How to get more Britons on bikes? Don't listen* to existing cyclists for a start say £1m report

Luckily the other six recommendations for policy makers are a lot more sensible

by Tony Farrelly   September 11, 2011  

Cycle lane

The authors of a million pound report in to cycling and walking in the UK have come up with seven key suggestions for promoting sustainable travel they have also stirred up controversy by asserting that the best way to promote cycling and walking was "not to base policy on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians" but instead to listen to those that don't currently cycle and walk.

The report, Understanding Cycling and Walking, drawn up following three years of research by academics from Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brooks universities and funded to the tune of £936,000 by the Physical Sciences Research Council concludes that most Britons are broadly in favour of cycling and walking… just so long as they don't have to cycle or walk themselves. The authors identify three factors that stop people cycling – fears about safety, the difficulty of incorporating it in to complicated daily routines, especially for those with small children, and the perception that cycling is not a "normal" mainstream activity – fears about helmet hair also crop up in some of the responses to the research. There are seven recommendations for luring the population out of their cars:

  • Make urban environment safe for cyclists and pedestrians - including fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy urban routes
  • Pedestrian routes should be made as welcoming as possible to increase footfall
  • Effective reductions in traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle and pedestrian paths
  • System of legal liability on public roads should be changed to protect the most vulnerable road users, "strict liability" on the European model, while not changing criminal liability is suggested as one option.
  • Changes to the spatial structure and organisation of the build environment using planning legislation including the development of more neighbourhood shopping centres and restriction on out of town developments
  • Wider societal and economic changes such as more flexi-hours to give people the flexibility to travel more sustainably
  • Change the image of cycling and walking, this may happen as a consequence of the previous suggestions being implemented but any campaign to promote cycling should not be dominated by "the super-fit or unusually committed"

Ironically these suggestions echo what has been said for years by many of the committed cycllists and walkers who the report says policymakers should ignore. A better build environment, making roads safer, and the need to portray cycling as being an activity or form of transport that is not just for the super-fit and Lycra-clad are all tenets of faith amongst those currently working to boost cycling in the UK. Some might even argue that the Physical Sciences Research Council could have saved itself £936,000 by simply reading much of the research on the subject already published by both Sustrans and Cycling England which comes to much the same conclusion and prescribes much the same remedies.

The passage of the report that has irked cycle campaigners such as the CTC's Campaigns Director, Roger Geffen comes at the end of the summary of the report's key findings and recommendations when the authors say:

“Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes.”

While no-one would quibble with seeking the views of those that don't cycle or walk to find out what would persuade them to do so the suggestion that existing cyclists and walkers should not be consulted has raised hackles with campaigners queuing up to point out that it is just that unwillingness to consult with cyclists that has led to so much poor infrastructure being built by non-cycling traffic engineers.

In the face of criticism from cycle campaigning groups the report's lead author, Professor Colin Pooley of Lancaster University told the BikeHub website that with hindsight they should have inserted the word "only" in to the offending section of text.

Indeed, as the report makes clear, some of its conclusion are reached on the basis of studying what committed cyclists and walkers do to incorporate their chosen forms of travel in to their lifestyles which would seem to set the passage at odds with the report's own methodology.

However arguments about the missing "only" should not be allowed to detract from what is on first reading at least a well researched and nuanced report that makes the point the point that the UK is locked in to a vicious cycle of car dependancy that can only be broken by providing the right infrastructure and social changes to allow more people to make walking and cycling a 'normal' part of their daily lives.

"Alternatives to the car – especially cycling and walking – are perceived to take too much effort, need planning and equipment that causes hassle, and may be risky and uncomfortable. They also run the risk of being perceived by others as being eccentric or odd. These are all powerful reasons for not walking and cycling and for using the car for most short trips in urban areas."

The view that cycling is not something that 'normal' people do is identified by the report as a major obstacle to the growth of cycling in the UK and while the report makes a number of suggestions regarding infrastructure and planning aimed at creating "a total environment that is welcoming for cyclists and pedestrians"

Most people prefer not to stand out as different, but tend to adopt norms of behaviour that fit in and reflect the majority experience. In Britain, travelling by car is the default position for most people – over 60 percent of all trips are by car – and car ownership and use is seen as normal."

National and local government will need to work in combination with employers if the UK is to bring the number of short trips made by bike or on foot up to the levels of those seen in other parts of Northern Europe and while the authors admit that implementation of such measures would be "daunting" they also say that there is much that could be done relatively easily to promote positive change now.

Understanding Walking & Cycling was based on approximately 1500 surveys backed up by further interviews with a selection of participants drawn from four towns and cities: Leeds, Leicester, Lancaster, and Worcester. Lancaster was one of Cycling England's Cycling Demonstration Towns. It would be interesting to see if it's conclusions would have been any different if London, the UK's most notable success in promoting cycling, had been included in the study. The capital would seem to back up the point that political will, backed up by plenty of cash will go a long way to turning cycling into a mainstream activity.

However although the report and the responses from CTC and Sustrans which both broadly welcome its conclusions (although the CTC isn't too happy about that missing "only") focuses on short trips the problem for the UK certainly when it comes to promoting cycle-commuting is that most Britons commute relatively long distances compared to their continental counterparts and realising both the economic and time benefits of cycle commuting does indeed require a certain amount of speed and sweatiness… but maybe that's a nut to crack in another study?

*Okay, maybe listen to them a bit then is the latest position

24 user comments

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My recommendation - Put the congestion charge in London up to £100 per day. It would be incredible the amount of people who would then found how much they loved cycling!

posted by londonplayer [671 posts]
11th September 2011 - 17:58


I think the law needs to be properly enforced in cycling traffic incidents. There is a huge tendency to brush it off as an accident - when the real issue is poor judgement. Oh - and vehicles with 'blind spots' should be off the road

The also need to make it clear to drivers that aggressive behaviour towards cyclists will not be tolerated. It needs to be viewed in the same way drink driving or speeding is viewed.

posted by fiftyacorn [91 posts]
11th September 2011 - 18:03


It's a real shame that the reaction to this otherwise very sensible and insightful report has been dominated by this controversy about a passage at the end. It couldn't be that some people were just desperate to disagree with it could it? The fact is, though, that lots of committed cycle campaigners aren't all that keen on segregated cycle infrastructure as has been well rehearsed here and on almost any cycling forum in the UK. Given that both the CTC and CycleNation have been supporters of the 'hierarchy of provision' which places separated infrastructure last, perhaps the professor is right to suggest that politicians look elsewhere for guidance? Yes, implementing decent infrastructure requires expertise (and an enormous amount of political will) but the expertise isn't necessarily going to be found among UK based cycling campaigners, but among Dutch and Danish based traffic engineers. Survey after survey has shown that people don't cycle because they're frightened of traffic, and that isn't going to go away just because someone tells them to 'man up and take the lane' - it's going to go away because someone's arranged it so they don't have to go head to head with a double-decker bus to get to the shops. Sure it's daunting because we're starting from a position of years of neglect, but we've got to start somewhere.

posted by townmouse [14 posts]
11th September 2011 - 18:12


I quite like this article BUT here we go again with CTC, i am growing more and more frustrated with them, if its not their way its wrong kinda style, who put them at the top and spokesmen for all cyclists? I see them as a bunch of clowns who have no grip on the real issues facing cyclist's not just commuters

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posted by Gkam84 [9308 posts]
11th September 2011 - 20:20


No need to put up the congestion charge in London any higher, parking costs a fortune unless you've a company car oark. The thing is to make the roads safer, ban the BMWs for starters.


posted by OldRidgeback [2535 posts]
11th September 2011 - 21:40


Actually this article does say that it's an interesting and useful piece of research, there isn't much in it for even so it surely doesn't tell us anything that we haven't been told by previous research or indeed put forward any solutions that haven't already been suggested.

The "daunting" remark in the report is I think aimed at our elected representatives both national and local who would have to enact these changes, it doesn't I suspect refer to the financial cost but more the political cost because in effect it would require those who've recently declared the war on the motorist to be over to re-start it.

To be fair to the CTC Gkam84 the only bit of the report that they seem to be quibbling with is the passage about not being influenced by cyclists – which seems fair enough and I suppose they get their place at the top of the campaigning tree because they've got far and away more members than anyone else and they've been around for a lot longer too which earns them some clout. Know what you mean about if it's not their way it's wrong, but I think that's more a problem with how they come across rather than how they actually act.

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
11th September 2011 - 21:46


Hasn't this silly obvious report already been reported? Or are academics not above silly season double-announcements?

posted by a.jumper [816 posts]
11th September 2011 - 22:06


tony_farrelly wrote:

To be fair to the CTC Gkam84 the only bit of the report that they seem to be quibbling with is the passage about not being influenced by cyclists – which seems fair enough and I suppose they get their place at the top of the campaigning tree because they've got far and away more members than anyone else and they've been around for a lot longer too which earns them some clout. Know what you mean about if it's not their way it's wrong, but I think that's more a problem with how they come across rather than how they actually act.

Yeah i do get their point on this article, but just lately all i see is CTC popping up against things that seem to be happening for the good apart from maybe the lorry debate

I know they've been around a while and have alot of members, just some of their ideas and campaigns seem a bit fair out and not in keeping with cycling in general, they just seem to be turning into road crusaders with cycling attached to their name, need to rein it in a little and focus on the problems cyclists face everywhere in the country, If they came to me, traffic is way down the list, its the state of the roads and path ways that need to be sorted

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posted by Gkam84 [9308 posts]
12th September 2011 - 0:01


I'm pretty sure that the "don't listen to existing cyclists" exhortation was intended to put the CTC's well-known 'right to vehicular cycling' stance in context.

The reality is that the significant majority of 'potential cyclists' would be more likely to ride if there were more segregated cycle paths which kept cyclists and motorised traffic apart.

You only have to ride the Phoenix Trail (Thame to Princes Risborough) to see how popular segregated facilities are. You will see that they are ordinary people, wearing ordinary clothes - people who don't relate to, or want to be associated with, lycra-clad road warriors who ride assertively on their commute to work.

This research is useful because its starting point is that the bicycle is a legitimate mode of transport and seeks to identify and remove obstacles that prevent cycling being used as a mode of transport.

I think it was a genuine breakthrough for the researchers to discover that no amount of training and 'soft measures' would persuade potential cyclists to get their bikes out unless perceived safety is addressed. And the best way forward is segregated cycle paths.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
12th September 2011 - 7:00


Surely the newer bit is that no amount of soft measures OR infrastructure such as segrated cycle lanes will persuade some people to get on a bike until doing so is perceived as 'normal' is the main finding. You could argue that point has been reached in London already without that much segregated infrastructure being put in place… not sure you can count blue paint as segregation.

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
12th September 2011 - 7:59


I quite like the fact that it actually states cyclist have been regarded as eccentric and odd in the past, something I have found to be very true.


posted by emily.b [15 posts]
12th September 2011 - 9:45


tony_farrelly wrote:
Actually this article does say that it's an interesting and useful piece of research, there isn't much in it for even so it surely doesn't tell us anything that we haven't been told by previous research or indeed put forward any solutions that haven't already been suggested.

Fair enough - I was reacting mainly to the far less measured responses elsewhere and the headline and tweets promoting this article, which did highlight this aspect above everything else.

All the same, the response depresses me. It's almost as if we KNOW what we need to do and we KNOW that's going to be politically hard, so rather than discussing how best to do it anyway we ignore the report in favour of picking holes in the people who wrote it or arguing about the CTC's response. Much more useful than fighting amongst ourselves would be to sit down and try and work out what can be done and then build the will to do it. And if we can't do that as cyclists, then maybe we deserve to be ignored.

posted by townmouse [14 posts]
12th September 2011 - 16:50


tony_farrelly wrote:
not sure you can count blue paint as segregation.

You don't say Thinking


posted by stewieatb [299 posts]
12th September 2011 - 16:59


@townmouse I think I'd draw a distinction between how people from various cycling organisations react to a story about the report and how they actually react to the report.

As to how the cycling press have reported this, well we've tried to take a balanced approach here, this is obviously a big well funded study and it adds more weight to the arguments. But it is also true to say that pretty much everything I've read in the report summary has already been said and I'd be amazed if the likes of Norman Baker don't know exactly what is required to get more Britons on bikes - it's simply a matter of summoning up the political will to do so. I wouldn't say cyclists are squabbling about this - we're already on side nothing in this report is new we're just waiting for someone to get on and do something. I've spoken to Norman Baker on this and if I'm honest what I got back were warm words and evasion. I stand to be corrected but I'm sure the changes that were made in Holland and Denmark in the 70s and 80s were actually from the top down - they may both be cycling paradises now but the process of creating those cycle friendly streets was extremely fraught and unpopular at some political cost to those that ushered in the cycling revolution.

The example of London may be far from perfect, but believe me when viewed from the rest of the country it is a shining example of what can be done if you throw some money and political will at the issue. My feeling is as someone who spent 35 years living in London that most Londoners realise that the city couldn't go on as it was in terms of traffic, pollution, and congestion which opened the door for the politicians to act. I'm not sure that people living in the rest of the country and driving their cars on a daily basis for short journey are in the same place.

As for the cycling media focussing in on the comment about ignoring cyclists' views… well, that was actually the newsiest part of the report and we wouldn't have been doing our jobs if we'd ignored it. Plus highlighting the comment has obviously made the report's author think again which has to be a good thing to happen before the report itself gets in to the hands of policy makers.

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
12th September 2011 - 19:00


I note the report comments about speed reduction and cycle lanes and people being in favour of walking and cycling - as long as they don't have to bother. I still think (and have been banging on ad nauseum) for years that campaigning for new speed restrictions will help cyclists and pedestrians.

Does anyone know when GB speed limits were set and seriously reviewed on a national basis? In suburbs 30mph after 30 years of creepage now means 38-45mph. I'd like to campaign using local MPs for 25mph in suburban roads, 50mph on B roads and all country lanes and toss the Clarksons a bone by raising motorway limits to 80mph. This is so popular an idea with most people I met it's worth a push surely?

All the chat about expensive cycle lanes is for down the road. In a recession surely speed restructions are long over due when considering cost in fuel? After all - cost in lives since 1990 hasn't really made much difference so far.

Silly me. You're probably right....

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posted by MercuryOne [1161 posts]
12th September 2011 - 20:21


MercuryOne: valid point but you've got to ask WHY is speed now at 38-45mph in 30mph zones - answer is that there is NO (or very little) enforcement. You can put in all the rules and limits you want but if there is no penalty for failing to abide by them, there will be no change.

As for the "is blue paint segregation?" argument, it doesn't have to be. It increases the awareness (even subliminally) of motorists to the fact that cyclists are likely to be present and more importantly, it re-inforces the idea that cycles have a vaild place on the road. I don't believe segregation is the answer, certainly not while we've got the current crop of pathetic excuses that pass as "cycle lanes" (the ones that end in the middle of roundabouts, stop at every junction, have bollards, lampposts and trees in them, you know the type...)

posted by crazy-legs [635 posts]
12th September 2011 - 21:07


Good point about the enforcement of speed limits crazy-legs I'm ringed by 20mph zones and I see bugger all people observing it and nil enforcement as far as I can see the police are barely interested in enforcing the limits on urban main roads and totally not interested when it comes to residential streets. It's got to be said also that many chief constables were against lowering speed limits when that first came on to the political agenda precisely because they said they were unenforceable - so they sort of have a vested interest in proving themselves right. Although it also has to be said that the cuts to police budgets can't help on that front even if there was the will to enforce.

As to building segregated cycle lanes in a recession… well, MercuryOne I suppose it depends whether you're a Keynsian or a Monetarist on that one Smile I'm all for building our way out myself + I wouldn't have any problem if my local council wanted to put segrated lanes in on the main routes in and through Bath - sometimes I get a bit tired of claiming my lane while another white van/park 'n'ride bus/HGV/school run mum still tries to push past at 40mph in a 30 zone, but maybe I'm just going soft

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4201 posts]
12th September 2011 - 23:13


I'm also all for building our way out of recession, BUT if you think about it this way, the government wont be.

So we build some cycle lanes and encourage the population to walk and cycle a lot more, people will not only save on fuel and driving costs, but there will also be a health benefit............OH hang on Mr Minister, if too many of these people take to becoming healthy and not using their cars so much, we are going to lose out on their money from our stupidly high taxes on fuel, the smokers might like being healthy and give up, damn another high tax from them gone aswell...NO, i think we'll leave it alone

I could give many more examples of other things that might make less money, but you get the picture.

The other thing, apart from maybe saving the NHS a tiny amount with people's health and the odd bit of tourism, there is nothing else making cycling paths will gain the country apart from the happiness of cyclist's and well all know, most of the government couldn't give a toss about us Yawn

Gkam84's picture

posted by Gkam84 [9308 posts]
13th September 2011 - 2:02


I don't agree with segregating the bikes from the rest of the traffic, unless it can be done *totally* and would have the same freedom of flow that the current road network does. However, the reality of that is that it's not possible, short of mirroring the road network either with skyrails or tunnels.

Equally, given the number of drivers that seem to think cycle lanes are absolutely mandatory and swear, swerve, beep etc if you dare not to use them, the existence of some segregation will further serve to support their unenlightened thinking.

I believe it will create a two-tier system - those that pootle and will use the lanes, and those that use the bike for transport and the free-flowing current network. Only thing is, it'll force the latter group into more conflict situations with the minority of tools in vehicles, which is a hugely negative outcome.

posted by the-yorkshire-p... [180 posts]
13th September 2011 - 8:35


I prefer the Bristol way of just painting bicycles on roads likely to be used by cyclists. Coloured lanes are never maintained well enough and break up to become rough and nasty rides fairly quickly. London will discover this soon!

posted by a.jumper [816 posts]
13th September 2011 - 12:36


"OH hang on Mr Minister, if too many of these people take to becoming healthy and not using their cars so much, we are going to lose out on their money from our stupidly high taxes on fuel, the smokers might like being healthy and give up, damn another high tax from them gone aswell...NO, i think we'll leave it alone"

I think the argument would run that the savings (reduced road wear, reduced call on the services of the NHS) would offset the declining taxation. It's not just improvement of the health of drivers; it's improvement in the health of those subject to less pollution, and fewer "accidents".

Whilst the report may not be stupid, the PR around the release is astonishingly naiive, and I can see the soundbite being thrown around to justify the next lot of token measures offered to non-motorised transport by the government. Appallingly misjudged by the authors.

"Tant que je respire, j'attaque!"

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posted by John_the_Monkey [428 posts]
14th September 2011 - 14:18


fiftyacorn's comment should have read:
Oh - and drivers with 'blind spots' should be off the road

posted by Recumbenteer [155 posts]
14th September 2011 - 14:34


I would love segragated cycle infrastructure but that is never going to happen because road design is sponsored by businesses who are only interested in getting people to spend money by visiting them by car (seeping generalisation but you know what I mean). Our roads are too narrow to provide a safe environment to cycle in as most lanes are only wide enough for one motor vehicle at a time and where there are off-carriageway cycle lanes, they break at side roads to give way, rendering them almost useless. I don't like the trend for labelling motorists and cyclists as them and us as I too am a motorist and wouldn't want to be inconvenienced either in my car or on my bike. So until we get a system like the Dutch have, we're stuffed.


posted by jazzdude [65 posts]
14th September 2011 - 16:18


There is definitely a divide between those who are involved in cycling and those that may or may not want to cycle. The problem for get people on a bike and generally active is getting them active. All the excuses road infrastucture, danger etc etc etc, is just that an excuse. People who have spent a lot of time avoiding being active. Now that there is a political, social and environmental imperative to be more active.

I agree with the report to a certain point. To encourage people onto there bikes. Different ways need to be applied. I should know my business revolves round just that getting people active and the bike is part of this concept. We have spent 10 years researching how why and what will be people active. We don't have all the answers but we do have applications that have worked for us and new concepts based on proved strategies.

posted by Ciaran Patrick [119 posts]
14th September 2011 - 17:07