Figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics confirm Cambridge’s status as having the highest levels of cycling in England, well ahead of second-placed Oxford, with the Hampshire town of Gosport a perhaps surprising third place, ahead of York and South Cambridgeshire. However, suggestions that the figures show a decline in the proportion of people cycling in Cambridge has stalled are wide of the mark.
Proportion of adults who cycle at least once per week:
2010/11 2011/12 (latest data) 1. Cambridge (52%) 1. Cambridge (47 per cent) 2. Oxford (30%) 2. Oxford (28 per cent) 3. Gosport (24%) 3. York (25 per cent) 4. York (23%) 4. South Cambridgeshire (22 per cent) 5. South Cambridgeshire (22%) 5. Norwich (20 per cent)
Commenting on the figures, which showed that 47 per cent of adults in Cambridge cycled once a week in the year to mid-October 2012 down from 52 per cent in the preceding 12-month period, Alex Plant, Cambridgeshire County Council’s executive director for economy, transport and environment, quoted by the BBC, said: "The statistics seem to show some reduction in cycling levels, but this doesn't seem to fit with what we are seeing locally.
"Although we are working within very tight financial constraints, we will continue to invest in cycling and walking provision where we can.
"We are confident that the numbers of people cycling and walking will continue to increase over time."
The ONS analysis is of data contained in Sport England’s Active People Survey for the 12 months to mid-October 2012. As our story earlier this week highlighted, there are some issues when it comes to interpreting those data, and the ONS itself warns that the data at local authority level need to be taken with a big pinch of salt due to the sample sizes involved, albeit using rather more formal language.
“Some caution is needed in interpreting these changes. As the statistics are based on limited samples of survey respondents, some year-on-year fluctuation in the results will always occur, even outside the limits of a statistical test for significance,” says the ONS.
It adds: “As only two years of data are currently available, it is not possible to say whether the changes observed are simply a one-off fluctuation or part of a longer term trend. As more data is added to the time series each year, it will be possible to monitor the longer term trends and put individual changes in context.”
In other words, don’t read too much into the figures just yet.
The ONS has also produced a comparison of Census data showing the percentage of people resident in specific local authority areas who use a bike as their main mode of travelling to work, with data from the Active People Survey that show the percentage cycling at least five times a week.
% cycling to work % cycling at least 5x/week (ranking) Census 2011 Active People Survey 5 - 2010/11 1. Cambridge 18% 37% (1) 2. Oxford 10% 12% (2) 3. Hackney 9% 8% (=5) 4. York 8% 10% (3) 5. Gosport 7% 8% (=5)
According to the ONS, “The large discrepancy in figures for Cambridge is likely due to its large student population. Students are not counted amongst those in employment for the purposes of the Census, but are sampled in the Active People Survey.”
Perhaps unintentionally, that highlights another shortcoming with the data and a potential pitfall in interpretation – if that holds true for Cambridge and, according to ONS, explains the disparity, then why doesn’t it apply to Oxford, where according to the 2001 Census, one in four of the population was a full-time student, compared to one in five in Cambridge?
One factor that could be at play here lies in people who use a bike as part of a longer journey, perhaps riding to the station and then catching a train. In June 2010, a survey by Cambridge Cycling Campaign found nearly 1,600 bikes parked in and around the railway station.
While we haven’t counted how many there are close to Oxford train station, we’re familiar enough with the city to hazard a guess that there are far fewer parked up there during the day, and 2011 Census data also reveal that 9.6 per cent of workers in Oxford commute by bus compared to just 3.9 per cent in Cambridge.
That accounts for most of the difference between their respective figures for cycling – for whatever reason, be it a more widespread bus network, or reluctance on residents in some parts of the city such as Headington not to face an uphill slog on the bike on the way home, people in Oxford are nearly three times as likely as those in Cambridge to commute by bus.
In both cities, meanwhile, levels of car use for commuting are near identical, at one in five repondents, and each also has around four in ten of the adult population who aren't working, for whatever reason.
You can download an Excel spreadsheet of the Census data here that shows the main mode of travel people use to get to their place of work, broken down by local authorities in England and Wales.