There is a curious opinion that often manifests itself in government and in councils – that a serious commitment to cycling as a mode of transport in its own right can’t be made, precisely because very few journeys are currently made by bike in Britain.*
One of the latest examples of this kind of thinking comes from Reading, where councillor Tony Page has recently argued
We have to balance the interests of all road users and I particularly draw colleagues’ attention to figures which indicate the huge reliance on buses for journeys into the town centre. At the moment, cyclists only constitute three per cent and even if you double that it’s still only six per cent. The dominant and most popular mode of transport is our public transport.
That is – we can’t justify doing anything to improve cycling, because it is a deeply unpopular minority mode of transport, and anyway doing so would probably impinge on much more popular modes of transport.
The problem is that these kinds of opinions are predicated on an assumption that the people of Reading – or wherever – have a free choice about what mode of transport they wish to use. That cycling in Reading is just as ‘available’ to its citizens as bus travel, and the relatively high demand for buses compared to cycling just reflects the fact that people prefer ‘busing’ to ‘cycling’.
But there is of course another way of looking at this situation. It is entirely possible – in fact it is quite likely – that the ‘huge reliance’ on buses for journeys in Reading simply reflects the uncomfortable reality that the form of cycling on offer in the town is very unattractive – unpalatable – to the vast majority of people.
Indeed, it’s a bit like serving mouldy food, and when people decline it, assuming they prefer to go hungry, rather than eat.
The town of Reading is offering crap cycling, and when people choose a less worse alternative, its councillors appear to be assuming that means people don’t like to cycle, full stop.
Yet we know that people do like to cycle, and that there is enormous suppressed demand for it – demand suppressed largely by traffic danger and road conditions.
Waiting for cycling to materialise out of nowhere before you actually decide to start catering for it is, frankly, idiotic.
There is no clearer demonstration of this than the latest Office for National Statistics analysis of cycling to work patterns in the 2011 census, released yesterday [pdf]. It shows that cycling in Britain is largely stagnant or declining, except for increases in a small number of places (mostly cities) where small steps have been taken to improve conditions.
Before taking a look at that ONS analysis, it’s worth remembering that these are figures only for cycling to work, which will almost certainly paint a better picture than figures for cycling as a whole, for a number of reasons. Children are not included in cycling to work figures; we know that cycling rates amongst British children are lower than average. Likewise, the elderly are largely not included in cycling to work figures, and again cycling rates for this age group are below average. Both these age groups are much less likely to cycle than people of commuting age.
Equally, as Rachel Aldred has recently explained, even unpleasant cycling routes to work can be tolerated, or accepted, more than equivalent conditions for other kinds of trips – because these routes become familiar, and dangers can be anticipated and mitigated.
It seems like people are fussier about cycling environments when they’re not commuting. This makes intuitive sense if you think about it. When I’m riding to work, I know my route extremely well as I ride it most working days. I’m travelling on my own, so I only have to worry about my own safety, not that of any companions. I know where the dodgy bits are, where I need to concentrate super hard. I know the timing of the traffic lights – whether I have lots of time to get through or not. I know the hidden cut-throughs I can take to make the journey nicer. As I’m travelling with the peak commuting flows there’s often plenty of other cyclists around, creating a greater sense of subjective safety.
This certainly rings true for my commute across Westminster that I used to make for several years – I knew what kind of traffic to expect on which sections of the route, what kind of driving I was likely to encounter, where I needed to position myself on the road to avoid hazardous situations, and so on. My route got refined over time, and I became conditioned to dealing with what were initially very intimidating roads and junctions.So the picture for cycling as a whole is likely to be far, far worse than these census figures for commuting. (Indeed, we already know that cycling to work rates far outstrip modal share figures in London boroughs, usually being about three times higher).
The ONS tells us that
In 2011, 741,000 working residents aged 16 to 74 cycled to work in England and Wales. This was an increase of 90,000 compared with 2001. As a proportion of working residents, the share cycling to work was unchanged at 2.8%.
The small increase in the number of people cycling to work in England and Wales was matched by the increase in the number of people working, meaning that there was no proportional change in cycling to work since between 2001 and 2011.
The number of all trips being made to work increased by around 14% between 2001 and 2011, yet for England and Wales (excluding London) the number of trips to work being cycled increased by only 2.2%. That means that cycling to work levels outside of London have fallen from 2.8% to 2.6% over this period. The increase in London masks decline in cycling across the rest of England and Wales.
The picture is just as gloomy when we look at a local authority level –
Of the 348 local authorities in England and Wales, 146 had an absolute increase in the number of people cycling to work between 2001 and 2011. As a proportion of resident workers in the local authority, however, only 87 of the 348 local authorities witnessed an increase.
That means 261 out of 348 local authorities – 75% – saw a proportional decline in cycling to work levels over this period. Cycling to work (reminder – much more resilient than other types of cycling) actually went backwards in most areas in Britain. And these are almost all areas that had next to no cycling in the first place. Bleak in the extreme.
Even places where there was a non-negligible amount of cycling to work went backwards too – among the most striking is (flat) north Norfolk, which had 4.8% of workers cycling to work in 2001. This fell dramatically to 2.8% in 2011. Indeed, it is quite extraordinary how the areas seeing the largest percentage points decline are grouped together in the flattish areas of eastern England.
And the same areas show up among those where short cycling to work trips (less than 2km) have declined the most.
Plainly, no ‘cycling revolution’ is happening in England and Wales. Sporting glory is not persuading people to cycle for everyday trips; nor is marketing – advice, bike breakfasts, or exhortation about how fantastically green and good for your health cycling can be.
Cycling will not grow all by itself, and most likely it will continue to disappear in those areas where it is not being catered for. The idea that these trends can be bucked by expecting people to choose to cycle under current conditions, before we then start to take cycling seriously as a mode of transport, is nonsensical. The investment – serious investment – has to come first, along with proper design guidance to ensure that money is not poured down the drain on inadequate schemes of negligible benefit.
Without this kind of long-term strategic thinking, talk of cycling ‘booming’ in the UK will continue to ring hollow.
*A variant is that the Netherlands and Denmark only spend so much money on cycling because they have to cater for so many people cycling.