Don’t confuse vociferous opposition with public opinion

It’s fundamentally important to bear in mind that the (sometimes vociferous) opposition to cycling infrastructure does not in any way represent mainstream attitudes and opinions. The vast majority of the British public are open to persuasion on cycling infrastructure; they have an open mind and are willing to see changes to the roads and streets they live on and use. As we’ve seen time and again with consultation responses, there are hundreds (even thousands) of angry opposition comments to schemes, but these are nearly always outweighed by the positive responses to the consultation itself, and always outweighed by the silent majority, who may not even be aware that changes are taking place, but support them once they have happened.

We’ve known this for some time. 2011’s Understanding Walking and Cycling Report found that only 9% of the population are what they call ‘automobile adherents’ –

[people] most satisfied with the present car system… underpinned by the belief that people have a choice of how to travel around and it is up to them to exercise it. Walking is regarded as a leisure activity and cycling practiced by enthusiasts or by committed environmentalists. People who subscribe to this discourse are against any measures that infringe their liberty to drive such as traffic calming even if this could improve conditions for walking and cycling. Indeed, this discourse suggests that walkers and cyclists should take more responsibility for their own safety when moving around the city.

By contrast, the remainder of the population are either people who see walking and cycling as ‘normal’ ways of getting about for everyday trips, and a part of their identity, or for the most part (58% of the population), people who don’t have any transport identity at all – people who are open to changing the way they travel about.  These are the kinds people who don’t get angry and yell when changes are proposed on the streets and roads where they live, but are quietly appreciative when those changes happen. And they’re the majority.

We don’t have to look much further for similar evidence. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey on Transport (published December 2015) found that, for journeys of less than two miles travelled by car, 41% of respondents said they could just as easily cycle (with the caveat that 64% of respondents felt the roads were too dangerous for them to cycle on). There isn’t hostility to cycling, per se, rather a reluctance to cycle on hostile and unpleasant roads.

Similarly the same survey shows that removing through traffic from residential streets – such a live issue at the moment – isn’t something that is out of favour with the general public. Opinion is actually finely balanced.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 23.47.28

Attitudes towards traffic calming options on residential streets (closure to through traffic at bottom)

A persuasive, compelling campaign for making residential streets safe and attractive places, that engaged with undecided opinion, could win the day, even in the most unlikely of places – especially as the elderly are actually more in favour of ‘filtering’ than the the young.



When it comes to building cycling infrastructure on main roads, again, surveys and polling suggest wide public support. Vociferous opposition should not be taken to represent mainstream opinion. A YouGov poll conducted for Cycling Works London found 74% for building safer routes for cycling in London. Support was still strong (64%) for building cycling infrastructure, even when the question explicitly mentioned taking lanes away.

Question from YouGov/Cycling Works poll

Question from YouGov/Cycling Works poll

Support was even stronger in younger age groups.

Even if cycling infrastructure might make some journeys by motor vehicle longer , 51% of respondents felt cycling infrastructure should be built. Just 26% felt otherwise.


Question from You Gov/Cycling Works poll

We have further evidence in the form of a more recent, nationally-focused poll (with a slightly larger sample) for British Cycling, covered by Peter Walker in the Guardian, with remarkably similar results. Again,  there is strong support for building cycling infrastructure on main roads in their local area (71%), with just 18% of those polled opposed. Support was even stronger if journey times would be unaffected, or improved – 79%.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 09.16.42

Even if journey times might be five minutes longer, building cycling infrastructure on main roads still commands majority support (54%).

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 09.17.46

Even amongst people who commute to work by car, cycling infrastructure on main roads which might delay driving by five minutes is still supported by 51% of respondents, with 34% opposed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 09.20.08

What all the research shows is that the majority of the British population are open-minded or willing to see change, and that the noisy, angry opponents really are a small minority. There is a large audience out there that is receptive to the idea of adapting and improving our roads and streets to make them work better for all users. Campaigns need to reach beyond the placard-waving objectors and engage with that audience, selling a positive message about how we can make the places where they live better.

Meanwhile councils and politicians shouldn’t be scared off by protestors who might seem to be numerous, but will only represent a very small proportion of local opinion. Change is happening – has to happen – and the British public will embrace it when it arrives.


Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 09.33.04

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14 Responses to Don’t confuse vociferous opposition with public opinion

  1. ORiordan says:

    I know that consultations, such as run by TfL, aren’t votes, but the numbers responding still tend to be a tiny fraction of the overall population that may be affected by a particular scheme.

    That suggests that it is still really activists (pro and anti) who respond and the vast majority, who may tend to be pro, don’t respond. I don’t know if that is because they don’t hear about consultations, or can’t be bothered responding, or a bit of both.

    Petitions, such as run by the anti-CS11 campaign, only need minimal reading and few clicks to respond while completing the consultation needs a lot more reading and clicks, suggesting that even the antis can’t be arsed responding to a consultation.

    Another point is the media needing to be seen as “balanced” so for every pro, they need an anti and arguments generate better stories than consensus.

    You see this in reporting of other issues such as science, so a nut job gets wheeled on to argue against generally accepted scientific knowledge.

    • Also:
      – There is a public perception that consultations are for people to express objections to a scheme. When canvassing for a scheme we often hear the comment ‘the council want to do it so we don’t need to support it’.
      – The membership of LCC should count as a generic petition for protected space for cycling 🙂

    • Paul M says:

      A consultation is indeed not a vote. The small sample size is not really the issue – political parties and the media predict the outcome of general elections or national referenda on smaller sample sizes than for example the respondents to the CS11 consultation, with well-understood caveats about standard deviations etc.

      A consultation can’t be treated as a poll because the electorate is entirely self-selecting. OK, so to some extent is the electorate in a general election as, sadly, young people don’t yet appreciate how important it is to vote if they don’t want us oldies pawning the family silver on them. A petition of course is even less appropriate as a vote as like an old Soviet committee election there is only one candidate.

      No, a consultation does exactly what it says on the tin. It consults. At one level it is looking for expert opinion (though I suspect that is done privately, outside the public consultation) but at another it is looking for evidence of how respondents would react to the proposals, like, for example, if CS11 was built, would respondents use it. It is also possible of course that Joe Public may be able to impart some wisdom which simply hasn’t occurred to the panjandrums. Sometimes it really does take a small boy to notice what the emperor is (not) wearing.

      But also, importantly, consulters are fully entitled to ignore responses from consultees whose opinions are clearly founded on bad data. For example, they are entitled to, and surely must, ignore @stoptfhellscs11’s rantings based on congestion claims which are conjured out of thin air and which flatly contradict the TfL computer modelling results, imperfect though those may be. Or @thesparkster’s (another taxi driver?) flat-earther insistence that because he gets stuck in traffic on a regular basis, his anecdata overrides any number of modelling projections, or traffic counts undertaken at reference sites like Vauxhall, etc.conducted by professional on true scientific principles.

      Let’s just hope that the voodoo – politics of our current leading mayoral candidates doesn’t trash that principle.

      • Andy R says:

        “It is also possible of course that Joe Public may be able to impart some wisdom which simply hasn’t occurred to the panjandrums. Sometimes it really does take a small boy to notice what the emperor is (not) wearing.”
        Many people take a cynical view that consultations are a tick-box exercise. My experience is that all responses are logged, and while most are simply “Yes, this is good” or “No, this is bad” and there’s no further interaction beyond working out the proportion for and against, if the respondent has some additional views and backs them with evidence they will be contacted. I remember one case where the respondent happened to be an ex-council engineer who had lived local to a proposed scheme for about 20 years. He made some reasoned comments and we actually visited with him to discuss his concerns and his proposal. Even in a Local Authority having engineers who are familiar with every street and the day to day behaviour of its users is going to be rare.

      • RichCyclist says:

        interesting point about those who vote. If politicians are chasing or retaining votes, then who are the voters, and what do they think? Should there be exit polls to find out? It may be that those who vote may also be those who would tend to oppose initiatives for cyclists as they might also tend to be the ‘noisy objectors’. Which might explain why we lack political support. Understand thy enemy and all that.

  2. bikemapper says:

    “For journeys of less than two miles travelled by car, 41% of respondents said they could just as easily cycle (with the caveat that 64% of respondents felt the roads were too dangerous for them to cycle on).”

    41% of respondents said they could cycle for journeys of less than two miles, and 36% of respondents did not feel the roads were too dangerous for them to do so. Have I got that right?

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      16% neither agreed nor disagreed, 16% disagreed, 3% strongly disagreed, and 1% didn’t know, so 19% did not feel the roads were too dangerous.

      Table ATT0313 in

      I’m not sure about who the “41% who could cycle” represents because the question includes the phrase “if I had a bike”. Those who do have a bike (43% of the sample set) may thus account for only 19% of the overall population who could cycle.

      In that case 19% could cycle now, and 19% feel the roads are fine. If you assume these propensities are distributed randomly throughout the population then you’d expect those who could cycle now *and* feel the roads are fine, amount to about 4% (probabilities multiply for ‘and’). Which isn’t far off the actual value.

      • bikemapper says:

        Thank you for correcting me. I am not quite sure how we ended up at 4%, however. This is the number who could cycle now *and* feel the roads are fine?

        It was interesting to read the research you linked to. It prompted me to do some digging of my own. You’ve probably already seen the latest attitudes to cycling report from TfL, Most Londoners (84%) know how to ride a bike, and just over half have access to a bike. Like you, then, I am not sure who the “41% who could cycle” represents, particularly, as you say, because the question includes the phrase “if you had a bike”. About three-quarters of the UK population lives in urban areas.

        22% of London residents who commute do so by bicycle, 33% every day, 54% three days a week, and 78% at least once a week.

        19% of Londoners cycle, of whom 72% ride a bike at least once a week. I don’t understand why the strategy to increase cycling’s modal share is not, in the first instance, centred around these people, but rather on the 81% of people who don’t currently cycle. It seems completely back-to-front to me.

        David Arditti has just tweeted: “Both main contenders for Mayor seem clueless about cycling, reacting to an agenda set by shock jocks rather than the 1000s who support CSHs.” But as David Hembrow has pointed out: “”Isolated bits and pieces don’t work. The network is the infrastructure.” One may ask, therefore, why the agenda should be set by an intransigent cycling lobby, and not according to the evidence.

  3. Pete says:

    Great article. Its interesting to see a few sources of this info in one place.

    This needs communicating to politicians. When politicians ask themselves the question: “will this measure make me less likely to be elected”, it needs to be answered with “only if you don’t do it!”.

  4. Glad you said this – as I said in my own (now hibernating) blog:

    “The “motoring lobby” constantly gestures towards its vast conscript army – the people who have to drive because that is the line of least resistance. Conscripts are not necessarily enthusiastic about their task and some are positively disaffected – is there a space to encourage desertion?”

    • congokid says:

      Indeed – something for all of the London mayoral hopefuls to consider. Despite the few minority interest groups who are making a lot of noise against them, the superhighways really do have the support of a large majority of people who could and would use them, and in particular those, such as schoolchildren, who at the moment don’t have any say in elections and polls and probably rarely respond to consultations.

  5. And don’t forget, most British people (or Americans except in NYC, Australians and Canadians) have never seen anything different or remember anything other than the car culture we have today. They’ve likely never ridden an omafiets before. And they’ve never experienced having cyclists and pedestrians being a mainstream form of transportation before.

    And the Dutch have a lot of freedom in terms of how they chose to get around. 27% of people on bicycle means of course that nearly 3 in 10 people ride a bicycle for their daily trips, but conversely it means that 73% of people don’t ride bicycles. Of course some of these people are walking, taking the bus or ride the train, but 3/4 of the kilometres traveled in the Netherlands are by automobile or other privately used motor vehicle. In fact, the Dutch have very safe roads for drivers as well, and very few policies are truly anti car. They have motorways where in nearly every place outside of the built up area the motorway speed limits are at least 120 km/h and a large part of the motorway network has 130 km/h speed limits, both higher than British speed limits, and they are very well built and well operated and very dense with about 3000 km of motorway in a country that is almost 6 times smaller than the UK, rarely is a motorway further than 30 km from your home.

    Trains are also very high quality. Most of the railways are electrified double tracked routes with a train every half hour, during peak hours often every 15 minutes, some routes every 10 minutes or more, usually with a speed between 130 and 140 km/h, most newer routes at 140 km/h and some up to 160 km/h or more, and with an national public transport card to make fares easy to pay and understand, and with a bicycle rental system for members at most railway stations.

    Public transport is also of high quality, many bus stops have waiting shelters, rubbish cans, benches and real time arrival information.

    All of the ways to get around in the Netherlands are quick and efficient, and the Dutch are wealthy people and can afford cars and most people who are old enough do get a license so they know how to drive if needed. They are also very safe, subjective safety and social safety included. Nobody is forced to use a particular mode.

    Big difference in thought between the people who believe that it is their right to drive and that it would be extinguished if cycling was introduced vs Dutch reality.

    • Cerasifera says:

      “27% of people on bicycle means of course that nearly 3 in 10 people ride a bicycle for their daily trips, but conversely it means that 73% of people don’t ride bicycles.”
      No, 27% of all TRIPS are made by bicycle. Very different thing.

      Also, you’re preaching to the choir 🙂 I think most readers of this blog are aware of the facts you mentioned, since they read this blog…

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