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How to get more Britons on bikes? Don't listen* to existing cyclists for a start say £1m report

Luckily the other six recommendations for policy makers are a lot more sensible

The authors of a million pound report in to cycling and walking in the UK have come up with seven key suggestions for promoting sustainable travel they have also stirred up controversy by asserting that the best way to promote cycling and walking was "not to base policy on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians" but instead to listen to those that don't currently cycle and walk.

The report, Understanding Cycling and Walking, drawn up following three years of research by academics from Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brooks universities and funded to the tune of £936,000 by the Physical Sciences Research Council concludes that most Britons are broadly in favour of cycling and walking… just so long as they don't have to cycle or walk themselves. The authors identify three factors that stop people cycling – fears about safety, the difficulty of incorporating it in to complicated daily routines, especially for those with small children, and the perception that cycling is not a "normal" mainstream activity – fears about helmet hair also crop up in some of the responses to the research. There are seven recommendations for luring the population out of their cars:

  • Make urban environment safe for cyclists and pedestrians - including fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy urban routes
  • Pedestrian routes should be made as welcoming as possible to increase footfall
  • Effective reductions in traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle and pedestrian paths
  • System of legal liability on public roads should be changed to protect the most vulnerable road users, "strict liability" on the European model, while not changing criminal liability is suggested as one option.
  • Changes to the spatial structure and organisation of the build environment using planning legislation including the development of more neighbourhood shopping centres and restriction on out of town developments
  • Wider societal and economic changes such as more flexi-hours to give people the flexibility to travel more sustainably
  • Change the image of cycling and walking, this may happen as a consequence of the previous suggestions being implemented but any campaign to promote cycling should not be dominated by "the super-fit or unusually committed"

Ironically these suggestions echo what has been said for years by many of the committed cycllists and walkers who the report says policymakers should ignore. A better build environment, making roads safer, and the need to portray cycling as being an activity or form of transport that is not just for the super-fit and Lycra-clad are all tenets of faith amongst those currently working to boost cycling in the UK. Some might even argue that the Physical Sciences Research Council could have saved itself £936,000 by simply reading much of the research on the subject already published by both Sustrans and Cycling England which comes to much the same conclusion and prescribes much the same remedies.

The passage of the report that has irked cycle campaigners such as the CTC's Campaigns Director, Roger Geffen comes at the end of the summary of the report's key findings and recommendations when the authors say:

“Our message for policy makers is, do not base policies about walking and cycling on the views and experiences of existing committed cyclists and pedestrians. These are a minority who have, against all the odds, successfully negotiated a hostile urban environment to incorporate walking and cycling into their everyday routines. It is necessary to talk to non-walkers and non-cyclists, potential cyclists and walkers, former cyclists and walkers, recreational cyclists and occasional walkers to determine what would encourage them to make more use of these transport modes.”

While no-one would quibble with seeking the views of those that don't cycle or walk to find out what would persuade them to do so the suggestion that existing cyclists and walkers should not be consulted has raised hackles with campaigners queuing up to point out that it is just that unwillingness to consult with cyclists that has led to so much poor infrastructure being built by non-cycling traffic engineers.

In the face of criticism from cycle campaigning groups the report's lead author, Professor Colin Pooley of Lancaster University told the BikeHub website that with hindsight they should have inserted the word "only" in to the offending section of text.

Indeed, as the report makes clear, some of its conclusion are reached on the basis of studying what committed cyclists and walkers do to incorporate their chosen forms of travel in to their lifestyles which would seem to set the passage at odds with the report's own methodology.

However arguments about the missing "only" should not be allowed to detract from what is on first reading at least a well researched and nuanced report that makes the point the point that the UK is locked in to a vicious cycle of car dependancy that can only be broken by providing the right infrastructure and social changes to allow more people to make walking and cycling a 'normal' part of their daily lives.

"Alternatives to the car – especially cycling and walking – are perceived to take too much effort, need planning and equipment that causes hassle, and may be risky and uncomfortable. They also run the risk of being perceived by others as being eccentric or odd. These are all powerful reasons for not walking and cycling and for using the car for most short trips in urban areas."

The view that cycling is not something that 'normal' people do is identified by the report as a major obstacle to the growth of cycling in the UK and while the report makes a number of suggestions regarding infrastructure and planning aimed at creating "a total environment that is welcoming for cyclists and pedestrians"

Most people prefer not to stand out as different, but tend to adopt norms of behaviour that fit in and reflect the majority experience. In Britain, travelling by car is the default position for most people – over 60 percent of all trips are by car – and car ownership and use is seen as normal."

National and local government will need to work in combination with employers if the UK is to bring the number of short trips made by bike or on foot up to the levels of those seen in other parts of Northern Europe and while the authors admit that implementation of such measures would be "daunting" they also say that there is much that could be done relatively easily to promote positive change now.

Understanding Walking & Cycling was based on approximately 1500 surveys backed up by further interviews with a selection of participants drawn from four towns and cities: Leeds, Leicester, Lancaster, and Worcester. Lancaster was one of Cycling England's Cycling Demonstration Towns. It would be interesting to see if it's conclusions would have been any different if London, the UK's most notable success in promoting cycling, had been included in the study. The capital would seem to back up the point that political will, backed up by plenty of cash will go a long way to turning cycling into a mainstream activity.

However although the report and the responses from CTC and Sustrans which both broadly welcome its conclusions (although the CTC isn't too happy about that missing "only") focuses on short trips the problem for the UK certainly when it comes to promoting cycle-commuting is that most Britons commute relatively long distances compared to their continental counterparts and realising both the economic and time benefits of cycle commuting does indeed require a certain amount of speed and sweatiness… but maybe that's a nut to crack in another study?

*Okay, maybe listen to them a bit then is the latest position

Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.

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