Tag Archives: barriers to cycling

Why doesn’t [population x] cycle?

I wrote this thing a year and half ago but never quite got around to shaping it into anything I was quite happy with. Well, since the BBC have come around with yet another “what is stopping women cycling?” story, I figured I’ll never finish it and may as well get rid of it…

Another tweet scrolled past me this evening asking why a segment of the UK population doesn’t cycle.

It’s certainly an admirable exercise, trying to address inequalities in access. And there are certainly inequalities to address. But there is little to learn about what the inequalities are, or what the solutions to them might be, by comparing current cycling rates between different populations, or by asking the question “why don’t x cycle?”.

Because it’s not just x who don’t cycle. Black and minority ethnic populations don’t cycle, but neither do white populations. Women don’t cycle, but neither do men. And the number one reason all of these populations don’t cycle is the same.

That’s not in any way to say there aren’t inequalities of access, or to dismiss the additional barriers that women and minorities face, or to belittle the diverse ways that different people and populations can experience the same barriers. Only that when it comes to “why don’t people cycle”, the biggest concerns by far are the same for everyone.

Here is an entirely hypothetical society that we can imagine, with some entirely made up data for different populations in that society:

Compared to population X, 4 times as many population Y cycle. And 3 times as many again population Z cycle. When you only look at the few who currently cycle, these populations look vastly different in their propensity to cycle. But look at the many who aren’t cycling and you see they’re not very different at all. Almost nobody in any of those populations cycles. Clearly they live in an environment which is very hostile to cycling.

Some of the people would never ever cycle, no matter what the environment for it were like. But for the vast majority of people in all demographics, there are circumstances in which they would happily cycle, were the environment different. There are barriers stopping them, but they are only barriers in the context of the prevailing environment.

Indeed, in our hypothetical society, while Xs are currently substantially less likely to cycle than Zs, if you radically change the environment to shift the cut-off point to the left, the proportion of Xs to Zs converges until Xs slightly outnumber Zs.

Perhaps in our hypothetical society, Xs on average actually make more of the types of short journeys to which cycling is inherently the most suitable form of transport — but compared to Zs are typically burdened by this society with other duties, expectations or threats to their safety which make cycling extra unattractive in the prevailing conditions.

Understanding the burdens Xs face may be a worthwhile exercise in itself. But they’re not the answer the question “why don’t x cycle?” — and addressing them alone won’t change the fact that, just like everyone else, they overwhelmingly don’t.

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Condensing all this cycling stuff into eight minutes

On Wednesday afternoon I spent an hour chatting with Rachel Aldred at the University of Westminster. You might know Rachel from the likes of the Cycling Cultures research project, or from the London Cycling Campaign policy committee, for which she has just taken the chair, or from her blog.

We talked about the importance of researching cycling, Cycling Cultures, the “Get Britain Cycling” parliamentary inquiry, including what the barriers to cycling in Britain are and the infrastructural and systemic changes that are required to enable cycling, and about Rachel’s latest research into the uses and abuses of transport modelling. We also chatted about cycling campaigning: her research into it, and the great effect that the internet is having on it, plus her own work for the LCC.

Among other things, the ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘oh, no, lets do that bit agains’ and ‘who would have guessed radio could be difficult?s’ have been cut out, leaving eight minutes to be included in The Pod Delusion, broadcast in London at 11am tomorrow (Sunday) on Resonance 104.4, or else podcasted here. A longer half-hour cut which includes the campaigning chat should also be made available to download there, or here, or somewhere, at some point.

I fear eight minutes chat might not have been enough to discuss the entirety a topic that deserves to have a book written about it (agents and publishers can contact me on the email address in the about page if they’re looking for suggestions for the person to write it), and that we were perhaps talking a little too much to our already well-versed blog audiences rather than the general Pod Delusion audience. But if you liked it, I might consider leaving the comfort of the word processor behind again in the future.

That’s if I can find a way to get over that whole horror of hearing how your own voice really sounds thing.

Fear of the unknown

Jim mentions the difficulties of bicycle maintenance and repair as a barrier to cycling. It’s one of several minor barriers to cycling — nothing compared with the problem of the uncomfortable, intimidating and dangerous environment that is so many of our roads and streets, but a real effect nonetheless. It’s actually part of a larger barrier: a combination of not knowing how it’s done, and not having adjusted to it. How do you know what clothes you need? What do you need to see by and be seen at night? Do you need special shoes? How do you carry things? On a rack? But then, how do I know which one fits this bike? Isn’t it a hassle having to unlock the garden shed, move the lawn mower out of the way, and carry it through the house to the front drive every time you have a journey to make?

Stephen discusses the perception that rail travel is expensive, and Simon the idea that it’s difficult and unpleasant. Everyone knows that a train journey costs hundreds of pounds, will be very late, and you’ll be standing in the corridors with smelly and possibly dangerous strangers, but they wouldn’t know, if they were to ever have to use a train, how to find out the times, how they would carry and look after their luggage, how they’d make their connection, or how to complete the final mile from the station. They’d spend ages looking for the right ticket type and checking they were pressing the right buttons on the ticket machine, and they wouldn’t be able to find the right exit at the big city terminus. It’s just so difficult and complicated. Similarly, buses are very difficult: you’re not sure exactly where to get one, how to pay, what to say to the driver (is one supposed to leave a tip?), how to make it stop — or even where to make it stop — and how early to get to the bus station to ensure you don’t miss the last one home.

Obviously all this is nonsense. Bicycle maintenance is almost as easy as riding a bike: you just wheel it down to the bicycle mechanic’s shop once you’ve learned it by making a few mistakes, you always know how. Train travel even easier. Of the countless (certainly well into three figures) assorted train journeys I’ve made in the past year and a half, including travelling most of the length of the country and back five times (I am a bad person and do not endorse such hypermobility), I’ve never paid more than £56.75 (PNR-EUS after a last minute change of plans), rarely paid much more than £15, stood in the corridors for a total of about half an hour, missed a booked train once, witnessed one fight (MCV-TOD on a sat eve), and had to change plans due to total service failure (GLC-ADS) once. Mostly they have been easy, relaxed, delightful, productive, or, at the very least, fine. And much of it excellent value — especially the three pence per mile for the Highland Sleepers, with bed, lounge, and tea in the morning included. You just need to know where and when to book in advance, who to go to for help, and which journeys would be quicker on a different line or cheaper by leaving half an hour later, or with a rover or season ticket. Those aren’t things that require lessons or study or investing time and effort. You don’t have to make many journeys before you just remember that trains always call at X, Y and Z minutes past the hour, the cheaper services start at 08:Z, and the ones at Y minutes past are quicker, or have more seats, or one of those other things that one picks up without any effort.

What must really be difficult and expensive is driving. I wouldn’t know where to start. Well, getting lessons and a license, I guess, but how do you go about doing that and how much does that cost? At least, judging from the competence of much of the driving I see, you’re not required to actually be very good at it, otherwise I doubt they’d ever let me do it, even if I wanted to: it looks complicated and I’m not sure if I’d really get the hang of it. And then getting a car. What kind? There are so many different makes and models — presumably all for different uses. I wouldn’t want to accidentally buy a racing car or mountain car if what I needed was a utility or touring car. And I’ve heard about car manufacturers and salesfolk. How do you know it’s good quality, ethically sourced, and not a scam or stolen goods? And drivers keep moaning about things like “road tax”: how do you know all these different bits of bureaucracy you need to get and pay for? What happens if you forget one of them? Are they for life, or do you need to remember to renew? What do you do if something breaks? It’s surely far too complicated to fix it yourself. How do you even do the refuelling thing? Perhaps there’s a tutorial on YouTube…

That’s all before you’ve even started driving it. How do you time the journey right? It’s obvious when trains and buses are due, and the average speed of a journey by foot or by bicycle has little journey-to-journey or day-to-day variation — we can all make a reasonably accurate estimate of a foot or bicycle journey time, it’s like language: just a skill we pick up over time as kids. But drivers seem to get themselves into all sorts of time-consuming queues that fluctuate during the day and over time according to patterns that I have difficulty following: I assume they have to pad all of their journeys to take such unpredictable variation into account? What do you do about the motion sickness? Doesn’t it get smelly, the confined enclosed space? What about when it rains: how do you see out of it? How do you find time to write blog posts if you can’t do them while on a long journey? Doesn’t it get boring having to just sit there concentrating on the job of driving? And don’t you get fat? How do you stop that? What about storing the thing? Judging from what I’ve seen around town, you can just store your car on any vaguely flat surface, and there are a lot of them, but what do you do if you get to your destination and there isn’t a convenient bit of road, footway, cycle path, field, park, cemetery, village green, or somebody’s front garden available that doesn’t already have somebody else’s car stored on it? And it must be a lot of hassle organising everything around having to return to the spot where you stored it. It all just sounds way too complicated.

Even leaving aside the expense and sheer impracticality of motoring, the complexity of it and the the length of the list of things you would have to find out about, learn how to do, and remember each time you wanted to make a journey — the known unknowns that I’ve listed and the unknown unknowns that might come as a shock — is frightening. The idea of adopting a new mode of transport is genuinely overwhelming. You’d have to adjust your whole life to it, and there are a million better things you could be doing with your time. Give me a simple bicycle and a railcard every time: you always know where you are with those.

People die of cancer and heart disease, therefore we don’t require oxygen to stay alive

AmCamBike seems to be frustrated with all these folk claiming that a necessary prerequisite for mass cycling is good infrastructure that doesn’t require bicycle users to mix with lots of busy fast traffic. He looks at a survey of people in the Netherlands who both drive and cycle for some of their journeys, and which asks those people why they choose to make journeys by bicycle and why they choose to make journeys by car. It turns out that they do not cite infrastructure as a reason to make a journey by bicycle, and they do not cite a lack of infrastructure on the occasions that they choose not to make a journey by bicycle. Dutch folk just never say: I would have made that journey by bicycle today if only they had built another cycle path. So I take it all back. Fixing our infrastructure is not necessary for cycling. Apparently we just need to shout loud and clear that cycling is healthy, fun and good for the environment. Why had nobody thought to do that before in this country?

AmCamBike may just have made an important breakthrough in transport planning. I just went to my local station, you see, and asked the folk waiting on the platform why they had chosen to make their journey by train. Not one of them mentioned the tracks. This opens up exciting money-saving opportunities for High Speed 2. Folk in the Chilterns will be relieved.

AmCamBike also notes how strange it is that, in the UK, a survey found that dangerous roads and lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason not to make journeys by bicycle. What a strange result that is, that in a country that lacks cycling infrastructure, a lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason for not cycling. And in a country which doesn’t lack cycling infrastructure, it isn’t. What could possibly explain why it is cited as a reason for not cycling in one, but not the other? It’s a right conundrum, isn’t it?

AmCamBike thinks it would be interesting to see whether that result — from the recent Sustrans research — which found lack of cycling infrastructure to be a reason for not cycling in the UK, could be replicated in other surveys. Well, I suppose there’s the DfT’s 2011 “Climate change and transport choices” report. And the 2001 Scottish “Sharing Road Space” report (PDF). And Southampton’s 1997 “Barriers to cycling” survey (PDF). And Manchester’s 2011 cycle survey. There were Tim Ryley’s 2004 surveys in Edinburgh, I guess. And TRL’s 1997 “Attitudes to cycling” focus groups, 1998 “Cycling for a healthier nation” surveys, and 1998 “Transport implications of leisure cycling” surveys are often cited, though I’ve never obtained the full reports. And obviously there’s the very in-depth Understanding Walking and Cycling project, about which Dave Horton writes lay summaries. But perhaps they all just prompted the participants to give those responses?

I think it would be far more interesting to survey ex-pat Dutch folk to find out what affects their everyday transport mode decisions in their adopted countries. It shouldn’t be difficult: I find that Dutch people are very willing to tell you why they don’t cycle in the UK, before you’ve even asked. Like the Dutch chap on a hillwalking holiday who I met in Torridon last year — jealous of my cycle touring, he volunteered, but unwilling to join me because of the lack of safe places to cycle in Scotland. Or the retired gentleman who had struck up a conversation (wondering why I was photographing roundabouts) on the cycle path at Ernst when I was riding to Arnhem — a fan of my native West Country as a holiday destination, but he has only ever taken a car to Devon and Cornwall because “you’d have to cycle on the road, with 100kmph cars, it’s crazy”. Or the Dutch student I met at the lights on the Bloomsbury cycle tracks, who rides on a carefully planned quiet route to UCL, but to no other destinations, because she couldn’t be sure there would be a cycle route. Isn’t it really odd how, when they’re in the Netherlands, which has cycle paths, they don’t cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling, but when they’re in the UK, which doesn’t have cycle paths, they cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling? Why is that? Why won’t they listen to AmCamBike when he tells them that they don’t cycle because of the infrastructure?

Cycling’s image problem

Cycling clearly has an image problem in large parts of the English-speaking world. It’s for the sporty obsessives, or it’s for the poor, or the drunks who aren’t allowed to drive any more. Outside of the biggest and densest cities, driving is normal and cycling is abnormal, and people don’t want to be abnormal — a point reinforced by the latest output of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project.

I’m sure that our frequent commenter friend Pail will find much to nod along to in the UW+C work — and much to shake his head to where the same researchers point to the need for bicycle infrastructure.

British cyclists of course know about cycling’s image problem — they encounter and experience it. They know of its geographical and demographic variation, and that cycling’s image has a clear relationship with cycling rates and infrastructure provision. Cycling’s image problem is not unrelated to the fact that bicycle users have been treated as third-class citizens in the provision of infrastructure.

Providing infrastructure might not be the only intervention that is required to build mass everyday cycling, but it is the key one — the key stone or firm foundation without which everything else collapses. “Promoting” and “encouraging” cycling, trying to fix its image problem, trying to break any of the other barriers to cycling, will achieve little so long as we are asking people to ride in such hostile and uninviting environments.

Here’s a TEDx talk in which Gil Peñalosa, the man who built Bogota’s bike track network, discusses some of these attitudes to cycling — including dismissive and hostile attitudes to cycling in Denmark before the infrastructure was built (apologies, I did not make a note of who tweeted it this morning):

Surprise: traffic is the biggest barrier to cycling

Transport for Greater Manchester ran an online survey about cycling. In amongst a stack of questions about parking, they asked what, of all of the variables that are within TfGM’s control, the biggest barrier to cycling (or cycling more) is. It was hardly controlled and scientific, being promoted through online word of mouth, but it might still be of interest.

The results are in, and guess what?

It was hardly worth bothering. One more repeat result to add to the great stack of surveys and studies that found the same.

Second hand; unused

Thinking about how the Cycling Embassy might go about trying to generate political will to progress cycling, I’ve been researching previous failed attempts to advance cycling in this country.  So on Amazon I snapped up a second-hand copy of an out-of-print British Medical Association book written in 1992: Cycling: towards health and safety.

People in Public Health are very interested in the bicycle because it keeps you fit — thus reducing incidence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia, depression, etc, etc — in a way that can be effortlessly integrated into everyday routines.  And because it provides an alternative to transport modes that cause thousands of hideous traumatic deaths and injuries, even more air pollution-related deaths, isolation-related mental ill-health, and so on.

From a quick flick through, I’m expecting all that to be covered, in addition to a section on “barriers to cycling” which looks like it might cause a cardiovascular event itself by chatting about the weather while ignoring the elephant in the room.

But also when I quickly flicked through, I noticed I was breaking the spine.  This second-hand book has never been read, never been opened except to stamp “date of cataloguing 14 May 1992” and “disposed of by authority” on the inside cover.  Where does this never-before-read book make its way to me from?

Perhaps it’s for the best.