Moving beyond commuting

September 14th is Cycle to Work Day, an event which reminds me that a large proportion of the focus on cycling in Britain – and of the attempts to persuade or enable people to cycle – is on travelling to work.

This focus is, perhaps, unsurprising. For transport planners and engineers, ‘the commute’ presents the most difficult problems, given that is when peak demand for use of transport networks occurs. Fixation on commuting is understandable given that pressure on networks is much lower at other times of day, when other kinds of trips tend to be made.

Although cycling obviously doesn’t place as much pressure on the road network as motoring at peak times, it forms such a small proportion of trips in this country it only really becomes ‘visible’ at peak times, even in places like central London. Again, this makes it more likely that we will fixate on commuting – flows of cycling are concentrated at the periods when people are travelling to and from work, and that therefore seems to be the only kind of cycling that is occurring, or could occur. During the middle of the day, away from places where infrastructure has started to be built, cycling is essentially non-existent. That absence of ‘everyday’ cycling makes a focus on commuting more likely.

Midday on Regents Street. While cycling might become more visible on these kinds of streets at peak times, it is essentially completely absent during the day

Midday on Regents Street. While cycling might become more visible on these kinds of streets at peak times, it is essentially completely absent during the day

The ‘visibility’ of cycle commuting also derives from the fact that its levels are generally substantially higher than overall cycling mode share. The London Borough of Hackney’s much-quoted census figure of 15.4% of trips to work being cycled stands alongside an overall cycling mode share of just 6-7% for all trips in the borough.

Midday on the A10 in Hackney. Again, not much cycling happening here.

Midday on the A10 in Hackney. Again, not much cycling happening here.

So it is likely that cycling to work figures will be around 2-3 times higher than the general cycling mode share across Britain.

As Rachel Aldred argues, this disparity is mostly likely due to ‘route sensitivity’ –

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.

But it’s also down to the fact that groups of people who don’t work – children and the elderly – are themselves much less likely to tolerate more hostile cycling environments than people of working age. This also applies to the fact that women – who we know are, similarly, less traffic-tolerant than men – are less represented in the working population. That working population is preferentially composed of people who are more willing to cycle.

For all these reasons, commuting is the lowest-hanging fruit of cycling trips – the easiest of all the kinds of trips to enable. But focusing on commuting is really not good enough for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest one is that commuting – while high profile – only forms a very small proportion of all the trips we make. In London, it’s just the bits in blue in the chart below.

The chart clearly demonstrate that commuting or work-related trips (in dark and light blue) are a small proportion of all the trips Londoners make. For under-16s and over-65s, commuting is essentially negligible, and even for 25-44 year olds, work-related trips are only around 30% of all trips made.

The picture is much the same at a national level – I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for crunching the numbers in the National Travel Survey and producing the results


Just 16% of all trips are commuting, with a further 3% ‘business trips’. So again over 80% of all trips we make are not travelling to work – they are trips to school, or for shopping, or to visit friends, or for entertainment. The kinds of trips that make up daily life. Focusing on commuting – the routes commuters take – will necessarily miss out all these other kinds of trips. The latest National Travel Survey presents these results by gender –

In both cases – and for women in particular – commuting is clearly a tiny fraction of all the trips people make.

I have heard it said that designing cycleways in London will only see them becoming increasingly clogged with lycra commuters. But I don’t think that is what will happen at all. A dense, high-quality network of cycle routes will see cycling increasingly dominated by those 80% of trips that aren’t commuting.

The kind of trips that are not being cycled at the moment. Children going to school. Parents going shopping. Teenagers going to visit friends. Cycling to the pub. And so on.

Saturday morning in Gouda. No commuting here.

Saturday morning in Gouda. No commuting here.

Lunchtime in Utrecht. Different kinds of trips.

Weekday lunchtime in Utrecht. Different kinds of trips.

Building cycling infrastructure will not mean more of the same kinds of trips by the same people we see now. It will broaden out cycling beyond the narrow commuter-centric demographic that currently exists.

I strongly suspect it will also change the way cycling looks. To take just one example, people taking their children to school, then going off to meet friends, or to go shopping, are much less likely to faff around with cycle-specific clothing and equipment than your typical commuter. While it might make sense for a commuter making a specific trip with somewhere to change and to store cycle-specific equipment, that choice of cycle equipment, and changing in and out of it, is just too much effort for a linked series of short trips interspersed with other activities.

It also means that commuting periods themselves will be more diverse – composed not just of people going to and from work, but also people going to and from school and college, going to after-school activities, going out for an evening, and so on.

5pm in Utrecht

5pm in Utrecht.


Building cycleways along, say, Euston Road in London will not lead to more of the same types of cycling we see now. It will lead to these kinds of cycling demographic shifts – trips by the children who live in the area, by parents, by elderly people, by people cycling to visit friends, and so on. Genuine mass cycling.

Only a small proportion of trips are commutes. We need to examine why all the other trips aren’t appearing, and plan and design to enable them.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Moving beyond commuting

  1. Bmblbzzz says:

    It seems odd not to include education with commuting. For children, the school run is their commute. It’s made on a daily basis between home and a fixed point, and in the morning at least it coincides with adults’ commutes to work.

  2. Bmblbzzz says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not only cycle routes which are commuting-focused: it’s also very much the case with most train services (the obvious exception being most XC) and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent of buses. It’s a problem with transport planning generally, and not just in the UK. It probably won’t be ‘solved’ without a major shift in the way we work, ie a significant move away from the 9-5; and that in turn will necessitate and bring about changes in the way we work and in society generally.

  3. Matthew says:

    Yes, the commute-to-work statistic unfortunately dominates a lot of analysis, probably not helped by the fact that the census collects that information specifically.

    The Cambridge Access Study of 2015 has some of that, but it also covers some information related to all trips involving the Cambridge street network:

    In particular, there is a bar chart showing that work-related trips correspond to less than a quarter of all trips during a weekday, section 2.3.1 (p 10). Shopping-related and health-related trips are a significantly larger share.

    In sections 5.2.3, 5.2.4 (pp 86-88) you can view the statistics collected from automated traffic counters (which don’t distinguish between trip purpose). There you can confirm some of the obvious points, such as the fact that cycle and walking mode share rises sharply the closer you get to the centre of the city. And that in the ten year period from 2004 to 2014, the cycle mode share into the city core increased by 12% with a corresponding decline in car usage. Cycling within Cambridge for both work and non-work related reasons is very popular, and many people who own a car also own a bike for local trips.

    Some of the motor traffic and bus park & ride data also covers Saturday and Sunday usage, which is particularly useful to note in Cambridge, where shopping trips on the weekends can easily rival weekday peak in intensity. A walk down Trumpington Street on a Saturday will easily confirm that the car park in the city centre Grand Arcade is under-priced on the weekend: a queue of cars extends all the way out of the core, just waiting to get into it.

  4. The Rachel’s Aldred quote above is spot on and another reason why *existing cyclists* views on how safe/pleasant riding should often be disregarded. After over a decade of riding the same daily commute I now make far more irregular journeys and the stress levels are much higher for exactly the reasons she states.

    It’s also yet another failing of the Quietway routes.

    Click to access quietways-routes-overview-2016.pdf

    Like the CSH routes they’ve been designed as suburb to centre commute routes but they fail as they’re not fast and direct (and as Rachel points out on a daily route you can increase your safety in various ways) but they fail to meet the needs of non-commuters as they carefully avoid local centres of shops and businesses.

    • Bmblbzzz says:

      No one’s views should be disregarded. Current cyclists views and experiences are just as important as those of potential cyclists, both should be taken into consideration. Excluding the opinions of one group (in so far as there really are such groups) is as bad as excluding the other.

  5. What right do car activists have to claim that cycle networks should be commuting networks when their own networks can be used for really any purpose they wish? You can use the motorway to tow a caravan to a camping spot, you can take a lorry to move house furniture from one house to another, you can get from home to work of course, from home to university or school, well, parents driving their kids in the case of the latter, you can see your grandparents, you can go to the grocer or IKEA, really any purpose you wish with it. Why must cycle networks be either for commuters or on back paths on scenic routes only?

    Also, it ignores the people who might be unable to cycle for work or school but could do it for other purposes. I guess this is technically commuting, but I do drive to school. Cycling through some rather busy junctions and with traffic is not on my to do list, so I don’t do it. It’s also a tiresome route, with on only 8.7 km of cycle route, more than 15 traffic lights, each with a long delay and often very bumpy. But because the commercial centre of my neighbourhood is newer, there is a route I can take without signals or a stop sign that is separated from traffic. I can take it to a place like a Tim Hortons and be comfortable.

    Also, I guess I’m bringing this up due to my age, but you know very well that while you might normally cycle somewhere, what else do you bring to a girl’s house to impress on the first time round? A horse? Having a system that makes rigid divides between modes is really hurtful to people who know how to use both.

    • HivemindX says:

      I don’t think car activists are the ones saying that at all. In fact I don’t really think anyone is saying that. What I think they are saying is that improving the situation for cycling commuting is a good first step. You can disagree of course but I think the roads authorities are concentrating on commuting because (as pointed out in the article) this is when the network is the most stressed. It is when we will see the maximum benefit from every car that is replaced by a bicycle on the roads. I think it is likely that this is also when there is the most risk to cyclists, when the roads are jammed with frustrated motorists and cyclists trying to squeeze through.

  6. HivemindX says:

    I am not convinced that number of trips is the most useful metric to use. I probably make twice as many trips to the shops as I do to work, but each one is very short and on residential roads that do not need any cycling infrastructure.

    For me, here’s a breakdown of the kinds of cycling I do.

    To the local shops. Maybe 10 times a week, not including when I stop off there on the way home from work. This is an extremely short trip (less than 1km) and it is on quiet roads. I don’t personally see any need to make changes to the roads near me to support that.

    To work. Five times a week. This is around 10km round trip. It is the most stressful because of the amount of traffic and that I have no real choice about what time I go and very little meaningful choice in what route I take. I would love more and better cycling infrastructure for this. An ambitious plan to improve things was torpedoed and is slowly sinking. The AA, shops and multi-storey car parks are against it because while they fully approve of cycle paths this is only if they do not take any driving or parking space away from cars. Local residents also complained that these cycle paths were going to DESTROY their locality.

    For leisure. Probably once a week on average. These are longer trips. Since I can choose when and where I go for leisure I choose roads that are suitable. I don’t feel the need, or really see the possibility at any time in the foreseeable future, for adding segregated cycle lanes along the sort of roads I use for this. I would like certain motorists to act more responsibly but apparently changing motorist behaviour is a pipe dream.

    Visiting friends or other social events (cafes, whatever). A few times a week. These tend to be on more or less the same roads I commute on so I would benefit from any commuting targeted improvements. However since I tend to do this outside of normal commuter hours the trips are actually a lot more pleasant due to reduced traffic. One of my friends lives quite close to my workplace so trips to visit them are very boringly similar to my commute. It is amazing how much better these trips are with massively reduced amounts of traffic. They are quicker and they feel safer.

    So, I take maybe 20 trips a week and only a quarter of them are commuting. However I still feel, very strongly, that the commuting trips are the ones that I would most like to be improved by changes to the infrastructure.

  7. Jonathan R says:

    Thank you for this very complete overview of the multiple kinds of trips that people make every day, and for highlighting the limits of emphasizing commuting trips.

    How do you conceive of trip chaining? I think that most trips are chained, where someone will drop off a kid at school, then continue on to work. Trip chaining makes it difficult to bike or walk, as every single segment has to work biking or walking, and unless there’s a bike share program, it’s tough to switch modes along the way.

    • Tim says:

      “Trip chaining makes it difficult to bike or walk, as every single segment has to work biking or walking”

      That comment seem to betray a remarkable lack of imagination. I take the kids to school every morning then continue onto work. If we’re running late we ride to school (smaller ones on the cargo bike). If we have time they walk with friends to school (3/4 of a mile ) while I push my bike.

      Admittedly all this would be much easier – especially them riding their own bikes – if we had a safer environment to ride in.

    • Matthew says:

      Agreed with Tim. I trip-chain almost every day with my bike, and I’m sure most people do. I have a basket, a rack and two panniers to carry most anything that I might buy on a daily basis. Most of my days do not follow a regular pattern of ‘commute’: it’s quite likely that I make two or three additional stops either before, during, or after work.

      The question does reveal a weakness in statistics that only collect a single reason for a trip. It’s hard enough to find statistics that are broad enough to cover non-work trips, and then they might not handle trip-chaining either.

      • jeldering says:

        Completely agree with previous replies: trip chaining is one of the things that I find much more convenient doing with a bicyle than by car. As long as all trips are within 5-10km distance and without need to transport too much, a bicycle is ideal: it’s trivial to push while walking with others (the second option to give another person a ride is unfortunately not legal in many countries), it’s (a lot) quicker than both walking or driving on short distances of 500m – 3km since you can park quicker and closer than by car. And it’s easy to change plans and e.g. visit a pub: I consider it fine to cycle while not completely sober, but not to drive, since in the former case I only endanger myself.

  8. Bill G says:

    Same here. When working lates’ I’ll stop off at the library on my way to work at least once a week, and when on earlies’ I’ll go food shopping on the way home. Even a social trip to watch county cricket or similar will include a stop at a shop that is usually just a little too far out of my way to justify the trip.
    Trip-chaining like this is easy because it is seamless, bike + lock = job done. Plus I get a little more exercise and see a bit more of my town.

  9. Pingback: Groningen does not have a 60% modal share for cycling | The Alternative Department for Transport

  10. Pingback: Groningen does not have a 60% modal share for cycling – kokr4th9

  11. Pingback: London’s enormous cycling potential | As Easy As Riding A Bike

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.