Government wants greater levels of walking and cycling

An analysis of urban transport

Government graphic

Government graphic, illustrating something strategic

The British Prime Minister's Strategy Unit has recently published a major review of urban transport in the UK. Amongst other things, it wants to help promote greater levels of walking and cycling in towns and cities. A good thing, as most cyclists would agree. Insofar as one can 'read' a 131-page list of bullet points, graphs, and barcharts, I've read the document, and it seems the Government is motivated not by a desire to please cyclists but by the same mindset that wants to ban fish and chips in schools:

The majority of adults are overweight and do not exercise enough ... Cycling and walking have potential to reduce health costs and wider economic losses by reducing the physical inactivity that contributes to a range of chronic diseases ... Increasing physical activity has a positive preventative and therapeutic effect on a range of diseases. Walking and cycling are high enough intensity to have a positive effect on health.

So it's a financial thing mainly. Of course one shouldn't look this gift-horse in the mouth. More walking and cycling is really a very good thing indeed, compared to sitting in traffic jams, wasting time, emitting greenhouse gases, and all the other bad things about the private car. But to what extent can a Government influence people's behaviour? The document includes statements such as:

Government has increased per capita investment in cycling in a selection of towns and cities. Initial data suggest this is leading to an increase in cycling levels ... [but] Policy interventions have not yet delivered systematic increases in cycling and walking ... The National Cycling Strategy was published in 1996 with an ambition to double cycling levels by 2002 and quadruple them by 2012 ... Progress against these was disappointing with little or no change in the numbers of trips or distances recorded ... These targets were reviewed and eventually abandoned by DfT in 2004.

They refer admiringly to cities like Copenhagen, the ultimate 'best practice' in the total segregation of bicycles and cars. I've cycled through Copenhagen myself and there are indeed a lot of cyclists in the streets. There are in London too though, and there's a view in the British cycling community that infrastructure like cycle lanes does nothing for cyclists in the long run as it encourages motorists to believe that bicycles have no place on the road. From The Cycling Lawyer:

Overtaking a cyclist is a manoeuvre that needs to be executed like overtaking any other vehicle and will usually necessitate changing lane. Close passing of cyclists and aggression towards cyclists who take appropriate space on the roads are major deterrents for cycling ... A significant barrier to popular cycling will be overcome when it can be demonstrated to be no more hazardous than driving a car.

Dangerous cycle lanes

Cycle lanes can be plain dangerous, especially when the Local Highway Authority uses them as an excuse for converting a busy two-lane road into a single one, squeezing lorries and buses between cyclists and those stupid little traffic islands that usually serve no purpose whatsoever.

Dangerous cycle lane

A very dangerous cycle lane (there's a small traffic island behind the lorry)

Here, the local Council has needlessly created a hazardous chicane. These things have sprung up everywhere. What the highway engineers have done, probably to keep up their annual spending programmes rather than out of real concern for the safety of cyclists, is a design disaster. I cycle up here almost every day, and I use the footpath, not the cycle lane. Hardly anyone walks along this footpath, so it's safe to ride on.

Clearly, what they should have done to accommodate cyclists is narrow the wide footpath to provide space not only for a cycle lane but also a wide enough road for lorries and buses (if they really must have the one lane for motorised traffic). When the Government talks about better infrastructure, it should also insist that agencies who deliver it 'on the ground' do it competently instead of botched jobs that have the opposite effect to what was intended.

Barriers to cycling

By coincidence, my local University – the University of Bolton – published a 2007 paper titled "Barriers to cycling: an exploration of quantitative analyses" which "reviews quantitative evidence, and discusses the relative contributions made by different factors to cycling levels; these include social and demographic factors such as class and age, physical factors such as climate and hilliness, and highway design factors."

In particular, the paper's authors examine why people do, or do not, cycle:

Transport planning usually affords primacy to estimates of cost and time, but there is another area of difficulty in the modelling of cycling because a further significant resource that is consumed is effort expended by the cyclist, and this needs careful consideration. Other less tangible factors, such as self image, perceived ability and social norms also play a part.

Unlike the British Government, they examine the actual cyclist with a detailed exploration of the different factors involved in decisions to cycle, or not to cycle. This is surely the crux of the matter, and is a better approach than attempting to influence our behaviour by forcing us to do what's good for us. Interesting to note:

  • Off-road trail riding (more commonly known as 'mountain biking' has particularly captured the minds of the British public, and has changed from an obscure hobby to a regular pastime for around 1.5 million Britons, with a further 1.9 million taking part in this activity on a less frequent basis.
  • Anecdotal evidence from the cycle industry suggests that the mountain bike boom is over, and growth is instead now being witnessed in sales of 'comfort bikes' and 'fast city bikes' (also known as 'trekking bikes' or 'hybrids'), adept on tarmac as well as rough trails.
  • Hilliness in a district, measured as the proportion of kilometre squares in a district with an average gradient of 3% or more, has one of the largest influences on the proportion of people cycling to work. A 10% increase in the size of the variable for hilliness is linked with a 10% to 15% reduction in the proportion of people cycling to work.
  • It is generally not possible or practical to adjust hilliness or climatic conditions through policy interventions. However, it is important to recognise the impact these factors have on cycling levels, and to realise that there is a lower upper bound to the quantity of cycling that may be attainable in hillier, wetter and cooler regions.
  • Interestingly, the provision of facilities for cycle traffic on the highway (for example, cycle lanes approaching and through junctions) was found not to greatly influence the perception of risk. This may be because the presence of such facilities is alerting the cyclist to an assumed level of hazard that they may otherwise not have perceived. Conversely, it may simply be that such facilities within the highway have no value in altering the perceived level of hazard to which a cyclist is exposed.
  • Poor riding surfaces put people off cycling. Another aspect of rolling resistance is relevant; novice cyclists are less likely to understand the detrimental effect of high rolling resistance, especially on the common entry level bicycle that has large cross-section knobbly tyres that may perhaps only infrequently be inflated to the correct pressure. Bicycle promotion activities should therefore include guidance on bicycle purchase decision making and maintenance.

As a regular cyclist, I have presumably overcome the main 'barriers' to cycling:

  • Don't want to cycle (I really enjoy it)
  • Nowhere to ride (I live in a good place for cycling)
  • Not enough time (I can cycle any time I like)
  • No access to a bicycle (I have two)

The only sort of barrier I still face occasionally is when there's nowhere secure to leave my bicycle at the dentist, shops, bank, etc. Hilliness isn't a barrier to me – quite the reverse – and the Government can't do much about hills anyway, just as it can't do much about the British weather.

Even if I don't subscribe to its reasoning, I welcome the Government's re-kindled commitment to promoting "greater levels of walking and cycling" and to improving facilities for cyclists. But I would much prefer to see what is often referred to these days as a customer driven approach, in which cyclists demand and the Government follows. Nothing will really increase the number of ordinary people who cycle in British towns and cities except a change of culture. This is where cycling countries like Denmark score so highly. They cycle without even thinking about it.

Copenhagen cycle path

Cycle path into Copenhagen, a few miles out

Danish suburbia is fundamentally different to ours, which will never be like this: a main road leading into Copenhagen from the South (it's my wife on the bike). The motor vehicle is completely subservient. Danish people are different to us as well. Motorists show more consideration for others, and you feel much safer even when there's no cycle lane. Greater levels of cycling isn't really about 'infrastructure'. It's about fostering a more civil society.