Sustrans has described as “bitterly disappointing” statistics suggesting there has been no growth in levels of cycling in England in the year to October 2012, but British Cycling has previously hailed separate figures covering the same period, from the same source – Sport England’s Active People Survey – as reflecting a boom in cycling. So which is correct? The short answer is neither.
As we reported in December, British Cycling said that data from the Active People Survey for the year to mid-October 2012 showed that 200,000 more people rode a bike once a week compared to the previous year and provided proof of a successful legacy from the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
However, the figures seized upon by Sustrans today, contained in a release from the Office for National Statistics that focuses specifically on cycling, show that the percentage of respondents who say they ride a bike once a month is unchanged from the year to October 2011 at 15 per cent.
“It is bitterly disappointing to see that cycling levels have not increased over the last year, especially considering the surge in enthusiasm for cycling,” said Sustrans policy director, Jason Torrance.
“Governments must prioritise making our roads safe and appealing if we are to increase everyday cycling numbers.
“It’s time we put an end to the postcode lottery that means some areas aren’t as safe as others, preventing many people from cycling regularly for everyday journeys to work, school or the shops.
“We need safer streets and more dedicated cycling routes so that everyone can feel safe on a bike, only then will we achieve reduced congestion and a healthier, more active population,” he added.
The figures British Cycling was looking at, however, were rounded to two decimal places, while those in the Office for National Statistics release are whole numbers. Given that each 0.1 of a percentage point equates to around 40,000 adults in England, clearly there is potential for some big discrepancies.
The Active People Survey has a sample size of 160,000, meaning that results should be fairly robust, at least at national level, so it's unclear why the Office for National Statistics has worked on round numbers instead.
There’s also another vital difference between the figures – the ones cited by British Cycling only cover cycling for 30 minutes each time for health, fitness and competition, and exclude utility cycling such as riding to work or the shops, as well as shorter rides; the data cited by Sustrans, while coming from the same source, relate to cycling for any purpose, irrespective of time spent riding.
As we pointed out in our coverage of British Cycling’s response to those figures back in December, the data are subject to some big variations year on year, so while there is a clear upward trend observed in the percentage of people riding for 30 minutes for non-utility purposes at least once a week in recent years, care should be exercised when comparing one 12-month period with the one preceding it.
The Sport England figures based on that narrower definition of cycling also showed a drop over several years in the proportion of people cycling less regularly than once a week but at least once a month. In numerical terms, that decrease was a lot less than the growth in those cycling once a week or more; in other words, not only are more people cycling, they are doing so more regularly.
While that relates to non-utility cycling, recently published Census figures show big growth in the number of people in England and Wales over the last decade who are riding to work, which could indicate that people already cycling occasionally are doing so more regularly, and for reasons other than just to keep fit; again, it’s impossible to tell, particularly since the figures compare two years a decade apart.
So what’s the true picture behind those figures that have given Sustrans so much cause for concern? It’s impossible to say, and we can’t trace data going beyond that rounded 15 per cent.
As we highlighted above though, it’s dangerous to read too much into a comparison between two consecutive years, moreover one in which there could be a variation of the equivalent of around 400,000 people, depending whether it’s 14.51 per cent, or 15.49 per cent.
But looking at the bigger picture, the evidence form a variety of sources suggests that over the past few years, more people are cycling, and once they start, there’s a progression towards doing so more regularly, as well as a crossover between riding for fitness and for utility purposes, and vice versa.
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.