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One in three cyclists riding more since pandemic began, new government statistics reveal

Study reveals how COVID-19 is causing travel patterns to change and highlights need for safe infrastructure

One third of cyclists are cycling more since the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the UK a year ago and say they are likely to continue to do so in the future according to new government statistics, which highlight how travel patterns are evolving due to the pandemic and why active travel is seen as central to keeping the country moving now and in the aftermath of the crisis.

The National Travel Attitudes Study (NTAS) from the Department for Transport (DfT) also found that people are less concerned for their health when using their own bike compared to any other mode of transport.

A total of 5,299 people aged 16-plus and living in England completed the survey, which was conducted online and by telephone over two sampling stages – the first from May till July 2020 and the second from August till September 2020.

When existing users of various modes of transport across both survey periods were asked how their use of those modes had changed from before the UK’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19 (on 31 January 2020), active travel showed the biggest increases, while means of transport shared with other people saw the greatest declines.

Some 38 per cent of people who walk for transport said they were doing so more since the pandemic began, and 34 per cent of cyclists said they were riding more – and since the study only looks at those who walked or cycled already, the total increases in both are likely to be greater.

Among all survey respondents, during the first sample period, which took in a large part of the first lockdown period, 16 per cent rode a bike for exercise outside the home, and 10 per cent to get somewhere, with the respective figures dropping to 11 per cent and 9 per cent in the second sample.

Meanwhile, across both samples, 95 per cent of cyclists and 94 per cent of walkers say it is likely that they will continue to travel more by two wheels or two legs once travel restrictions and social distancing measures are removed.

That contrasts sharply with public transport where, 65 per cent of respondents to the survey said that they would be likely to avoid it if it was crowded once restrictions are lifted, and only 19 per cent saying they would be unlikely to do so, with a further 15 per cent saying they never travel by public transport.

At 55 per cent, more than half of those who travel by car said they were doing so less, with only 11 per cent saying they were using a car more.

The biggest falls in usage of various modes however was seen in shared transport – 75 per cent of people who use taxis said they were doing so less than before, rising to 78 per cent of tram, 79 per cent of bus and 84 per cent of train passengers.

Only 19 per cent of cyclists said they were doing so less since the crisis began, many of whom we suspect would be former bike commuters now working from home or who have been furloughed by their employers.

When asked how concerned for their health they would be at present using various modes of transport, 90 per cent of respondents in the second survey period chose London Underground and 88 per cent plane as the ones where they would feel most at risk.

At the other end of the scale, personal bicycle at 9 per cent was the mode where people felt least concern, followed by car with 12 per cent and walking on 17 per cent. There was then a big gap to shared bicycle scheme at 44 per cent, ahead of shared car on 60 per cent, in terms of people expressing concern.

Both active travel and health campaigners welcomed the findings of the study and called for more infrastructure to enable people to walk or cycle in safety – something that surveys show has widespread public support and which the DfT has pledged to do but where efforts are often opposed by local councils, or removed shortly after installation at the behest of a small but loud minority.

Quoted in the Independent, Rachel White, head of public affairs at Sustrans, said: “These findings are positive.

“We must focus on making it easier for more people to walk and cycle by providing the necessary infrastructure and support, so that those who would like to start walking and cycling for everyday journeys but currently do not feel able are encouraged to do so.”

Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy and public affairs at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, commented: “It’s wonderful to see more people walking and cycling.

“Road transport emissions can have a devastating impact on the health of the young, older people and the millions of people with lung conditions such as COPD or asthma.

“It’s crucial that governments, both national and local, do everything in their power to encourage and support walking and cycling,” she added.

“Clean Air Zones in the most polluted towns and cities should be implemented without delay to take the most polluting vehicles off the roads and we need to see funding to make space for people to safely walk and cycle.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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