Has growth in London cycling flattened out?

Wet weather to blame for drop in Q1 2012/13, but do TfL's forecasts reflect reality?

by Simon_MacMichael   January 2, 2013  

London:cyclist in traffic (copyright Simon MacMichael).jpg

A forecast drop in the number of journeys made by cyclists on the Transport for London Road Network (TLRN) is being attributed to atrocious weather in Spring last year, the wettest since records began. However, the focus on cycle safety over the past 12 months or so has also been cited as a potential reason for the stalling of growth in journey numbers by London journalist Andrew Gilligan. But since the figures only focus on major roads, they don't take account of cyclists potentially using smaller, quieter roads for some or all or their journeys.

Based on cycle flow counts from some 60 locations on the TRLN, levels of cycling are running three times higher than they were in March 2000, the base point for the index Transport for London uses to calculate changes in the number of people travelling on bikes on those roads, which comprises major routes in the capital, as shown on this map.

Writing in his blog on Telegraph.co.uk, Andrew Gilligan says that predictions that year-on-year cyclist numbers on the TFLN are principally due to the poor weather seen in the quarter between April and June, which led to a 10.8 per cent drop compared to the same period in 2011.

Gilligan, a longstanding and vociferous opponent of Mayor Boris Johnson’s principal rival in last year’s mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone, claims that the present mayor – coincidentally, also a Telegraph columnist – has not been given enough credit for the increase in cycling during his first term, with cyclist numbers on the TLRN rising by an average 11 per cent annually.

Part of that is attributed to the launch of the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme, and while it’s true that the ‘Boris Bikes’ were launched under the present mayor’s watch, Ken Livingstone had already unveiled proposals for such an initiative prior to losing office in 2008. London’s Liberal Democrats have pointed out that they first proposed such a scheme way back in 2001.

With transport being the major policy area in London for which the mayor is directly responsible, the issue of cycle safety in the wake of a series of fatal incidents in late 2012 became one of the key campaigning areas in the run-up to May’s elections.

According to Gilligan, who himself claims to ride 100 miles or more each week in the city, that focus on cyclist casualties, and the headlines it generated within the capital’s media, may have deterred some Londoners from getting on their bikes.

He asserts that cycling in London is getting increasingly safer, citing casualty figures that suggest that when comparing the numbers of cyclists killed or seriously injured on London’s streets against growth in cycling in recent years.

That’s something he says November’s cross-party Greater London Assembly report into cycle safety failed to acknowledge, also criticising it for basing its findings on all cyclist casualties, and not just those killed or seriously injured.

In fact, what the GLA report said was that while the casualty rate had dropped in the years to 2006, it had resumed an upwards trajectory since then, and the numbers reveal that while all casualties rose by 52 per cent between then and 2011, growth in incidents resulting in death or serious injury wasn’t far behind at 46 per cent.

What isn’t discussed though by Gilligan is one of the main reasons there has been such a focus on cycle safety – the fact as cycle campaigners and opposition politicians point out that conditions can be improved, and that recommendations to introduce safety features at locations such as Bow Roundabout were ignored and are only now belatedly being implemented.

He concludes his blog by saying: “We should never stop talking about safety. It is and always has been the biggest reason why people do not take up cycling. But perhaps we should think a bit more about how we talk about it.”

One other potential explanation, also linked to safety, is that cyclists who formerly travelled on roads making up the TLRN have switched to travelling on quieter streets or off-road cycle routes for some or all of their journeys, and are therefore not included in the latest figures.

As TfL itself says in a note to its data, “the sample count figures are not equal to the total amount of cycling taking place on the TLRN,” and as ever with numbers relating to supposed levels of cycling, which are notoriously difficult to capture, they need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.

There’s also the fact that short-term changes are not necessarily indicative of long-term trends, something that is essential to consider when looking at a period that is anything but typical, whether because of that wettest spring on record, or the once-in-a-lifetime impact of London hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

9 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Given that they only count major roads, and the safety campaigns have pointed out how mixing it with traffic at major intersections/on fast roads can be dangerous, I suspect a lot of people will be using back roads routes, and therefore being missed.

Certainly when you start riding in London the 'obvious' route might be the first one you take, but over time you learn there are often better approaches.

posted by thereandbackagain [159 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 13:41


So, of my 20km commute, only 200m is actually on the TLRN (the 200m south of the roundabout at the western end of Lea Bridge Road). And I don't avoid 'big roads' at all...

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

Gizmo_'s picture

posted by Gizmo_ [1125 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 14:34


Not the consideration that cycle facilities at most places of work in the capital are at maximum capacity?

posted by georgee [154 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 15:03


As the cost of public transport in London continues to increase at rates above inflation there is an ever increasing volume of people who will be tempted to take up cycling.

What I'd like to see is stats for new cyclists in London and their reasons for taking up cycling. It is easy to claim success as numbers increase, but not so well deserved if the majority of it is from people escaping slow/expensive/unreliable/congested public transport alternatives.

posted by squired [15 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 18:10


.... agreed thereandbackagain. At least some of it has to be folks coming to their senses and using less travelled roads. Who on earth would cycle commute along the A3 from Chessington?

Surely it would make more sense to monitor known cycling routes/hotspots and roads on the official network of cycle routes?

Do we get a breakdown of where the biggest declines were seen in this survey?


posted by NorthernRouleur [26 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 18:22


I expect numbers of cyclists in London will continue to grow as public transport prices continue to rise ahead of inflation. It's worth remembering too that the cost of running a motor vehicle is not reducing either.

I wish I could cycle all the way to work, but the distance and the high speed traffic on the A roads that are the most obvious route mean a bicycle isn't a good option. I know though from my previous commuting routes in London that back street routes were often quicker as they avoided traffic lights, and they were generally much safer too.


posted by OldRidgeback [2492 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 18:23



onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [253 posts]
2nd January 2013 - 18:34


I'm not sure Boris or Ken have done that much to riase the number of cyclists in London. Both have failed to get a grip on TfL sureface transport who want to cram as many lanes onto a road as possible, and won't contemplate giving over road space from motor vehicles (or parking).

According to Gilligan, who himself claims to ride 100 miles or more each week in the city, that focus on cyclist casualties, and the headlines it generated within the capital’s media, may have deterred some Londoners from getting on their bikes.

Most non-cyclists I have spoken to in London are put off cycling by ther own experience of seeing what London roads are like.
Media reports of deaths may add to this, but it's not the main reason.

posted by thereverent [338 posts]
3rd January 2013 - 13:15


Hard to reconcile these figures with the increasingly large pelotons of commuters on London roads this morning. Town is still half-empty following the Xmas break and there was still a sea of lycra in evidence this morning.

What these data basically imply is that all the 'low-hanging fruit' has been picked, latent demand for cycling is still significant but we've reached something of a glass ceiling due to (sometimes exaggerated) public perceptions around safety. Not to mention lack of secure bike parking facilities in flats/office blocks, which I sometimes think is a bigger barrier than safety or even our terrible weather.

posted by Yennings [230 posts]
3rd January 2013 - 17:06