Reflections on a Month in the UK

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.

The ultimate “park’n’ride” combo?

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.

Torrington Place, London: not enough of these facilities yet

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:

Biking in downtown Southampton: easy to do with streets like these
  • 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.
Contra-flow cycle facility in Leeds
  • 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.
A sign of progress: Rod King from the”20s Plenty” campaign
  • 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…
Helmets: some do, some don’t
  • 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?
Spot the bike: Taking your wheels with you
  • 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.
London congestion: the final straw?

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?

5 thoughts on “Reflections on a Month in the UK”

  1. Nice blog, thanks Glen. Another difference I noticed was the density of urban form. The UK seems to have a lot of people living in close quarters, with only a short trip to the nearest shops and with very little free parking.
    Also, I noticed a lot of folding bikes. When I was last in Oxford and London, full-size bicycles were restricted on the urban commuter trains (during the peak, at least) but folding bikes were surprisingly common on trains and buses.

  2. Interesting to read your comments. One factual correction – the UK’s population was 64.1 million in 2013. Also there are other places in the UK with a high % of cycling commuters, including St Andrews, also Oxford. Often (but not exclusively) these are flat places, or university cities.

    I’m Scottish & lived mainly in Northern Scotland before moving to Aotearoa. The Scottish Highlands, despite the geography, actually have a slightly higher % of cycle commuters than other regions in Scotland.

    When living in Orkney I enjoyed taking my bike by ferry to visit other islands, although it bugged me that I had to pay to take my bike on the interisland ferries in Orkney, whereas bikes are carried free on the interisland ferries in Shetland, & on the ferries from mainland Scotland to Orkney & Shetland, & on Cal Mac ferries to the Western Isles.

    Trains in the UK have varied policies on the carriage of bikes – depends on the train company. Some you pay for, & some are free (e.g. Scotrail). Generally space is limited (& tandems or tricycles can only be transported in trains which have guard vans), & there are some peak periods when you can’t take your bike on some trains, but I’ve travelled extensively with my bike through the UK using trains, as I’ve never owned a car. I’ve travelled less extensively in NZ, partly because I’m very wary of taking my bike on buses as it’s difficult to guarantee that there will be space for one’s velocipede, & I’m not good at the techie side of cycling!

    In general I’ve found motorists in the UK have been more courteous towards cyclists than in NZ. In neither country is cycling seen as a normal means of transportation – I’m generally about the only person who cycles to social events I go to in the evenings here, & I regularly get asked stupid questions by people like “When are you going to grow up & get a car?” On the whole more people in the UK have admired me for sticking to my guns & continuing to cycle everywhere, particularly because I’m a female, than is the case here, in a supposedly cycle friendly city.

    The best angle of cycling in the UK is the lack of helmet law – I hate the things, not just because they were initially designed by the Yanks as a fashion accessory (!) but mainly because they’re uncomfortable & they give people the perception that cycling is a dangerous activity. It’s not! I have managed to obtain a helmet exemption here, so if you spot me on my bike I’m legitimately cycling lidless, but of course the general public doesn’t know that, & periodically people here (mainly males) will yell at me “Where’s your [expletive] helmet?” Re safety it’s much more important to be visible – I’m constantly amazed at the number of people here (& in the UK) who cycle without lights at night.

    As a female in Scotland one of the things I enjoyed was the banter which would get slung in my direction by workmen while I cycled along. Most of this wasn’t sexist in nature, but was just friendly conversation – females on bikes being fewer in number, as here. Thinking up quick responses was a good challenge! On 2 occasions in Scotland when I was sitting at a junction in the pouring rain motorists drew up beside me, rolled down the window, & shook my hand. The laughter which that generated kept my forward momentum going!

    1. Cheers Hazel. For some reason I had 80 million in my head, but that’s Germany. Actually, if I was being accurate about my visit, I would have just talked about reflections on cycling in ENGLAND, given that I never made it this time to Scotland or N.Ireland (I did see Wales from a distance!)…

      1. It’ll be interesting to read your thunks on cycling in the Netherlands. Although in some ways it can be viewed as “cycle heaven”, in other ways I prefer cycling in a less cycle-focused nation. Why? Perhaps it’s because I’m used to cycling in English speaking nations & it’s nice to be viewed as a wee bit different from other people; it’s not because I like being cut up by motorists who have minimal cycle awareness, or because I like poorly designed infrastructure (crap cycle lanes etc). I like being part of the mainstream traffic, not being segregated off the main throughfares – bikes are vehicles, not toys to be kept from public view. Part of the problem in NZ is the lack of coherence between public transport & cycle facilities here – & there is little incentive for people to cycle as NZ is such a car-focused nation. People view the space between places in driving time, not in distance. Motoring is still too cheap here, car drivers are too young (the minimum age for drivers should be 18) & it concerns me that third party insurance isn’t mandatory here. I’d just like cycling to be accepted as a normal way to travel, not to be a topic of ridicule or to be portrayed in a negative way in the press, as it tends to be in NZ or in the UK or USA. Remember though, when you’re in cycle heaven, that ot was a fellow Scot who invented the bike, & the pneumatic tyre, & steam engines, &….

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