The state of cycling in England

I wrote an article for BikeHub a few days ago, based on the preliminary findings of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project on which I work, and the presentation I made at the recent Building Cycling Cultures event in Leicester. I’m linking to it here, because otherwise some of you won’t find it.

It was quite ‘painful’ to write. I made myself write quickly, so I could send it off to Carlton Reid, BikeHub’s editor, before I had second thoughts. (My thanks to Carlton for giving my analysis greater publicity than it would otherwise have got.) It represents a shift in my thinking, which has come about because of the fieldwork across four English cities I’ve been doing these last couple of years. I’m currently wading through the data that fieldwork has produced, and trying to make sense of it all; the BikeHub article is part of that sense-making activity.

Some conclusions of our research contradict what I previously thought. So part of the analytical process has entailed, for me personally, thinking carefully about my responsibilities as an academic, and also about what matters most, both to me and the world. I’m convinced we need to step up our ambitions for cycling, to fundamentally re-make our cities around the bicycle.

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8 Responses to “The state of cycling in England”

  1. cyclingalong Says:

    Hi there

    Nice blog. Shall be following regularly.

    Hope you don’t mind me posting mine here:

  2. Gareth Says:

    I think that this is an interesting and thought provoking article Dave and clearly the conclusion you reach required you to reassess some previously strongly held views.

    I do wonder about the infrastructure argument though. Your statement ‘The sheer weight of evidence that most people will not ride a bike on busy roads is unambiguous and uncompromising.’ is strikes me as a convincing finding from careful social science research.

    However, to go from this to state that ‘this push should be for very high quality and continuous segregated cycling infrastructure on our biggest and busiest urban roads, the kind of roads on which almost everyone today refuses to cycle.’ strikes me as less obvious. Equally well, I think one could argue that what we need to do is ensure that motorised vehicles are restricted more heavily in urbanised areas so that these busy roads become less busy and more attractive to cyclists. Of course such an approach would trigger a negative reaction from those who, having adapted their lives to the car-based system, understand that their lives are being made more difficult.

    So, whether we are arguing for cycling infrastructure or further restrictions on cars, the issue is how do we build sufficient numbers to make implementation politically acceptable. Given the current level of cycling, I personally think the way forward is not to argue for infrastructure for cyclists but to seek to join forces with pedestrians and argue for a better urban environment for active modes of travel by restricting cars. We need to build the numbers because ultimately politicians act when they think there are votes at stake.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Gareth

      Thanks for your thoughtful and perceptive comments.

      I don’t think I disagree with you. First, you are clearly right in pointing out that I make a jump, from stating an empirically-founded fact (“the vast majority of people will not – under currently prevailing conditions – ride a bicycle on busy urban roads”), to a policy-oriented (and less well empirically founded) recommendation (“we need to implement high-quality segregated cycling infrastructure along such roads”). The latter does not logically follow from the former, and there are alternative possibilities, which you quite rightly note.

      But second, the reason why I’m jumping to this recommendation is primarily pragmatic. My vision and ambition for UK cities has not changed one iota over the last few years. That vision and ambition is for towns and cities in which the car has no place, and where the bicycle is absolutely central, the key means by which people make non-walking journeys. But we have to start this journey to car-free towns and cities somewhere, we have to push for changes where they seem most likely, and we have to recognise that the building of both popular and political will for our visions and ambitions will be a gradual and long-term process.

      So for me this becomes primarily about strategy – I think we can push for and start to get high-quality, continuous segregated cycling infrastructure along our main urban roads, and thereby steal space for cycling from the car, and begin to dismantle automobility’s grip over our towns, cities, lives and imaginations. I am very happy to be told otherwise, and for this to become a zone of contestation – to some extent, that’s what we’ve not had, in the vibrant worlds of British cycling, and it’s what we need. But as far as I’m aware nowhere on our planet has cycling won a large modal share without the establishment of the kinds of cycling infrastructure which the Understanding Walking and Cycling project is recommending.

      So please, feel free to continue the conversation – for me, at least, it’s hugely nourishing and useful.

      Best wishes

  3. Gareth Says:

    Following on from my previous comment, I think this NY Times article overstates the progress made in Europe but essentially I think that rather than specifically arguing for cycling infrastructure we should be building the consensus around ‘Irking drivers is the right urban policy’

  4. Gareth Says:

    I share your vision Dave and agree it is about strategy. To the key strategic elements of:

    a) restricting car use, and
    b) creating better conditions for cycling

    I would add:

    c) better provision of public transport and in particular integration of that provision with active travel modes,
    d) a requirement on public bodies to consider the transport implications of planning and provision decisions.

    This latter point seems to me to be frequently overlooked. Your point about the car system is pivotal. The car-centric system may be unsustainable but for many people it works as a system, one can drive pretty much where one wants to confident in the knowledge that there are places to refuel and park and back up services such as recovery services and garages if needed. A people-centric approach has to be equally seamless and systematic if it is to replace the status quo. Every time public services are ‘rationalised’ (as in the closing of Post Offices, the centralisation of NHS provision) or planning permission granted for low density housing or out of town shopping, the need to travel is increased and the likelihood of building a people-centric system made just that bit more difficult.

    Cyclists interested in seeing change need to be more ambitious as you suggest but also we need to raise our game in terms of debating and arguing for change and this is what I appreciate about your blog.



    • Dave Horton Says:

      Absolutely! Great points Gareth (well, I would say that, as I agree with you entirely ‘-)

      Incidentally, the interconnectedness of everything, because everything is part of more complex systems, is one reason why I think some cycle campaigners (this one included) sometimes get so very frustrated. There’s a sense that there must be a magic-bullet, a single thing which we could do to change the way things are. If only life (and modal shift) were so simple!

      But on the flip-side, that’s also why all that we’re currently doing is so important. Bike shops, cycle campaigning, cycle training, organising rides and other events, reading, writing and thinking about cycling – all these things are part of the ‘bike system’, which we should not see simply as an addition, but more boldly as a replacement, to the car system.

      Cheers for now

  5. Dave Says:

    agree with all this.
    Plus dramatically better conditions for pedestrians; it seems crazy to me that there has to be a lengthy process to establish the need for pedestrian crossings and then the construction of an elaborate infrastructure, when black and white paint every 100 yards or so would send a totally different message to everyone about who owns the space and what is appropriate behaviour in it.
    This also gets us thinking about the kinds of alliances we need to build.

  6. The big infrastructure bunfight #2 « Psychobikeology Says:

    […] there has been a ‘painful’ change of mind on the part of the academic Dave Horton, as a result of a qualitative research […]

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