Who are London’s cyclists? That’s something we’ve been asking ourselves for a while, particularly due to the boost that cycling in the capital has received in recent years with the long overdue development of some decent infrastructure, plus increased numbers getting into the saddle during the pandemic, plus the increasing availability of bike hire schemes that make two wheels a viable alternative to public transport.
We headed out recently to three locations in the capital to film passing cyclists for around 15 minutes a time to try and get a handle on the kind of bikes they are riding, their gender, how they carry things on the bike, and what they wear – including whether they sport a helmet, or go bare-headed.
Some of the findings are surprising, although we would underline that it is not a scientific study – it’s more a quarter of an hour snapshot of the riders who were passing the specific location during the quarter of an hour window we chose. Filming at different times of the week, or at weekends rather than weekdays, would almost certainly have produced different results, as we go onto explain below.
Nevertheless, we believe it gives rise to some interesting points for discussion, so before we go onto look at our findings in detail, here are the locations where we did the filming.
Since it opened in late 2020, Cycleway 9 on Chiswick High Road, now running from Hammersmith to Kew Bridge with extensions planned to Brentford and ultimately Hounslow, has proven hugely popular with west London cyclists – including local resident Jeremy Vine, who can often be spotted riding his penny farthing on it at weekends.
Saturdays and Sundays will also see the cycleway used by a lot of road cyclists, many heading to or from Richmond Park, as well as families. Our film was shot on a Thursday morning just after the school run, but with 73 cyclists passing us, most heading eastbound towards Hammersmith, two-wheeled traffic was brisk (and that was excluding those heading to and from Turnham Green Terrace at the top right of the frame, unless they passed our location).
Next, we headed to King William Street at the northern end of London Bridge, where 81 riders passed where we were after coming northbound over the bridge (we did not count the ones riding southbound, given that many were obscured by motor vehicles and the like and distance made it difficult to ascertain various details, but that would easily have doubled the count).
This was filmed just after 7pm on a Friday, and had it been a bit earlier we would expect to see more riders, given the bridge only reopens to cars after that time during the week.
Finally, we headed underneath London Bridge to Cycleway 3 on Lower Thames Street (you can see it in the background as it crosses the road), at aorund 7.30pm on a Friday evening. Cycle traffic was still brisk. with 65 cyclists (not to mention a pedicab driver and a rollerblader) passing by while we were there.
The graphs below summarise our findings at each of the three locations, plus some brief observations, and obviously we would welcome your thoughts too in the comments below.
“Flat bar/hybrid” here covers pretty much everything that doesn’t readily fall into one of the other categories – so would include everything from your average non-drop bar commuter bike through to a Dutch-style bike (though to be fair, we only clocked a couple of those. Across all three locations, it was the single most popular type of bike – unsurprisingly so, given the range of styles included but also reflecting the fact that these are the kind of bikes many would consider buying when they first get into cycling.
While road bikes may seem unrepresented, we reckon we’d have got a very different picture in Chiswick especially if we’d headed out at the weekend, rather than a weekday – and it’s also worth remembering that many people who might keep a road bike for ‘best’ will have a hack bike, maybe an old singlespeed with flat bars, for example, to use for their commutes, or use a folding bike for travel to and from work given the convenience they provide (it’s worth mentioning that nearly all the folders we saw were by Brompton.
One thing that did come as a surprise though was the popularity of hire bikes, and Lime in particular. Now, this could just be a factor of location – different operators are active in different boroughs, and the Santander scheme does not extend beyond Hammersmith, hence its absence from Chiswick, but at the two City locations the number of riders on Lime bikes exceeded even those on Transport for London’s own official scheme.
The result from Chiswick High Road – three men for every one woman who passed by on a bike – is in line with regular survey findings that we have reported on over the years, but at the other two locations the dominance of men, at King William Street in particular where they outnumber female cyclists by nine to one comes as a shock.
This could be nothing more than a quirk of when the video was shot, and that had the footage been recorded fifteen minutes either side, a different result would have been observed.
One thing that does come to mind, however, is that we know through surveys that lack of safe infrastructure is a barrier to cycling for many women – so given that the busy junction here of King William Street with Cannon Street, Gracechurch Street and Eastcheap has no protected infrastructure, could it be that some women are avoiding it altogether?
Again, the result from Chiswick High Road is more or less in line with what we would have expected, given past studies on the subject – but the results from the two locations in the City, and King William Street especially, where almost two in three riders have chosen to go lidless – are more of a surprise.
They can partly be explained by the proportion of hire bikes being used – few people looking to use one would carry a helmet specifically for that purpose, and given this isn’t Australia, say, where mandatory helmet laws apply, scheme providers don’t make them a stipulation – but we’re not sure it explains the picture fully.
This is another perhaps surprising result – across all three places surveyed, around three quarters of people were wearing what we classified as everyday clothes, which admittedly could range from anything from a suit, as sported by a couple of gents we saw in Chiswick, through all kinds of attire including dresses to leisurewear.
Out of all the categories we were looking at, this was perhaps the most arbitrary one, especially when it came to deciding what constituted ‘cycle clothing’ – which could be a jacket clearly designed for cycling, teamed in some cases with black cycling tights for example, while by Lycra we were really looking for bibshorts, or race-style clothing. There will be overlap between those two categories, and we may perhaps have slightly understated those in the latter, but it does put paid to the myth of ‘Lycra louts’ often peddled out in some parts of the press.
Chris Boardman and others have said that one of the signs that efforts to make active travel easier are working is when you see people riding around in ordinary clothes – and while this is the first time we have undertaken this exercise, there were more of those than we’d have expected before the camera started rolling; combined with what we noticed about helmets, is that a sign of change?
The rucksack is clearly the choice of most cyclists when carrying something, as observed at all three locations, though we were rather surprised at the relatively low use of panniers. We didn’t include anything carried on an e-hire bike such as Lime – as with their competitors, they are equipped with front racks, but it was impossible to see if there was anything inside.
As we said at the outset, this is not intended to be a comprehensive piece of research, which would take many more hours of video plus analysis to make sense of patterns throughout the week, rather it provides a snapshot of the people cycling past each location at the specified time.
We hope it will prompt a discussion, and we would love to hear your views on the issues we have raised, plus your own thoughts on the subject.
Finally (and while it was not an issue we were specifically looking at, it is bound to come up in the comments), one thing the videos each show is that contrary to the impression often given by parts of the popular press, the vast majority of cyclists do observe red traffic lights – yes, some are shown going through them here, and while going through a red light is not something we condone given it is illegal, they do so in these cases without creating conflict with other road users.
Simon joined road.cc 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.