Cycling's North/South divide revealed by new DfT figures

Breakdown of figures by local authority reveals most areas with high usage in South and East, North lags behind

by Simon_MacMichael   September 3, 2012  

Dog in bike basket (copyright Simon MacMichael)

New figures released by the Department for Transport (DfT) reveal a sharp North/South divide in levels of cycling in England, with people living in the south and east of the country more likely to ride a bike at least once a month than those living further north.

The data show that more than half of adults in Cambridge cycle once a week or more, and nearly six in ten ride a bike at least once a month. Blackburn with Darwen, meanwhile, emerges as the English local authority with the lowest levels of cycling – just 7 per cent of people there cycle once a month or more, and only 4 per cent ride a bike at least weekly.

Released last week, the figures, which assess levels of cycling and walking for every local authority in England, are based on Sport England’s annual Active People Survey, conducted by telephone with more than 166,000 respondents.

While it’s unsurprising that Cambridge has the highest level of cycling in the country, the extent of its lead over second-placed Oxford perhaps is – a third of people in the latter cycle once a week, compared with nearly six in ten in Cambridge.

Nationally, 15 per cent of respondents said that they cycle at least once a month, with 10 per cent doing so at least once a week, 4 per cent at least three times a week and 3 per cent getting on their bike five times a week or more, but there is a big North/South divide, with regions in the southern half of the country displaying higher levels of regular cycling than those further north.

Levels of cycling in England, by region

                                Cycle at least   
                      1 x        1 x      3 x       5 x
                   per month  per week  per week  per week
North East            13          8         3         2
North West            13          8         4         2
Yorkshire & Humber    13          9         4         2
East Midlands         15          9         4         2
West Midlands         12          7         3         2
East of England       17         11         6         4
London                16         11         5         3
South East            18         11         5         3
South West            17         11         5         4
England               15         10         4         3

Source: Active People Survey, Sport England/DfT August 2012

That regional divide is also borne out when analysing results by local authority, with most of the council areas where fewer than 10 per cent of people cycle once a month or more being in the north, and the majority of those where more than a quarter of respondents do so located in the south.

The DfT comments that: “The majority of the areas with the highest rates of cycling are cities or boroughs within cities. Other characteristics associated with a number of these areas are a large student population and a flat local landscape” – true, but not factors exclusive to the south and east of England.

Local authority areas in England where 
at least 25 per cent of people cycle once a month or more

                                Cycle at least   

                      1 x        1 x      3 x       5 x
                   per month  per week  per week  per week

Cambridge             58         52        43        37
Isles of Scilly *     41         37        21        17
Oxford                33         30        17        12
York                  32         23        15        10
South Cambs           32         22        11         6
Gosport               32         24        15         8
City of London *      30         30        29        18
Richmond upon Thames  30         21         9         6
Rutland               27         16         9         3
Vale of White Horse   27         16        11         7
Norwich               26         18        11         9
Hackney               26         20        11         8
Worthing              26         20         8         5
Chichester            25         16         8         3

Sample sizes for the Isles of Scilly and City of London are 
very small and caution is needed in interpreting these results.

Source: Active People Survey, Sport England/DfT August 2012

There were 24 local authority areas in which fewer than 10 per cent of respondents ride a bike once a month or more, with a heavy concentration in the North West, including three councils – Bolton, Oldham and Rochdale – in the area covered by Transport for Greater Manchester which is currently trying to get more people to switch to cycling for commuting.

Two councils in the capital – Hillingdon and Barking and Dagenham & Redbridge – each had 9 per cent of respondents saying that they cycle at least once a month.

The fact that Inner London councils tended to see higher levels of cycling than Outer London ones – with the notable exception of Richmond upon Thames – suggests that criticism that Mayor Boris Johnson is prioritising cycling initiatives closer to the centre of the city against ones on the periphery is perhaps justified, although car use also tends to be higher the further out of the centre you get.

Local authority areas in England where 
fewer than 10 per cent of people cycle once a month or more

                                Cycle at least   

                      1 x        1 x      3 x       5 x
                   per month  per week  per week  per week

Bolton                 9          5         2         1
Oldham                 9          6         2         -
Rochdale               9          5         2         -
Kirklees               9          7         3         1
Leicester              9          7         4         2
Bolsover               9          4         1         1
Newcastle-under-Lyme   9          6         2         2
Sandwell               9          5         2         2
Walsall                9          5         3         1
Thurrock               9          6         3         1
Hertsmere              9          6         3         2
Hastings               9          5         3         2
Burnley                8          5         2         1
Hyndburn               8          6         3         2
Rossendale             8          5         1         -
Knowsley               8          5         3         2
Rotherham              8          6         2         2
Calderdale             8          5         2         -
Oadby & Wigston        8          5         4         3
Luton                  8          5         2         1
Barking & Dagenham     8          5         2         1
Hillingdon             8          4         2         1
Blackburn with Darwen  7          4         1         1

Source: Active People Survey, Sport England/DfT August 2012

The survey also found that 11 per cent of adults cycle for 30 minutes at least once a month, Cambridge again coming out top here at 35 per cent, while 29 per cent of cyclists in London ride their bike for utility purposes, compared to 16 per cent nationally.

The full release containing charts relating to riding for half an hour or more plus levels of utility cycling can be accessed here, while a spreadsheet containing detailed results by local authority area can be found here.

9 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

It's 'cos it's hilly up here!


posted by cool guy 999 [54 posts]
3rd September 2012 - 16:39


Cor, what I wouldn't give for a bit of downhill! And the wind! Nothing between here and the Urals, mate.

posted by HKCambridge [210 posts]
3rd September 2012 - 17:17


The suspicion (unproven) is that Richmond has higher than general levels of cycling because:
1. Lots of people cycle round Richmond Park.
2. It's generally a fairly green borough, with a range of off-road provision (although that provision isn't generally cycling specific).
3. Half of the people who responded in the City of London probably actually live in Richmond anyway ...

It's interesting that Norwich, was has done extensive pedestrianisation and change work in town, has better numbers for more frequent cycling.

timlennon's picture

posted by timlennon [229 posts]
4th September 2012 - 8:54


Four reasons:

1. Weather (in the North)
2. Hills (as the report suggests)
3. Things are further apart in the North, whereas in the South East in particular cycling is a more viable alternative to expensive public transport and travel by car is not always possible/cost effective.
4. Cycling is cool. Those fixie fashionistas will surely get bored of looking like a beatnick courier soon and move onto trad jazz or something. Expect a gradual drop in Rapha shares shortly after they float on the FTSE.

Blackburn is a curious one. There's plenty ace riding close by (on and off road). However, my idea of good riding is probably not the same as someone who needs to commute on the same route. Dare I say that cycling is still a predominantly white middle class sport/pastime?


posted by arrieredupeleton [586 posts]
4th September 2012 - 9:42


I think there might be something in the ethnic angle you mention. Many of the places with low cycling levels are places with pretty substantial Asian communities. Why don't we see many people of South Asian extraction on bicycles, I wonder.


posted by Edgeley [236 posts]
4th September 2012 - 10:03


Maybe not in the UK, but have you been to India?


posted by arrieredupeleton [586 posts]
4th September 2012 - 12:57


Yeah, interesting stuff. I'd want to see more detailed statistics before drawing conclusions about race, though. After all, some of the most diverse local authorities in the country also have the greatest uptake.

Even class, I'd be careful about drawing conclusions about. While as a pasttime or sport road cycling can probably be characterised as lower middle-class (a category that bleeds over substantially into upper-working and middle-middle), as a method of transport the picture is more nuanced.

Just look at some of the intra-regional variation - similarly-gritty (and largely flat) Hull and Doncaster have widely differing participation levels; one of these local authorities (Hull) has made a substantial and concrete moves to encourage cycling. I suspect this may be the most significant among a broad range of factors (including student populations, concentrations of population and, yes, terrain).

As for weather, yes it's a bit worse - but aren't we supposed to be tougher?

Ghedebrav's picture

posted by Ghedebrav [1132 posts]
4th September 2012 - 19:10


All these years I have been called a southern softie; well, who would have thought it, the truth is out Big Grin

posted by SideBurn [912 posts]
4th September 2012 - 19:59


The factors affecting the widely different figures for uptake of cycling in different regions are really complex. I don't think anyone understands them. When I moved to East Yorkshire in the early 1970's, E Yorks and Hull had a reputation for cycling. Utility use of cycles was still common. Many shops had rails outside for bikes to be leant against (and protect the shop front) and postcards in the windows saying, 'Do not lean bicycles against the glass'. The flatness of the region was often quoted as a reason for it, but I guess it was partly to do with its being a place with its own identity and culture that didn't necessarily follow national trends -- it had different coloured phone boxes and its own accent -- and the relative poverty of a lot of Hull probably played its part.

It was there that I first got interested in cycle touring, and in 1974 at the age of 17, I cycled to the ferry, went across to Rotterdam and caught the train to Cologne to go on my first cycle tour in Germany.

I left E Yorks in 1976 and it's good to hear that Hull has endeavoured to retain and nurture its cycling culture.

posted by arowland [122 posts]
5th November 2012 - 17:30