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Who are London’s cyclists? We take a look at what they ride and how they dress – and whether they wear a helmet

It turns out that most of the people we saw are happy riding in everyday clothes – and without a helmet

Who are London’s cyclists? That’s something we’ve been asking ourselves for a while, particularly due to the boost that cycling in the capital has received in recent years with the long overdue development of some decent infrastructure, plus increased numbers getting into the saddle during the pandemic, plus the increasing availability of bike hire schemes that make two wheels a viable alternative to public transport.
 
We headed out recently to three locations in the capital to film passing cyclists for around 15 minutes a time to try and get a handle on the kind of bikes they are riding, their gender, how they carry things on the bike, and what they wear – including whether they sport a helmet, or go bare-headed.
 
Some of the findings are surprising, although we would underline that it is not a scientific study – it’s more a quarter of an hour snapshot of the riders who were passing the specific location during the quarter of an hour window we chose. Filming at different times of the week, or at weekends rather than weekdays, would almost certainly have produced different results, as we go onto explain below.
 
Nevertheless, we believe it gives rise to some interesting points for discussion, so before we go onto look at our findings in detail, here are the locations where we did the filming.

Cycleway 9, Chiswick High Road, W4

Since it opened in late 2020, Cycleway 9 on Chiswick High Road, now running from Hammersmith to Kew Bridge with extensions planned to Brentford and ultimately Hounslow, has proven hugely popular with west London cyclists – including local resident Jeremy Vine, who can often be spotted riding his penny farthing on it at weekends.

Saturdays and Sundays will also see the cycleway used by a lot of road cyclists, many heading to or from Richmond Park, as well as families. Our film was shot on a Thursday morning just after the school run, but with 73 cyclists passing us, most heading eastbound towards Hammersmith, two-wheeled traffic was brisk (and that was excluding those heading to and from Turnham Green Terrace at the top right of the frame, unless they passed our location).

King William Street, EC4

Next, we headed to King William Street at the northern end of London Bridge, where 81 riders passed where we were after coming northbound over the bridge (we did not count the ones riding southbound, given that many were obscured by motor vehicles and the like and distance made it difficult to ascertain various details, but that would easily have doubled the count).

This was filmed just after 7pm on a Friday, and had it been a bit earlier we would expect to see more riders, given the bridge only reopens to cars after that time during the week. 

Lower Thames Street

Finally, we headed underneath London Bridge to Cycleway 3 on Lower Thames Street (you can see it in the background as it crosses the road), at aorund 7.30pm on a Friday evening. Cycle traffic was still brisk. with 65 cyclists (not to mention a pedicab driver and a rollerblader) passing by while we were there.

The graphs below summarise our findings at each of the three locations, plus some brief observations, and obviously we would welcome your thoughts too in the comments below.

What do they ride?

Chiswick High Road bike count
King William St - bikes
Lower Thames Street bike count

“Flat bar/hybrid” here covers pretty much everything that doesn’t readily fall into one of the other categories – so would include everything from your average non-drop bar commuter bike through to a Dutch-style bike (though to be fair, we only clocked a couple of those. Across all three locations, it was the single most popular type of bike – unsurprisingly so, given the range of styles included but also reflecting the fact that these are the kind of bikes many would consider buying when they first get into cycling.

While road bikes may seem unrepresented, we reckon we’d have got a very different picture in Chiswick especially if we’d headed out at the weekend, rather than a weekday – and it’s also worth remembering that many people who might keep a road bike for ‘best’ will have a hack bike, maybe an old singlespeed with flat bars, for example, to use for their commutes, or use a folding bike for travel to and from work given the convenience they provide (it’s worth mentioning that nearly all the folders we saw were by Brompton.

One thing that did come as a surprise though was the popularity of hire bikes, and Lime in particular. Now, this could just be a factor of location – different operators are active in different boroughs, and the Santander scheme does not extend beyond Hammersmith, hence its absence from Chiswick, but at the two City locations the number of riders on Lime bikes exceeded even those on Transport for London’s own official scheme.

Men vs women

Chiswick High Road men vs women
King William St - men vs women
Lower Thames Street - men vs women

The result from Chiswick High Road – three men for every one woman who passed by on a bike – is in line with regular survey findings that we have reported on over the years, but at the other two locations the dominance of men, at King William Street in particular where they outnumber female cyclists by nine to one comes as a shock.

This could be nothing more than a quirk of when the video was shot, and that had the footage been recorded fifteen minutes either side, a different result would have been observed.

One thing that does come to mind, however, is that we know through surveys that lack of safe infrastructure is a barrier to cycling for many women – so given that the busy junction here of King William Street with Cannon Street, Gracechurch Street and Eastcheap has no protected infrastructure, could it be that some women are avoiding it altogether?

Helmets or bareheaded?

Chiswick High Road helmet wearing
King William St - helmet wearing
Lower Thames Street - helmet wearing

Again, the result from Chiswick High Road is more or less in line with what we would have expected, given past studies on the subject – but the results from the two locations in the City, and King William Street especially, where almost two in three riders have chosen to go lidless – are more of a surprise.

They can partly be explained by the proportion of hire bikes being used – few people looking to use one would carry a helmet specifically for that purpose, and given this isn’t Australia, say, where mandatory helmet laws apply, scheme providers don’t make them a stipulation – but we’re not sure it explains the picture fully.  

What do they wear?

Chiswick High Road - clothing
King William St - clothing
Lower Thames Street - clothing

This is another perhaps surprising result – across all three places surveyed, around three quarters of people were wearing what we classified as everyday clothes, which admittedly could range from anything from a suit, as sported by a couple of gents we saw in Chiswick, through all kinds of attire including dresses to leisurewear.

Out of all the categories we were looking at, this was perhaps the most arbitrary one, especially when it came to deciding what constituted ‘cycle clothing’ – which could be a jacket clearly designed for cycling, teamed in some cases with black cycling tights for example, while by Lycra we were really looking for bibshorts, or race-style clothing. There will be overlap between those two categories, and we may perhaps have slightly understated those in the latter, but it does put paid to the myth of ‘Lycra louts’ often peddled out in some parts of the press.

Chris Boardman and others have said that one of the signs that efforts to make active travel easier are working is when you see people riding around in ordinary clothes – and while this is the first time we have undertaken this exercise, there were more of those than we’d have expected before the camera started rolling; combined with what we noticed about helmets, is that a sign of change?

How do they carry stuff?

Chiswick High Road - luggage
King William St - luggage
Lower Thames Street - luggage

The rucksack is clearly the choice of most cyclists when carrying something, as observed at all three locations, though we were rather surprised at the relatively low use of panniers. We didn’t include anything carried on an e-hire bike such as Lime – as with their competitors, they are equipped with front racks, but it was impossible to see if there was anything inside.

In conclusion

As we said at the outset, this is not intended to be a comprehensive piece of research, which would take many more hours of video plus analysis to make sense of patterns throughout the week, rather it provides a snapshot of the people cycling past each location at the specified time. 

We hope it will prompt a discussion, and we would love to hear your views on the issues we have raised, plus your own thoughts on the subject.

Finally (and while it was not an issue we were specifically looking at, it is bound to come up in the comments), one thing the videos each show is that contrary to the impression often given by parts of the popular press, the vast majority of cyclists do observe red traffic lights – yes, some are shown going through them here,  and while going through a red light is not something we condone given it is illegal, they do so in these cases without creating conflict with other road users.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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24 comments

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JoanneH | 1 year ago
2 likes

On Santander/Lime: I have always been a fan of Santander bikes, they're solid and well-priced. I was excited about the electric ones on introduction and they're great, better than Lime in design, but rarer and more expensive - there's seldom one at either of the two stands near my flat in SW London.

In contrast Lime's £4.99 60-minute pass is a great deal for an e-bike and the flexibility of being able to pick them up and drop them off almost anywhere is really good. I dislike the shape of the handlebars and find the brakes quite uncomfortable to use, but I can see why they've become so popular.

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Benthic | 1 year ago
2 likes

"and whether they wear a helmet"

Nor gloves, knee pads, elbow pads, back protector, shoulder protectors, chest protector, neck brace, wrist guauds....

So what?

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Dnnnnnn replied to Benthic | 1 year ago
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Because helmets (and hi-viz) have become - rightly or wrongly - very important in discussions and decisions about cycling, both for individuals and in wider discourse.

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Dnnnnnn | 1 year ago
2 likes

Interesting, and broadly reflects my own experience (as do Steve's and Rendel's comments - we travelled similar sorts of routes).

It would have been interesting to see some results for points entering central London at peak times though: the volumes would have been much higher for one thing, but it would also be interesting to see whether the types of riders were much different. I suspect there's a large "commuting only" cohort who ride to work because the alternatives are awful but otherwise drive or use public transport.

I'd have thought peak time riders might be more ethnically and gender mixed - but also with a higher share of PB-seeking MAMILs. Thames crossings would also provide interesting contrasts - London Bridge, particularly at junctions, isn't cycle-friendly, whereas the next two crossings upstream are much better (including connections either side at Blackfriars). Do different groups choose different crossings?

See also: www.standard.co.uk/news/london/tfl-cycling-diversity-improving-london-b9...

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NickSprink | 1 year ago
2 likes

My London commute from Paddington Station to Trafalgar Square consists of me in my suit on my Brompton, hi-viz, helmet, Brompton bag attached to the block on the bike.

Mostly cycle path (Hyde Park, Green Park, The Mall), though getting across Trafalgar Square can be a bit dicey...

Very much a mix on this route from tourists on Santander bikes to top end road bikes.

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Kadinkski | 1 year ago
2 likes

This is a really interesting read, nice one!

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cyclisto | 1 year ago
2 likes

Well done, this is how articles should be written, based on numbers.

Unfortunately sometimes when infrastructure is being designed, no such research has been done.

Once more, well done Road.cc.

 

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Global Nomad replied to cyclisto | 1 year ago
2 likes

As a spatial designer, I would agree and caveat your comment - all infrastructure brings in new users, so research into existing use is not enough. Having said that it is not always enough to ask who might use it either - you have to anticipate and predict or use other examples to guide decisions. 

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readingbiker | 1 year ago
0 likes

Interesting stuff.

I have started my own observational study by counting the number of people who wave back as I commute to work across Birmingham (yes, I should change my handle now).

In the 15 minutes or so that I ride along the A38 cycle lanes away from the city centre, I usually see between 15-25 people on bikes going towards Birmingham, and the average works out around one in three people waving back.

My observations on dress et al are probably similar, a few on road bikes but the majority are on MTBs or hybrids wearing 'normal' or 'sports' clothes rather than full kit.

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Ride On replied to readingbiker | 1 year ago
2 likes

People from Birmingham still read... though perhaps not while riding a bike 😉... oh Reading, gotcha.

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marmotte27 | 1 year ago
3 likes

I'd not be so critical of the observation method. While not being representative in a strict sense, anything that happens several times within a random period of fifteen minutes can be confidently assumed to be a regular occurrence.

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Steve K | 1 year ago
1 like

Interesting stuff. From my own observations from my commutes into London (basically CS7 to Elephant, then CS6 to Smithfields) I would have thought the gender mix might would be a little less skewed; and a higher proportion wearing helmets (with a large proportion of those not being those on hire bikes) Ethnicity mix would be interesting too - definitely not as all white as 10 years ago, even if still skewed

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Rendel Harris replied to Steve K | 1 year ago
3 likes

Steve K wrote:

I would have thought the gender mix might would be a little less skewed; and a higher proportion wearing helmets (with a large proportion of those not being those on hire bikes) Ethnicity mix would be interesting too - definitely not as all white as 10 years ago, even if still skewed

Definitely, on my twice-daily run from Peckham to Chelsea and back I'd say it's at least 30% women, 80%+ helmeted and 50%+ wearing cycle-specific clothing. The ethnic mix is, I agree, slowly changing, I see maybe 15% non-white now (possibly skewed by the fact that nearly half my run is through areas (Peckham - Camberwell - Brixton - Stockwell - Oval) that are historically black), much more than ten years ago. From my observation black cyclists are predominantly (90% I'd say) male, more likely to wear "normal" clothing and less likely to wear a helmet than the average.  

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Steve K replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
1 like

The one bit I think my observations differ from yours, Rendel, is the proportion in cycle-specific clothing - where I observe a lower level.  (It depends a bit on what you mean as cycle-specific, as there's a continuum from someone in a suit on a Boris bike, to someone in full on lycra.)

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Rendel Harris replied to Steve K | 1 year ago
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Steve K wrote:

The one bit I think my observations differ from yours, Rendel, is the proportion in cycle-specific clothing - where I observe a lower level.  (It depends a bit on what you mean as cycle-specific, as there's a continuum from someone in a suit on a Boris bike, to someone in full on lycra.)

Very much depends on where one rides I guess, the largest numbers I see are when I cross the Brixton and Clapham roads (groups of 40+ at each phase of the lights, it's brilliant!) which probably predominantly comprise people riding from the outer suburbs into the city; I assume that the further away a rider comes from the more likely they are to be a wear lycra and shower when you get there type. Could depend on time of day as well I guess, my morning ride starts relatively early (around 7 am) so possibly I'm more likely to see people who are leaving time to shower and change, whereas people who cycle in their work clothes can leave later.

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Steve K replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
1 like

Yes, that's a good point - the propotion in lycra is probably higher at the start of my route than the end.  (I'm a 7am starter too!)

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Brauchsel replied to Rendel Harris | 1 year ago
2 likes

As a Camberwell resident, my impression is that a majority of riders away from the main commuting routes into town are young BME men. Mostly delivery riders, but by no means all: nearly all on flat-bar or hire bikes. 

Women on bikes are almost exclusively white, and possibly the population of white cyclists is around 50/50 in terms of sex mix. That could be because those doing school/nursery drop-offs still seem to skew female, and anecdotally it appears that more men than women of my acquaintance are frequently going to work. 

It's an interesting article, but by focussing on the City misses a lot of the people who cycle around their bit of the city. 

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Rendel Harris replied to Brauchsel | 1 year ago
2 likes

Yes, I'd agree with that, I was only really thinking of the commute. I would add in a substantial proportion of Latino riders, particularly amongst the delivery workers - again, as you say, nearly all men.

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Global Nomad | 1 year ago
2 likes

an interesting experiment with all the attendent caveats - certainly the biggest improvement would be slightly longer periods of time and then across more days, but as a test of an idea, the results are intersting.

As a long time cyclist in London, and as any commuter will tell you, 5 or 10 minutes either way can have a big impact,  I will try and travel outside of the busiest times to avoid the cycling traffic jams. 

The rucksacks may be in large part to their convenience and the fact most bikes are locked up outside, so panniers are not as easily removed/carried. I use them because i never leave my bike outside. 

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Global Nomad replied to Global Nomad | 1 year ago
0 likes

and yes, depending where you are there is a high use of hire bikes of all types. 

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marmotte27 replied to Global Nomad | 1 year ago
1 like

Not so sure about your explanation for the rucksacks. I've watched a few minutes, most of the rucksacks are carried by people whose bikes just have no racks. As soon as they have them, luggage does tend to be on them. There are exceptions, of course, with maybe the most notable right at the beginning of the second video, the guy has a huge front basket, a rear rack with a large pannier on it plus a trailer, yet he still carries a rucksack...

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brooksby replied to Global Nomad | 1 year ago
2 likes

Global Nomad wrote:

The rucksacks may be in large part to their convenience and the fact most bikes are locked up outside, so panniers are not as easily removed/carried. I use them because i never leave my bike outside. 

If your panniers are not easily removed when you park up then I don't think you're fitting them properly... 

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Global Nomad replied to brooksby | 1 year ago
1 like

i may have miscommunicated yesterday evening...ha...

 

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RoubaixCube | 1 year ago
0 likes

I ride a drop bar road bike, wear a helmet, a mishmash of road and MTB clothing based on temperature and weather conditions. I save the lycra for the weekends when i might head out to regents park for a few hours.

Sometimes Im out in some MTB shorts a non cycling specific long sleeved tech-vest or T-shirt (and base layer) that can get a bit flappy but im not out there to break any speed records so I wear what is comfortable for me.

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