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Cycling levels dropped in England because “short-sighted councils pulled out protected lanes”

“More people are turning to cycling for shorter journeys to help make ends meet, but they need the safety that dedicated cycle lanes bring,” says Cycling UK

Cycling UK has blamed the fall in cycling activity in England to pre-pandemic levels on the “short-sighted” decisions of local councils to remove protected bikes lanes installed during the initial Covid-19 lockdown.

According to figures released this week by the Department for Transport as part of its National Travel Survey, the average person in England made only two percent of all their trips by cycling between November 2020 and November 2021, while the average number of trips made by bike dropped to 15, down from a high of 20 the previous year.

The study also showed that the percentage of people who cycle at least once a week for any purpose has fallen from 11.6 percent to 9.1 percent, with the average annual mileage covered by bike dropping by 33 miles to 55 miles (a figure more in keeping with pre-pandemic trends, but still much higher than the 39 miles per person recorded in 2002).

The proportion of adults who say they cycle at least once a month has also sunk to 13.1 percent, the lowest figure since 2015-16.

> Cyclists now outnumber drivers on many A-roads, Department for Transport figures reveal

However, estimates from the DfT based on mobile phone data have already shown that cycling trips are once again on the rise in 2022, with the recent growth attributed to more people reaching for the bike on weekdays, suggesting a surge in cycle commuters. This supports the survey’s 2021 data, which links the drop in cycling levels to a fall in those riding for leisure. While leisure cycling trips fell by over 2.5 percent between 2020 and 2021, the proportion of those cycling for travel only dropped by 0.5 percent.

It must be pointed out, of course, that the DfT’s data only applies to England and comes with the health warning that, due to changes in data collection methodology, changes in travel behaviour and a reduced sample size thanks to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, “care should be taken when interpreting this data and comparing to other years”.

Nevertheless, campaigners have blamed the apparent drop in cycling levels on the decisions of some local authorities to deprioritise safe infrastructure after the initial boost in both the number of protected bike lanes and the proportion of people riding their bikes in 2020.

> Government statistics show no growth in cycling trips in England - though London bucks the trend

Cycling UK’s chief executive Sarah Mitchell said in a statement: “The pandemic proved more people would cycle – particularly women and children – if it felt safe for them to do so.

“It’s sadly no surprise that last year those cycling levels dropped, as some short-sighted councils began pulling out the protected lanes which kept people safe, and traffic levels rose again.”

According to Mitchell, increased cycling infrastructure “has the potential to bring huge benefits to all of us.

“The short-term benefit is that people will be able to keep making those essential journeys to work, to school, to the shops by bike. The long-term benefits will be improvements to the nation’s health, economy and environment.”

Mitchell also noted that the recent upward trend in cycle commuting in 2022 was perhaps due to the ongoing cost of living crisis.

“Both national and local governments need to learn last year’s lessons and focus on the new crisis: cost of living,” she says. “More people are turning to cycling for shorter journeys to help make ends meet, but they need the safety that dedicated cycle lanes bring.”

> Lockdown sees cycling gender gap narrow, government statistics reveal

Sally Copley, executive director of external affairs at active travel charity Sustrans, also said: “It’s simple. Today’s data shows that if we want more people to walk, wheel and cycle, then the way we get around must be safe, accessible and appealing.

“During the pandemic, when there were fewer cars on the road, the public took to their bikes. It’s sad to see this return to expensive and pollutant car-use, especially as the urgency for alternatives has only increased, alongside the cost-of-living.”

“Government is investing a record £2bn over this parliament to enable more walking, wheeling and cycling through better infrastructure, cycle training and active travel prescriptions,” a Department for Transport spokesperson noted following the publication of the National Travel Survey.

“Though cycling levels have returned from the exceptional levels we saw during the pandemic, we remain fully confident our investment will enable many more people to choose walking and cycling for everyday journeys by 2030.”

> Same number of cycle trips but people are riding further finds National Travel Survey

Following the survey’s findings, the Guardian has published an article detailing the experiences of readers who say they have given up cycling on the road in recent years.

While some said that their decision to step off the bike was due to an increase in thefts and the health effects of long Covid, most of the respondents blamed the “aggressive”, “abusive” and “dangerous” nature of motorists on the roads.

“I have ridden a bike all my life and have ridden thousands of miles but had a couple of years off,” teacher Helen Simpkin told the paper.

“When I started again just after lockdown it was a truly terrifying experience. With almost no exceptions, all the road users were aggressive and impatient and resented having to share the road. Friends of mine, also experienced cyclists, have had traumatic and life-threatening accidents.

“I know that the Highway Code has changed to give more rights to cyclists but this will make no difference. I will never ride a bike again, my nerves have gone. I will, however, be walking more and using public transport more often.”

Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.

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15 comments

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IanMSpencer | 1 year ago
3 likes

Some anecdotal confirmation of the report in the Grauniad:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/03/cycling-dangerous-...

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Awavey | 1 year ago
1 like

the DfT released a lot of data, maybe too much to take in one go and work out what it all means though they produced a handy factsheet to try and distil the key points...

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa...

...but that hides some of the detail which I think is easy to miss that there look to be trends of a decrease in cycling in leisure & commuting occuring that are beyond the impacts of Covid, Covid might well have hidden something that was beginning to show up in 2018/19 that was missed, and instead of being in a slightly debateable better place than we thought we might be now cycling wise, we might actually be worse off or heading to worse off

I mean some of those stats are showing less than 10% of the population now rides bikes once a week, 97% of local authorities only 20% adults ride bikes once a week, the government target was to double cycling by 2025 from a baseline they took in 2013,and after nearly a decade, we are almost back to the start of that 2013 baseline.

How they are supposed to achieve that doubling goal now Ive no idea. Its very clear from the stats the people who might have helped get towards that goal, who took up cycling in 2020, have simply stopped cycling, 15% less men, 50% less women trips and respectively 30% and 56% less miles and maybe alot of the testimonies in that Guardian article today go some way to explaining the real reasons for it.

More importantly the next rounds of funding for cycling are going to be using these stats to justify whatever decisions ministers take next

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Secret_squirrel replied to Awavey | 1 year ago
1 like

I'm unconvinced all the drop is real - let alone attributing it to temporary lane removals without a better analysis. Also concerned they are bandying about changes in stats.  Seems like madness to set a baseline then change the stats methods unless they restate the older set...

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Awavey replied to Secret_squirrel | 1 year ago
1 like

yes its an annoying habit theyve adopted lately, but whether the drop is as big as they think, or the rise in 2020 either for that matter, its notable I feel when there were these temporary protected lanes in place the type of cyclists you saw riding is markedly different from those you see when there arent

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chrisonabike replied to Awavey | 1 year ago
2 likes

I wonder if we'll have more "National Cycling Strategy" anniversary moments - where we realise decades have passed and we're at the same point, talking about the same things?  Optimistically hoping not.

David Hembrow has a "The UK is n years behind The Netherlands" counter which just keeps increasing...

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iandusud | 1 year ago
7 likes

Interesting article in the Grauniad which effectively highlights the need for safe infrastructure to get the masses cycling. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/sep/01/i-will-never-ride-a...

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Simon E replied to iandusud | 1 year ago
4 likes
iandusud wrote:

Interesting article in the Grauniad which effectively highlights the need for safe infrastructure to get the masses cycling. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/sep/01/i-will-never-ride-a...

And here's a more positive one from the Graun:

"the weekly Shawlands bike bus is using a new wireless remote control to pause the peak morning traffic at Shawlands Cross for long enough to allow the 50 or so cyclists to navigate the junction together in safety."

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2022/sep/02/shawlands-glasgow-s...

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Bungle_52 | 1 year ago
5 likes

Cycling levels have dropped because the police can't or won't act on video evidence of poor driving around cyclists and many motorists have taken this as a green light to intimidate cyclists which has driven many off the roads. You can't cycle everywhere on protected infra.

The same is true of pavement parking. To park on the pavement you have to drive on the pavement which is illegal. Police can't or won't do anything about it so it has become acccpeted that a motorist has a right to park on the pavement. Except for some areas of London where it is enfoced.

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BalladOfStruth replied to Bungle_52 | 1 year ago
2 likes
Bungle_52 wrote:

You can't cycle everywhere on protected infra.

You can't cycle anywhere on protected infra. Granted, I now live (even more) in the countryside, but the only cycling infra of any kind within about 10 miles of me is about 200m of shite, narrow, shared-use path on the way to Narberth. I honestly can't think of anything else.

Is there some sort of map/database of cycling Infra in the UK?

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chrisonabike replied to BalladOfStruth | 1 year ago
0 likes

I believe the OpenStreetMap dataset - available in many popular mapping applications e.g. OSMAnd - and web sites OpenCycleMap / CyclOSM [has a helpful legend] - has some facilities for indicating the type of cycle facility in the data.  So cycle lane vs. cycle path, if cycle path has some division from pedestrians etc.  It also can report on some features e.g. cycle ramp up steps, barriers etc.  Obviously this is reliant on people marking up that data.  Technical data (with pictures) here.

Your local cycling campaign group is often also a good source of detailed info - in Edinburgh I'm lucky to have detailed cycle maps covering the nearby regions.

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 1 year ago
1 like

For amusement compare:

Edinburgh ("not bad for the UK") https://www.cyclosm.org/#map=13/55.9548/-3.1883/cyclosm

Central London https://www.cyclosm.org/#map=13/51.5054/-0.0587/cyclosm

Groeningen https://www.cyclosm.org/#map=13/53.2196/6.5657/cyclosm

... but then a little point in The Netherlands "in the middle of nowhere": https://www.cyclosm.org/#map=13/53.2370/6.1503/cyclosm

Those routes go everywhere!  Another detail is London or even Copenhagen appear to have tons of cycle infra - in some places more than e.g. The Netherlands.  However it's different in *kind* e.g. central London has lots of things marked as "cycle streets" but these aren't Fietsstraat.  London has cycle lanes whereas in the same situation in The Netherlands you'd often find a fully separated cycle track, wide enough for two people to cycle side-by-side.  The junctions are radically different also.  Cycle routes often bypass motor routes.

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eburtthebike | 1 year ago
6 likes

An excellent report from CUK, but I would question their description of councils as "short-sighted". 

I'm inclined to think that they put the cycle lanes in because the government gave them money to do so, and didn't take the money back when they took them out, no matter how successful they had been.  They weren't being short-sighted, they were just pretending to do something, knowing full well that they could rip it out six months later with no penalty.  They didn't really want to put the cycle lanes in, it was just expedient to do so, and as soon as possible, they reverted to type.

A lot of them didn't want the lanes to succeed, inflicting more of those damn cyclists on themselves, even if all their policies from climate change to congestion, supported it.

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chrisonabike replied to eburtthebike | 1 year ago
2 likes

Good point - definitely a mentality of "get and spend any extra money" at play and quotes from several councillors have appeared here saying "we know it's not doing a proper job / not what we wanted to do but we did it anyway".  I suspect that applies even if they are "avid cyclists".

I'd be keeping a close eye on Active Travel England to see if in these cash-strapped times / under the new regime they get quietly defunded or set "review" or "reporting" tasks which can be filed and forgotten.

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Awavey replied to eburtthebike | 1 year ago
1 like

Definitely that councillor from Stoke on Trent felt that way, but I've not seen any evidence from other councils they felt the same way.

But I think it would be useful for organisations like Cycling UK to survey what has been lost, the government did provide funding to councils, it was spent on cycling infra, how much of that still exists now ? Let alone from tranche 3 allocations where the money was announced with flourish, but theres no hint any of it's being spent.

The purpose wasnt to spend money on putting things in and taking them out again, it was meant to be that step to changing how we provided for cycling in this country.

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brooksby | 1 year ago
4 likes

Cycling levels dropped in England because “short-sighted councils pulled out protected lanes” and didn't bother to enforce the protected lanes that they left in place surprise

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