Plymouth has topped a list of the UK’s most cycle-friendly towns and cities compiled by Virgin Money. The research places Cambridge, the British city with the highest level of cycling, in 60th place. National cyclists’ organisation CTC has questioned the methodology used, saying that the use of casualty and theft statistics without relating them to bike usage means that in effect, high numbers of cyclists in a given town or city makes it “cycle unfriendly” in this context.
In a press release that was widely reported in national and local media, the financial institution, which has published the research to coincide with its sponsorship of next month’s Virgin Money Cyclone has revealed some details of its how it reached its conclusions.
Virgin Money customers will no doubt hope that the company's investment strategies show a greater level of sophistication than the methodology used to put the research together.
According to the company, “researchers rated towns and cities on a range of criteria including bike thefts; accidents; serious injuries and deaths for cyclists; the availability of cycle routes and the availability of specialist bicycle repair centres.”
Results were weighted to reflect population, but apparently no account was taken of bike ownership or levels of cycling in the towns and cities concerned, which would be particularly relevant in assessing theft or casualty statistics, for example.
Nor does it seem that anyone thought to ask the people who might be best placed to give an opinion on how cycle friendly or otherwise a particular place may be – cyclists themselves.
Missing from the list are several places in England that previously benefit from money made available under the Cycling Towns and Cities initiative – a number do make it, but only Bristol in third spot and Darlington in 14th place make it into the top 20.
Virgin Money says that Plymouth secured the top spot because it “scored well for low number of thefts, as well as a low number of accidents and cyclists killed or seriously injured while it ranked in the middle for the number of specialist cycle shops and 15th for cycle routes around the city.”
Cambridge, on the other hand – where it was recently revealed that bicycles now account for a quarter of all traffic – was “hampered by high incidence of cycle theft, serious injuries and a mid-ranking for bike shops and for cycle routes.”
The facts that the high number of bicycles in Cambridge have made it a magnet for bike thieves in recent years, or that higher levels of cycling tend to reduce the rate of death or serious injury when measured by distance traveled, although not necessarily bringing about a drop in absolute terms, do not seem to have been a factor in calculating its place on the ranking.
The same goes for any of the other towns and cities featured on the list. As Chris Peck of national cyclists’ organisation CTC says, “you shouldn't measure cycle safety by numbers of injuries. If you do that you will simply find that the places where cycle use is very high have more people being injured and more bikes being stolen.
He adds: “To a certain extent the numbers of bike shops and perhaps cycle route network are useful (though even they need careful definition - vehicle restricted city centres are far more valuable than miles of muddy rural cycle path). However, it is clear from the results that the casualty figures are a big part of the weighting.”
York also appears low down on the list, occupying 41st place, while Hull and Oxford, both cities with levels of cycling that are well above average, don’t even figure; among those that do make the top ten are St Helens, in fourth place, and Dudley, which came seventh, “yet both these towns have some of lowest cycling commuting levels in Britain,” says CTC.
Commenting on the results of the research, Graeme Tones of Virgin Money said: “Cycling continues to increase in popularity and is a major contributor to improving general health and easing traffic congestion. Government and local councils are doing their best to help more of us to get on our bikes through tax incentives, cycle parks and cycle paths.
“Every town and city in the top 60 can be pleased. Reducing the level of accidents and serious injuries requires responsibility from cyclists, care from drivers and the desire from towns and cities to make it easy and safe for people to get on their bikes”.
Virgin Money Cyclone organiser Peter Harrison added: “Everyone will have their own idea of what makes a town or city cycle friendly and the Virgin Money Cyclone research is an attempt to find which towns and cities are more cycle friendly than others and what the issues are. For those taking part in this year’s Virgin Money Cyclone I urge them to have a great time but equally importantly to be safe.
If you live or cycle in one of the towns or cities that feature on the list – or one that doesn’t – we’d be very interested to hear how your experience compares to its ranking.
Virgin Money's list of Britain's most 'cycle-friendly' towns and cities
4 St Helens
50 City of London
56 Greater London
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.