That Cycling Revolution

I’ve been collecting amusing quotes from the history of Britain’s “cycling boom”, and I thought it might be instructive to overlay them on a chart of the DfT’s annual cycle mileage estimates, adjusted for population. A lot of the quotes are from MPs because Hansard is one of the few publications which is consistently available across that period for free and easily searchable online, making a systematic trawl relatively easy, but I might trawl through additional sources sometime. I haven’t marked every comment from an MP, but the sample is pretty representative of what members were saying about cycling over time. The non-MP quotes are just random things I stumbled across and bookmarked, and I can’t claim they’re representative of a widespread feeling at the time. If you’ve got any more good “we’re in a cycling revolution” quotes, let me know.

The fact that government ministers are saying now that “cycling is booming”, exactly as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, should put us on guard against other aspects of that history repeating — as I will discuss in a future post.

Dave Horton says:

there are two clear and present problems which bedevil UK cycling advocacy: one is the requirement to trumpet any and all gains, however minor or potentially imaginary, in order for us to legitimate and reproduce ourselves as advocates; the other is a rush to interpret any sign of growth in cycling as both ‘good’ and a clear sign that investments in cycling are paying dividends, when a wider and more critical analysis might concur with neither.

Note that there are a couple of reasons why things might not be quite as bad as the graph makes them look — not that they can be much better. Firstly, the annual traffic estimates are based on manual traffic counts for a (large) sample of roads. As I understand it, they don’t include off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly proliferating  over the past three decades. Unfortunately, there are not enough such routes to make any relevant difference to the national numbers. Of course, in a few places they might make a difference to the local numbers, which brings us to…

Secondly, they are national numbers, and I’m sure people will still want to argue that cycling in their city is booming. As was pointed out on the London Transport Data blog, cycling did indeed “boom” in Central London — where those MPs spent half of their time — from the extremely low ebb of the early 1970s to the dizzy heights of, er, one in thirty commuter journeys at the turn of the century. But it carried on plummeting in the suburbs as traffic and big roads continued to grow, cutting Outer London off from zone 1’s employment — the latter largely cancelling out the former in the city-wide stats.

No doubt changes in demographics, employment and settlement — in what kind of people are doing what kind of jobs and where — means that cycling really has grown noticeably (though never to anything close to its full potential) in a few (mostly urban) areas. But rarely can politicians legitimately claim such localised rises as a result of deliberate cycling policy. The small rises are usually completely unrelated to their ineffective cycling policies, often the result of undesirable factors — the push of economic recession and bad public transport, rather than the pull of attractive and convenient conditions — and are extremely vulnerable to the sudden cessation of those factors which caused them, or to new negative factors eclipsing them. There will always be an organisation ready to trumpet the rises, and a politician to take credit for them. There are never any to claim responsibility for the falls.

Theobald’s Road / Clerkenwell Road crossing Grays Inn Road on London’s “Silk Road” from the West End to the East End. The result of deliberate cycling policy or of overcrowding on the Central Line? What happens to these crowds when Crossrail opens and east-west public transport is massively improved? When rents in Hackney rise? Or when “smoothing traffic flow” makes junctions on the inner ring worse?

(Thanks to Jack for pointing out the travel distance data.)

17 thoughts on “That Cycling Revolution”

  1. Good post. FYI, I’ve recently added to the long-term Inner/Outer London trend with data (from a different source, but same question) up to 2011:

    This shows cycle commuting in Inner London rising to an even-more-dizzying height of one in ten and Outer London performing a reverse-plummet and heading back up to 3% or so.

    You’re absolutely right though that a lot of this is subject to factors not linked to cycling policy. I’d be surprised if the Inner London trend turns out to be a 40-year blip, though.

  2. “off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly proliferating over the past three decades”

    That describes my commute – residential streets…shared-use path on 1990’s estate…short sustrans segment…muddy bridleway. I’m probably as invisible to statistics as I am to most local people.

    I would probably drive if there was no offroad route. Not sure what that says for your argument. Thanks for great post.

  3. One conclusion I could hypothesise – without having searched for any scientific evidence to back it up, but referring to my personal, anecdotal, experience, is that the broadly horizontal trend of the graph disguises a distinct polarisation over recent years.

    I don’t anyone can deny that cycling has increased n London, even if the more recent trending (since 2006?) is for the same number of cyclists to make more cycle journeys. And if that implies that some people are extending their bike use to business trips during the day, having started just with the commute in/out, just as I have done, that surely is not a bad thing? Anyway, before I started cycling, I used to observe perhaps a dozen bikes pass me as I walked over Blackfriars Bridge around 9am. By the time I had actually started, that number was up to about 25-30. On the rare occasions I now walk across instead of cycling, I would say it is nearer 50. (Not scientific, but at the same time of day, assuming that the time it takes me to walk across has remained roughly constant, it is fairly consistent). The City of London is planning for cycle parking (on-street or off-) based on 10% of its projected 370,000 daily commuters arriving by bike.

    Outside cities, I used to see very little casual cycling (not events etc), and I see even less now. Country roads have become busier and faster, and I believe it is correct to say that in terms of statistics they are far more dangerous for cyclists, even if it doesn’t always feel like city streets are safer. Certainly my personal experience is that a couple of outings on my local country roads, having cycle-commuted, in town and City, and run down to the supermarket for some years already, sent me straight into the nearest bike shop to buy a MTB so I could do my riding off-road instead.

    Non-urban or suburban cycling will not have the same draw as inner city cycling, whatever the perceptions of risk are. The distances have simply become too great for most ordinary people to contemplate cycling them. 5 miles must be about the limit for even quite enthusiastic types, and where I live, journeys to local schools, jobs and shops could quite easily be further than that in some cases.

    The real scandal for rural dwellers however is the way that the hegemony of the private car has ensured that alternatives simply don’t exist. Firstly, cars made it possible to travel further, then people responded by moving out of town where they could provide more parking, or housebuilders could build further from the town centre and evade responsibility for providing local facilities. The ease and convenience of the car killed the local bus service, and finally the volume and speed of cars made walking or cycling non-viable anyway. The issue of transport poverty in rural areas has mushroomed as a result – some people either can’t afford a car at all, or have to scrimp to get together enough money to buy an old banger. For those who can barely pull together a few hundred quid for a banger and then shell out for the insurance and VED, the price of fuel is really felt (by which I am emphatically NOT saying we should make it cheaper – I don’t know the right answer but it surely isn’t to make driving even cheaper for the affluent middle class).

    So what do they do? We need rural bus services back first.

  4. PaulM: To answer your question about rural areas only having one option, is to provide rural bike paths. Separate from the roads and good enough quality. Not sure how that would be done but a start is to have a path from one village to another. Then add another and so on. Add one per year. Get the local people involved in making them and wanting them.

  5. The last 50 years has seen the disappearance of cycling by factory workers. There are fewer factories, they are further from home, they are in low-density parks on the edge of town. A factory worker will be expected to move jobs more often or expected to take the van home and go out on the road in the morning. Cycling to Park Royal Trading Estate or Fords at Dagenham has been replaced by cycling by young professionals to central London.

  6. Reblogged this on thinkpurpose and commented:
    Genius idea to juxtapose comments trumpeting the exact opposite of what the data shows. This shows one of the tests of a good measure in operation, that it shows data over time. I would bet money that most of those comments came when some reported number was larger compared with one other number, i.e. one quarter compared with the previous quarter, without looking at the long term predictable behaviour of the chart, i.e. flat lined.

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