoid serious injury or death.

  2. There is some confusion in the way you report the initial set of figures (UK v. Dutch percentage of total journeys by bike v. car). You seem to be mixing up percentages of trips made and percentages of people cycling.

    You say “Dutch people over the age of 65 make 23% of all their trips by bike; just 1% of over 65s do so in the UK. Likewise Dutch children under 17 make 40% of all their trips by bike; just 2% do so in the UK.”

    I THINK you mean “Dutch people over the age of 65 make 23% of all their trips by bike; just 1% of UK journeys by over 65s are by bike. Likewise Dutch children under 17 make 40% of all their trips by bike; just 2% of trips by under 17s are by bike in the UK.”

    However you put it, a shocking set of statistics!

  3. Chris says:

    Whilst I’d love to see more provision for cyclists, I really think making comparisons with the Netherlands is totally irrelevant and potentially counter-productive.

    I’m sure that the wider provision of cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands does have a significant advantage, but then again, so does the fact that the whole country is as flat as a pancake!

    When people start producing articles like this which compare the UK to countries such as France, Germany and Italy, which are of much more similar size and topography to the UK, I will find the argument far more compelling.

    As it stands, I suspect that for much of the UK, even if we implemented everything they have in the Netherlands, it would only result in a relatively modest increase in cycling in many areas, as people still won’t want to do many rides they’d undertake in the Netherlands, as the addition of hills will mean them arriving all hot and sweaty.

    I cycle around 3,000 miles a year, including commuting into London. I love it, but invariably end up sweaty even with the modest gradients of the South East. This more than anything discourages some of the rides I might otherwise make if the terrain was flat.

    I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will choose to disagree with my point. That’s there prerogative, of course, but I’d imagine many of them will be fit, slim cycling evangelists already. That’s great, and well done to them, but they’re not the people who need persuading in the first place. The target group for this sort of initiative is surely the middle aged, relatively unfit amongst us, and I would not be in the least surprised to find a direct correlation between the amount these people ride and the average hilliness of their surroundings, regardless of the provision of cycling infrastructure.

    I would love for someone to prove me wrong with statistics from the other countries I mentioned though!

  4. If flatness were an issue Chris, why does no-one (relatively) cycle in Norfolk?

  5. Chris says:

    While I do not disagree in the slightest with anything you say, I do believe that all current campaigns are flawed and will achieve none of the desired results (as has already been demonstrated with the pre-emptive response from the DfT: http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/cycling-czar-rejected-as-gov-t-responds-to-get-britain-cycling-report/015296). This is for 2 simple facts: that they are about the mode of transport rather than the user and they are asking for change, rather than demanding it.

    The Dutch made their shift because of a campaign whose mantra was ‘stop the child murder’.

    As long as any campaign is about making room for ‘cycling’, or cities fit for ‘cycling’, then we have lost from the outset.

    We need to base our campaigns on how cars are killing people, especially children. How htey are making people and children obese. How they are stealing the space from children to play and develop independence and because of that, cars are massively subsidised because of the hidden costs to society in loss of space, rising healthcare costs through obesity and pollution related illnesses.

    Once we begin that, we put the onus on car drivers not to be social pariahs (“All this happens because they want to drive to the shops”), or at worst, children killers, it immediately puts them on the backfoot. Just as we need to point out the government wants to spend money doign things like bombing Syria, in which civilians will invariably be killed, and some of those will be children, or on projects such as the HS2, which have been shown to have little benefit to the majority of people, instead of spending the money instead back home, on its own children health, safety and futures.

  6. Paul M says:

    To reinforce this with an individual anecdote, let me tell you about my near neighbours, Henk and Nelli (not sure I have her name spelt correctly, as I have only ever heard it spoken).
    Henk and Nelli are Dutch, but have lived in the UK for some decades now and their grown-up children (and grandchildren) have lived here all their lives. Henk was in fact a colleague of mine before his retirement, but that is mere co-incidence. They are now in their mid sixties and retired but continue to spend the greater part of the year in their English house, at the foot of Hindhead Common in Surrey. They do also however own a townhouse in Amsterdam which they visit regularly.

    Neither ever uses a bicycle in England. I don’t think that is because it is hilly – certainly it is in parts but much of it is fairly gentle inclines and we are seeing increasing numbers of electric-assisted bicycles which take much of the effort out of climbing hills. Also, by British standards, the roads which connect us to the key destinations in the town are fairly quiet. They are not however free from danger. As if to illustrate the point of the #spaceforcycling flashride this evening (I trust you are all coming) I was near-missed twice in the space of 5 minutes and 1 kilometre this morning, first by a white van coming towards me and second by a car trying to overtake where half the road width was taken up by parked cars. This is not an everyday occurrence, but it happens quite often enough.

    Henk tells me that they take the car when they visit Amsterdam – probably so that Millie, their Schnauzer bitch, can come too. However, once they arrive, the car oes in the garage and only emerges again when it is time to come back to England. In between, out come their Dutch bikes.

    There is nothing physiological (yet) or topographical about their reluctance to cycle over here. Nothing cultural either – they are after all Dutch and they grew up with bicycles. They just don’t feel safe and they don’t find it pleasant.

  7. Bill G says:

    Also anecdotal, my wife cycled regularly while working at The Hague and will happily cycle round Centre Parks when on holiday. However she point blank refuses to cycle in London.

    On a different note; is there any developed country with greater than 5% modal share for cycling that does not have segregated provision?
    In the same vein, is there any country with wide spread segregation where cycling has a modal share of less than 10% ?

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  9. Arthur says:

    Would you have any idea where I can find comparative information for cycling in Sydney (or Australia as a whole)?

  10. Charlotte says:

    I think there are a few other factors to consider in this debate , ie are there adequate, pleasant areas for showering post ride, and a safe place to store a bike? Further the whole arriving at work looking dishevelled and without full makeup/hair done is not desirable for many these days, or others for that matter!( particularly but not exclusively a female decision factor!!) Image is everything these days it seems. Also time constraints are an issue ie to shower/do hair/makeup before the ride, do the ride, do the ablutions again (!!), is prohibitive to starting work on time. Also a set of clothes and shoes must be taken to work to change into on arrival – which may not arrive in an acceptable state after carriage in a bike bag and can be bulky heavy to carry ! As a 44 yr old woman I enjoy the fitness benefits of cycling and have cycled to work at least one day a week for the last 5 years and am lucky to have a safe place for my bike, and a shower at work, but I do arrive dishevelled sometimes ( but am maybe less vain than others as I dont do makeup on arrival!!). The factors that stop me cycling are tiredness( its a 15mile hilly round trip), needing to collect provisions for home during lunchtime, childcare arrangements prohibitive in terms of time…I wish roads were safer but other factors are important too.

    Its a cok

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  12. Rich says:

    I was talking to my MP today at lunch about the need for cycle lanes and more general cyclist infrastructure and it does seem plausible.
    Once the planning has been established it seems that more legislation would need to be implemented to finance the project.
    An MOT type test would be a requirement as well as insurance,tax disc,along with a registration plate or chipping device.
    Also improved rider safety such as mandatory flouro clothing,leg protectors,speed restrictions and a new driving licence style test.
    The project would require this and more of cyclists in the uk to use the new network of 21st century cycle routes and any self respecting rider would be only too happy to finance it.

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  14. Compare the two photos. Dutch scene, people dressed normally. British scene, people dressed like martians from outer space.

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