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People most likely to commute by bike where traffic speed below 20mph – but presence of lorries on roads makes no difference, says study

Researchers at University of Surrey say that findings can help councils reach decisions on speed limits and cycling infrastructure

A new ​study of almost 35,000 commutes in Surrey has revealed that people are most likely to cycle to work when traffic speeds on the routes that take them there are below 20mph.

A research team at the University of Surrey found that while roads that were busier with motor traffic acted as a deterrent to cycling, speed of vehicles put potential riders – and women in particular – off to a greater degree.

The study has been published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation under the title, What aspects of traffic intensity most influence cycling mode choice? A study of commuting in Surrey, UK.

The university said that the study “analysed traffic data for all roads and cycle routes in Surrey to look at how different vehicle speeds, volumes, the proportion of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), and the amount of cycling infrastructure along the shortest route to work corresponded with the proportion of commuters choosing to cycle.

“It also considered distance, hilliness and the effect of traffic crossing the route at junctions. In total it examined nearly 35,000 routes to work for 172,000 commuters living in Surrey and who lived between two and five kilometres from work – a distance that should be cyclable for many.”

In terms of the effect of infrastructure, researchers said that while the presence of cycle paths encouraged more cycling, just how effective they were in doing that was due to traffic conditions in the area.

Routes that crossed busy roads were found to act as a disincentive to cycling, with people less likely to ride bikes to work where their route took them across heavily trafficked roads with high vehicle speeds.

But in what was described as a surprising finding, the proportion of lorries on roads and at junctions did not affect people’s preparedness to cycle.

Researchers say that the findings provide evidence to local authorities considering introducing lower speed limits in urban areas, or planning cycling infrastructure.

They also point out that continuing to support active travel and the additional interest there has been in it since the first lockdown last year will be particularly important going forward as the UK aims to meet its emissions target – and say that their research can help planners identify where cycling infrastructure should be, and what form it should take.

Dr Susan Hughes of the University of Surrey said: “Cutting speeds may be unpopular with drivers, but our research shows it does encourage people onto their bikes.

“It’s a change which, if implemented strategically, may encourage more people to cycle, with the added benefit on people’s health from reduced carbon emissions. Hence, there are opportunities to make towns more attractive to cyclists.”

Lead author, Dr Nick Grudgings, added: “Our findings can help local authorities make the best decisions about where to invest in cycling infrastructure.

“More cycling doesn’t just mean towns and cities are reducing their CO2 emissions, it also means commuters are keeping active and reducing their risk of heart disease, depression and premature mortality.”

During Road Safety Week last month, in a blog on the website of the road safety charity Brake, Rod King of the campaign 20’s Plenty For Us pointed out that the United Nations (UN) has called for a 20mph default speed limit in urban areas across the globe.

The UN said:  “In densely populated urban areas, there is strong evidence that even the best road and vehicle design features are unable to adequately guarantee the safety of all road users when speeds are above the known safe level of 30 km/h.

“For this reason, in urban areas where there is a typical, predictable mix of road users (cars, cyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians), a maximum speed limit of 30 km/h (20 mph) should be established, unless strong evidence exists to support higher limits.”

King said: “This really does bring out the fact that evidence supports the adoption of 20mph limits and sets a global standard of the speed limit where there is a mix of road users. Furthermore, the best thing about a default 20mph limit is that it is affordable, effective and can be rolled out without a huge call on engineering or technical resources.”

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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