This morning, the Department for Transport are announcing a £62m investment in cycling infrastructure. Sounds like good news – investment in cycling is badly needed in the UK (although before we get too excited, £62 million is roughly what it would cost to build two miles of motorway, so falls short of whole-hearted commitment to change the way we travel). We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport. Compare this to the Netherlands (75%), or Germany (30%), and we look pretty pitiable.
But is investment in infrastructure going to be enough to encourage more of us to take to two wheels? Much of the money will be spent on improving road access for cyclists, and increasing the number of bike parking spaces at railway stations and in cities. These infrastructural improvements are certainly much needed, and I fully support investment to facilitate them. But I think it’s also important to consider other barriers, including attitudinal ones, which prevent people from cycling.
We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport.
One of these barriers is almost certainly perception of danger. In their report on Climate Change and Transport Choices for the Department of Transport in 2011, Alex Thornton and colleagues found that nearly two thirds of Britons think that it is too dangerous to cycle on roads, with around half saying that they simply will not cycle on roads, under any circumstances. Roads are dangerous places, but government statistics show that fewer cyclists are killed on the roads than either car users or pedestrians. So, if the reality is that it is far more dangerous to travel on the road by car than by bike, then why have we convinced ourselves that it is so perilous?
Despite the fact that they are more dangerous, cars offer a kind of cocoon, which I suspect makes us feel protected from danger. On a bike, there is a sense of exposure, which feels hazardous and that feeling is very difficult to override by overlaying it with facts. For the significant majority of British people who feel that cycling is unsafe, no amount of bike parking spaces is going to change things.
There are also unhelpful stereotypes which suggest cycling requires specialist equipment, clothing and paraphernalia, as this blog post points out. Hi-visibility tabards, helmets, gloves, panniers – none of these things are actually essential, and in a way, they only serve to make cyclists appear like a sort of out-group clique. For cycling to genuinely be for everybody, it needs to be normal to cycle around cities wearing whatever clothes you happen to wearing, and without any special preparation.
Other barriers include things like status – the car as status symbol isn’t really rivalled by bicycles. For women, concerns about the impact on appearance (helmet hair!), personal dignity and vulnerability have also been cited as reasons not to cycle.
Personally, I’m a bit of an evangelist for cycling and most of these barriers seem pretty trivial. I firmly believe cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability. Rearranging a few details of your life in order to make it feasible to cycle to work, or to the train station if you have a longer commute makes such good sense on so many levels. Cycling is unquestionably one of the most equitable means of transport, having very low direct user costs and therefore being affordable by pretty much everyone.
Cycling is hard to beat when it comes to health, equality and sustainability
Cycling causes basically no pollution and consumes very little in the way of non-renewable resources, especially compared to motorised forms of transport. The only energy needed to cycle is generated by the cyclist, and the very use of that energy gives the cyclist the opportunity for beneficial cardiovascular exercise. Sedentary office workers are chronically under-exercised, and wasting an hour a day sitting passively on a bus, tube or train, when you could spend the same amount of time doing good things for your body, the planet, not to mention your wallet seems plain crazy to me.