Tag Archives: cycling revolution

Updated: That Cycling Revolution

A couple of years ago, when I had some time to waste flicking through the four decade history of stalled and deliberately ineffective “pro-cycling” transport policies, I created one of my simplest but most enduringly popular posts: a graph of That Cycling Revolution we keep hearing about.

The concept was simple (and crudely implemented) but I think must have made the point strikingly: taking quotes celebrating a “bike boom”, a renaissance of cycling, a grand new policy, or, most absurdly of all, a golden age of cycling and overlaying them on a graph of cycling’s great decline and stagnation in this country.

But of course, we were in the midst of a cycling revolution at the very time! The Olympics were coming! We were going to ride the wave! Sadly, at the time, the Department for Transport traffic survey data that was used as the basis of the graph only reached as far as 2010, when we were merely in the midst of a cycling revolution. So how did 2012’s cycling revolution work out? Last year’s numbers are in and it’s time to look at an updated picture.

(This time, to avoid faffing with crudely adding the annotations in PS, I’ve found the Google Docs annotations functionality, which unfortunately is very limited in the control it gives you over display style (and doesn’t give quite the right feel to the different types of data that crude PS labels gave), so click to embiggen and get the quotes…)

bikeboom

(Edited to add, thanks to @johnstevensonx, here’s a fancier one you can hover over to get the quotes.)

Oh what a change.

As ever, I’ll repeat Dave Horton’s warning here:

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.

And as before there are caveats to consider, besides the (pretty much irrelevant to the final results) fact that I adjusted GB distances to UK population change. The two in particular that occurred to me being:

Firstly, the annual traffic estimates are based on manual traffic counts for a (large) sample of roads. They don’t include off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly appearing over the past three decades. Unfortunately I doubt there are anywhere near 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. In London, for example, there genuinely has been growth in the numbers of people on bikes in inner and central London over the past couple of decades. But at the same time, cycling in outer London plummeted, stabilising only in recent years.

A caveat to the caveat, though. When the CTC put together a map showing changes in cycling commuter share between the 2001 and 2011 census, people were keen to find meaning in the numbers. Why was there an apparent bike boom over here? Why did cycling rates crash over there? But in most of the country, all that the map really showed is the same thing that the DfT’s distance estimates show: that cycling hit rock bottom long ago and the tiny numbers continue to fluctuate — mostly by fractions of mode share percentage points — randomly.

If you did the stats properly, perhaps you could pin a robust narrative to the data — small but significant rural declines to small but significant inner urban gains seems to be one of the more attractive hypotheses*. But you couldn’t make the stories of the cycling revolution — or the policies that were supposedly to make one come about — stick.

(For the data and info on sources, see the Google Doc.)

* but equally you can find evidence that suggests the exact opposite and evidence that recently there’s no nationwide urban/rural trend at all; none of the evidence is all that good, and all it really says is that rates are fluctuating at low levels.

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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.)