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Sunday Times claims “victory” for drivers as number of people cycling on English roads drops (updated with survey details)

Broadsheet underlines incorrect view that two tribes exist on Britain's roads...

The Sunday Times has claimed that new figures revealing that the number of people riding bikes on England’s roads has dropped represents a “victory” for motorists “in their long-running battle with cyclists.”

The assertion is made in the opening paragraph of an article citing Sport England’s latest annual Active Lives survey that highlights a shift in the pattern of where people cycle for leisure or sport, with a rise in indoor cycling thanks to the growth of platforms such as Zwift.

Opening his article, Sunday Times social affairs editor Nicholas Hellen wrote: “Motorists have scored a victory in their long-running battle with cyclists, as official figures reveal a 355,000 drop in the number of regular leisure and commuter riders on the roads in 12 months.”

The piece – which is behind a paywall, but can be read for free upon registration, which allows readers to access two articles a week – goes on to say that “Deterred by potholes, accidents and abuse from motorists, enthusiasts are retreating indoors, preferring to avoid the tensions of public roads by switching to virtual rides.”

We’ll be taking a closer look at the data from the Active Lives survey, and its implications, in a separate article here on

But what jumps out from the Sunday Times article is the inflammatory and divisive language used, and in particular the premise that motorists and cyclists are two entirely distinct sets of people.

It’s something often claimed by some sections of the media – see, for example, the title of the 2012 BBC programme, The War On Britian’s Roads – but one that does not stand up to closer scrutiny.

Consumer research consistently shows that regular cyclists are more likely than the general population to hold a driving licence, and to live in a multiple car-owning household. Many motorists cycle.

The Sunday Times article naturally references Lord Winston and his campaign against cyclists and – we suppose for balance – the broadcaster and cycle commuter, Jeremy Vine (who retweeted this article on Monday morning to his 6933,000 followers on Twitter).

Our Near Miss of the Day series amply demonstrates that many motorists have a reckless disregard for the safety of people on two wheels with whom they share the road and, at times, the intimidation is clearly intentional.

But to imply that two tribes exist and are at war with each other at one and the same time ignores that many people will choose the mode of transport most suited to the particular journey they are undertaking, and pours fuel on the fire of a conflict that is largely media-driven, and casts someone on a bike in the role of “the other” – as research from Australia recently found.

And that risks causing some motorists to view cyclists as the “enemy” – as any number of social media posts attest.

The fact is that most of us – whether on a bike, or behind the wheel of a car – simply want to get from A to B safely and without drama.

Riding a bike among motor traffic on any road in the UK will expose the cyclist to poor driving that underlines how vulnerable you can feel against two tonnes of metal, without the protection of seatbelts or airbags.

Attempts to create what can be best described as a Phoney War, rather than looking at how we can remove conflict between motor vehicles and vulnerable road users, whether on bike or foot, are at best deeply unhelpful – and at worst, by fostering that “us and them” mentality – potentially life-threatening.

And of course, that’s without mentioning the positive benefits of cycling on public health, easing congestion, and reducing toxic emissions that cause death through air pollution and helping combat climate change.

Active Lives survey

We reported earlier this month on the findings of the latest Active Lives survey, complete by 179,747 people between November 2017 and November 2018.

> National survey reveals decline in cycling for leisure, sport and travel

The survey found that the number of people cycling for travel dropped by 98,000 to 3.1 million people, while the number of people cycling for leisure or sport was down by 257,000 to 6.1 million. It also found that there had been a “spike” in the number of people cycling indoors.

It's worth noting the methodology employed, however. Participation in an activity is defined as undertaking it on at least two occasions in the 28 days prior to completing the survey.

As a result, it's impossible to ascertain whether the fall in cycling is found more among regular than occasional riders or vice versa. or whether it is common across both groups.

Roger Geffen, policy director at Cycling UK, called on the government to increase its investment to encourage more people onto bikes, saying: “We know cycling has grown significantly in cities such as London, Manchester and Leicester that have been willing to invest in quality cycling infrastructure and restraining the growth of road traffic. 

“Unfortunately though, these commitments have not remotely been matched by central government.  Hence it is hardly surprising that overall cycle use in England is, if anything, declining.

“If the government wants to meet its ambition to double cycling trips between 2013 and 2025, it needs to drastically rebalance its transport spending plans, to support clean and healthy travel. It has a great opportunity to do so this summer, when it begins a three-year spending review.

“We will be campaigning alongside our walking and cycling alliance partners both inside and outside Westminster to make sure this happens.”

His appeal for more money for cycling infrastructure was echoed by British Cycling policy manager Nick Chamberlin, who said: “Our insight tells us that perceptions of safety and access to pleasant, traffic-free spaces to ride remain the biggest deterrents preventing more people from cycling.

“While cycling remains statistically safe, traffic speed, close passing or potholes can often make riding a bike in Britain intimidating and unpleasant, especially for those who are trying it for the first time.

“The impact of this is clear in the numbers of people still making short, cyclable journeys by car – with all of the associated consequences for congestion, air quality and physical activity.

“While efforts are now being made to improve roads for people on bikes at city level, most notably in London and Manchester and more recently in Sheffield and Birmingham, national government in Westminster needs to redouble its efforts and investment to achieve significant and sustained change nationally,” he added.

Please note: This story was updated at 12.50pm on Monday 22 April 2019 to add details of the Active Lives survey.

Simon joined 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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