My time in the UK during my sabbatical has now come to an end and I’ve moved on to the Netherlands (more on that in the future!). I’ve provided a few thoughts and photos on London and Bristol specifically but, having also seen a bit of Southampton, Oxford and Leeds and talked to various locals, I think it’s worth trying to reflect on the cycling picture overall in the UK.
Interestingly there’s a remarkable similarity with NZ to cycling in the UK, in terms of infrastructure, safety, and general attitudes/perceptions. Even the cycle safety rates are virtually identical (28.1 vs 28.2 cycling fatalities per billion km cycled). So often, the same issues that we are grappling with also crop up in the UK, such as the relatively low investment in cycling, concerns about sub-standard designs, and how to attract a wider range of people to cycle. The furore over the last few years over cycle safety in NZ (sparked particularly by the fatal crashes in 2010 and the subsequent Coroners Inquiry, Safety Panel, and media attention) has an interesting parallel in the heightened concerns over cycling in London in recent years, again following a perceived “spate” of fatal crashes and media focus.
Overall there is slightly more cycling happening in the UK (~1.6% of all trips and ~3.1% of commuting, vs 1.4% and 2.9% respectively in NZ) and there are some particular stars with very high rates of cycling, including Cambridge (29% commuting), Oxford (17%) and York (12%) – contrast with our top cities of Nelson (9%) and Christchurch (7%). Given the relative population densities of the two countries, that actually translates into quite a lot more UK cyclists on the ground. Yet I’m not convinced (from this trip or my last one) that the UK has any better level of cycleway provision overall; like NZ it tends to be in fits and bursts (often disconnected). It seems to me that there are a few distinct differences that may help to explain the slightly higher UK rates:
- Traffic management on local streets: Most UK cities have quite extensive networks of streets and lanes where it is downright difficult (if not prohibited) to drive along them. This provides an extensive network of low-volume routes for riding your bike. Sometimes the traffic management takes the form of making a lot of the local streets one-way to prevent rat-running, but often bikes can still ride in both directions (usually with no special protection/markings, or a painted line at most). They’re not perfect (getting across busy roads is often still a challenge), but these “quiet street” treatments certainly extend the range of suitable cycling streets.
- Speed management: This is one of those subtle things that we just don’t seem to understand in New Zealand, the importance of lower speed environments for encouraging more cycling (and reducing the crash statistics too). To be fair, until relatively recently the UK wasn’t great at appreciating the virtues of lower speeds either, certainly to the same degree as their European cousins. But that is slowly changing as (1) more lower speed zones are introduced around the country (typically 20mph or 32km/h) and (2) the regulations have been relaxed to make it easier to do so, even without any significant changes to road infrastructure. Credit for much of this must go to Rod King and the “20s Plenty for Us” campaign, and I had the privilege of having a good chat with Rod about how he has been able to slowly win the hearts and minds of the UK public and politicians. Sure, there is still considerable resistance in places, but overall UK speed management is years ahead of New Zealand’s – now they have even got to the point where they are campaigning for 20mph to be the default speed limit on urban streets.
- Helmets: Like most of the rest of the world, the UK doesn’t have a mandatory helmet-wearing law (I’d guess I saw perhaps a quarter of people wearing them anyway). So there is one less barrier to hopping on a bike anywhere, anytime (including the numerous public bike share schemes). The data is sketchy (no-one has ever bothered to do a proper before-after study anywhere in the world) but, anecdotally at least, introducing mandatory helmet-wearing to a jurisdiction seems to reduce cycling use. Calls for making them mandatory in the UK pop up now and then, but have thus far been resisted by academics and advocates (it appears that the general population may be a little less discerning…). Given the near-identical cycle fatality rates in NZ and UK, it perhaps highlights how hard it is to change the status quo, whether you do or don’t have a mandatory wearing law…
- Integration with rail: I used the national rail network extensively across the country and it was frequent and very well patronised (contrast NZ, where we now have a grand total of three return inter-city services a day…). On every train I used, there were people getting on/off with bikes; typically one carriage had space for bike storage. It was easy to get on and off at the stations and there was also loads of bike parking at the stations too (often securely past the ticket gates). We’re lucky to have bike racks on buses in Christchurch, but the ability to use your bike as part of longer distance journeys across the country was clearly well valued. In the absence of inter-city trains, imagine if it was easy to take your bike with you on a plane trip across NZ?
- Traffic congestion: It seems to be a truism that you can always find somewhere else more congested than your own place. So, while people may grizzle about traffic jams and the like in Christchurch, Auckland, or wherever, you ain’t seen nothin’ until you experience some true congestion overseas! The UK, with 60+ million people living on islands the same size as New Zealand, not surprisingly has some pretty horrendous regular traffic jams. This can of course work for or against cycling: either the extra traffic puts you off mingling with your bike, or the intolerable congestion makes you look for better alternatives like cycling. Which course you take may be somewhat location-dependent (e.g. have you got a nice cycling alternative?). But I think it’s fair to say that the high congestion levels in most major UK cities would make many people look seriously at their options.
None of the above on its own is the silver bullet that gets people cycling in droves in the UK, but they seem to make a little bit of a difference to numbers on the ground. What is recognised by many however is that the UK still needs a fundamental change in the level and type of investment in cycling if it is to emulate what is seen in the Netherlands and Denmarks of the world. It is perhaps with this in mind that London at least is currently embarking on an ambitious series of “quietways”, “cycle super-highways”, and “mini-Holland” areas – whether it is sufficient remains to be seen.
Are there any other differences between the UK and NZ that you think affect cycling levels?