Academics claim that attempts by successive governments to get more people cycling have failed to have an effect on the wider public, who continue to consider bicycles as being either something suitable only for children, those without the means to buy and run a car, or strange types clothed in Lycra. They identified the danger posed by cycling on roads as the biggest barrier to getting people cycling, and say segregated bike lanes are the solution – a view shared by transport minister Norman Baker.
The findings come from an interim assessment of an ongoing study entitled Understanding Walking and Cycling, led by researchers from Lancaster University working alongside colleagues from Oxford Brookes and Leeds universities, which focuses on four towns and cities throughout England – Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester, reports The Guardian.
In the interim assessment, Dave Horton from Lancaster University says: "Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange. For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly on a regular basis."
The study is seeking to identify reasons why people in the four locations it focuses on choose to cycle, or if they don’t, what the barriers are preventing them from doing so. Questionnaires were sent out to local households, with researchers also spending three months in those places to conduct more in-depth research with selected families.
One finding of the research is that even when people do try to use a bicycle, existing road layouts that favour motorised traffic is a huge deterrent to would-be cyclists, and Dr Horton said that even those who did ride regularly could find such infrastructure to be "a dangerous obstacle course.
He continued: "The minority of people who cycle in English cities tend to do so despite, not because of, existing conditions. Some people try cycling, but are quickly put off."
As a result, many people view cycling as something to be done perhaps in the country at weekends rather than as a means of getting around on a daily basis, with those who do regularly ride in urban areas tending to be the keenest cyclists in the first place, underlining cycling’s status as a minority activity.
"Regrettably, we did not find this mass of people on the threshold of change, who only needed a little push to start cycling as a daily means of getting around," explained Dr Griet Scheldeman, a colleague of Dr Horton’s at Lancaster University.
"The hardy, Lycra-clad cyclists confirm that cycling is a very skilled practice, from which most people immediately distance themselves. So far, cycling promotion still reaches mainly that smallish part of the population that does not really need that much convincing."
Interim findings were presented this weekend at a conference called Building Cycling Culture hosted by Leicester University, where researchers from the University of East London also highlighted the outcome of their own research project, Cycling Cultures, which focused on four areas that already have higher-than-average levels of cycling – Bristol, Cambridge, Hull and the London Borough of Hackney.
The conference came just days after the Office for National Statistics revealed that three in four workers outside London still use cars to get to work, while less than one in ten used public transport, despite most commutes being of 15 minutes’ duration or less, putting many of those journeys within cycling distance, as reported by the BBC.
In the capital, longer commutes and greater usage of public transport were the norm, and the city is of course one where there has been an upsurge in people using bikes to get to their workplaces, bucking the national trend.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports that the average annual cost of running a car has risen by more than 20% and now stands at £3,090, with the increase largely driven by higher fuel prices.
The Lancaster University researchers maintain that the biggest steps that they believe can be taken to encourage more people to cycle would be building segregated bike paths on key routes in towns and cities, restricting the speed of traffic and availability of parking in urban centres and also introduce strict liability legislation to protect more vulnerable road users.
"The cycling world has in the past been divided over the best way of growing cycling. But if we want to achieve high levels of cycling across our cities, this has to change,” insisted Dr Horton.
"Perhaps above all, and probably most controversially, our research has made it very clear to us that in order to create a mass cycling culture in English cities we need to segregate cycling from motorised traffic along main roads. Combined with a range of other measures, very high quality segregated cycle routes could push English city cycling from its currently marginal status towards a mass phenomenon," he added.
Roger Geffen from national cyclists’ organisation CTC told The Guardian: "This new research certainly opens up some really interesting debates about how to redesign our roads and streets to get more people cycling. But the even bigger question is how to mobilise the political will to make this cycle-friendly future a reality."
Transport minister, Norman Baker, whose remit includes cycling, underlined the coalition government’s commitment to getting more people to cycle through its continued support for Bikeability as well as the £560 million Local Sustainable Travel Fund (LSTF), introduced last year, with the newspaper quoting him as saying, "Like another Norman before me I am keen to see more people get on their bikes."
While critics of the LSTF have voiced concerns that cash-strapped councils might use money from it to help plug holes in highways budgets for example by incorporating repairs in other schemes, Mr Baker told road.cc recently that they would not be permitted to divert funds to address issues such as repairing potholes.
He acknowledged that the rate of return from investment on cycling projects made good economic sense, and revealed that according to Department for Transport research, individuals travelling into town centres by bike rather than other modes of transport spent 10% more money while they were there.
Mr Baker insisted that the coalition government was spending more money on cycling than its predecessor did on cycling, although our feeling is that the maths only work if cycling takes a huge slice of money from the LSTF – something that is far from guaranteed.
It also pales into insignificance compared to the money being spent on roads – the cost of widening a 22-mile section of the M25 between junctions 16 and 23 was said to have escalated to £3.4 billion by a National Audit Office report last November, while the new five-mile extension to the M74 in Glasgow cost nearly £700 million.
However, Mr Baker pointed to the government’s scrapping of the proposed £1 billion-plus upgrade to the A14 as evidence of its intentions.
Mr Baker acknowledged that there was massive potential for cycling in the UK as a sustainable, greener, form of transport and admitted that the one thing keeping more Britons from taking to bicycles to get around was the fear factor. As a result, he, like the Lancaster University researchers, is in favour of segregated bike lanes, as well as more purpose-built infrastructure such as the Two Tunnels scheme near Bath.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.