Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Now get on your bike...

Good news! The UK central government announced yesterday to invest £94m to promote cycling across a few English cities and national parks. See for details this Goverment press release.

More specifically £77m will be spent in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Norwich, while 4 of the national parks, Peak District, South Downs, New Forest and Dartmoor, receive a further &17m. It's good to see after all the public funding cuts of recent years, some investment in bicycle infrastructure outside of London. But the fact that many other cities lost out in the competitive bidding process for the funding, means that only some areas will benefit.

According to this BBC article in 2012 only 2% of journeys in Britain were by bike, certainly some way to catch up with other European countries. Often cycling is seen in Britain predominantly as a sporting activity rather than a means of transport. And the press event today was no exception, with giving references to the British successes in professional cycling in 2012.

This focus on cycling mainly as a sport and leisure activity is also evident when visiting a typical British bike shop. Many bicycles on offer are either pure road bikes, mountain bikes or hybrid bikes, often without practical features such as mudguards, chain protection or hub dynamo lights. Unlike the Dutch or German bike shops I know, finding practical utility bikes in a British shop is nearly impossible - the exception being the excellent British folding bikes such as the Brompton.
But it's such practical bicycles, like the Dutch Stadsfiets for flat terrain or the German Trekkingrad for more hilly environments, which are best suited for daily commuting in normal clothes whatever the weather. So, apart from the infrastructure investment, what is also needed to improve the attractiveness of bicycles is a different marketing by bike companies and shops offering practical bikes, which you can use with your normal work clothes instead of lycra shorts and SPD shoes before heading to work.

But how realistic is it to make cycling more attractive by infrastructure investments. And how have things changed over recent years? A few years ago, I worked with the travel-to-work data from the Census 2001. The following map shows the share of working age people per ward using their bicycle to get to work in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while the data from Scotland shows the respective share combined for work and place of study.

One can identify the hotspots with a high share of bicycle commuters in Oxford, Cambridge, York and Hull, while the share in the flat Eastern terrains is generally higher, even in more rural areas. But the map confirms what the statistics in the BBC article above say - the share of cycling as a means of transport is very low. So how has this changed since the last Census? During that period some cities saw key changes in policy. For example London saw the introduction of the congestion charge zone, while under New Labour many other cities had seen modest but steady yearly investment in bicycle infrastructure, particularly in leisure routes. Unfortunately the detailed travel-to-work datasets from the Census 2011 have not yet been published. But the Census website contains a great new online mapping tool which can be used to visualise how the share of bicycle commuters changed between 2001 and 2011. The live map can be accessed via this Link and the following map shows two snapshots.

While the general spatial patterns remain the same in 2011 compared to 2001, the maps show two interesting trends. First, some predominantly rural districts, particularly in the East of the country show a decreasing share of bicycle as a commuting mode. This might be linked to a further increase in rural car ownership or in a decrease of the availability of local jobs accessible by bike. The second interesting trend is the increase in shares of bicycle commuting particularly in the inner London boroughs, but also in cities like Bristol.

So, will the proposed new funding significantly improve those shares of bicycle commuting? Well - many of the suggested measures aim at establishing new cycling superhighways, similar to the approach in London. Also, new bicycle paths are proposed, for example for key routes like the Oxford Road corridor in Manchester. While this can give the impression to novice cyclists to be safer, new separated bicycle paths do not necessarily make it easier and quicker to cycle, or only if one provides very wide and large scale bicycle paths similar to the ones common in the Netherlands.

The other aspect to consider is that particularly in inner city areas, the British housing stock is not very well suited to park and store a bicycle conveniently. If you want the bike to become a daily means of transport, the bike has to be easily accessible, stored safely, ideally on the street level. The reality is that British housing floorspace is one of the smallest in Europe, so place to store a bike within the house is limited. And safe bike storage on the street level in areas of terraced housing or flats is very rare to find.
To be fair to developers of new dense housing in inner city and city centre areas - they do provide bicycle storage. But it is in my experience often the cheapest solution, just to tick the sustainability box often put in the wrong location. So what is the practice in other countries? I plan to write in abother blog post about the German situation. In the meantime, I found this interesting blog post explaining the Dutch situation: http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/parking-your-bike-at-home/ - certainly lots of lessons to learn.

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