Let’s begin with a self-evident truth, at the time of writing there is no mass cycling in the UK. According to the National Transport Survey 2011, around 2% of all journeys were conducted by bicycle. That very much makes cycling a niche activity in the UK. As a comparison, the same survey showed that nearly two-thirds (64%) of journeys were conducted by car or van, either as the driver or as a passenger. As a matter of fact, there is so little in the way of utility cycling in the UK that an All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group had been set up to investigate the barriers towards mass cycling and how Britain can get cycling again. Their report is due on 24 April 2013.
What is and is not Mass Cycling?
Mass cycling is when a significant minority (or greater number) of people that live in our towns and cities feel that they can safely go about their daily business using a bicycle as their primary mode of transport. Whether, this be to pop to the shops for a pint of milk and the paper or to get to work which is a 2-3 miles away and back, or to meet your friends down at the local pub. Mass cycling is where families feel that they can go for a ride together, say to go shopping, or get to the football or rugby match.
To me, mass cycling is characterised by what can be observed in the Netherlands or in cities like Copenhagen. A significant proportion of residents of such places pick up their bicycles and ride to where they want to go to; they don’t think twice about using their bike. In the Netherlands as a whole the bicycle has 26% share of all journeys, which rises to 34% when considering journeys up to 7.5 km / 4.67 miles (source: Cycling in Netherlands, 2009). The figure for Amsterdam and other cities is probably considerably higher than this.
It is equally important to understand what isn’t mass cycling. People turning up to The New Forest in their car with bikes and then going for a ride with their friends or family or even by themselves is not mass cycling. Similarly, for a more London centric perspective, families turning up to ride around Richmond Park on a weekend is not mass cycling. In both cases it may appear as mass cycling in the sense that it’s groups of people who are out and about enjoying themselves, and it is very commendable, but this is cycling for leisure and does not constitute utility cycling, the pre-cursor to mass cycling.
Why Bother With Mass Cycling?
That is a fair question, after all, we do manage to get around and get things done. Life can be a hassle but we muddle through somehow, so what has mass cycling got to do with us? Mass cycling is primarily about improving the quality of our lives.
From the individual’s perspective, switching to a bicycle as your primary mode of transport has the following advantages:
- Lowers travelling costs, such as savings in petrol, train tickets, lower mileage and hence lower insurance premiums on the car. If it’s a multiple car ownership situation (which is very common outside major cities) then removing one of those cars will save many hundreds of pounds per year (maintenance, insurance, petrol, etc.). Just imagine, if you had an extra £1,000 per year (not to mention the sales proceeds from the 2nd car itself), it’d sponsor a whole lot more consumption of other goods & services and/or savings towards a house (or a holiday home or a new kitchen…)
- Even a moderate amount of cycling at a slow pace will provide exercise. Cycle a few miles a day, say to the shops or to work and back, and the weight loss is pretty rapid. Suddenly those jeans that were purchased last year and were proving to be a bit tight now fit perfectly! Or alternatively, it’s an excuse for a whole new wardrobe. Although this may impact on the money saving point above, but look at it this way: once you’ve spent the money on petrol, and used the car, that money is gone. Clothes, on the other hand, you can keep on wearing over and over again.
- Doing even a moderate amount of exercise releases endorphins, which makes people happy. Most people hate doing exercise if they know that it’s exercise. Cycle to the shops and, hey presto, the exercise is already done for you. That’s free endorphins and not having to worry about finding a parking spot for the car.
- To me, the greatest advantage that a bicycle offers is liberation. Liberation from train timetables, liberation from sitting in ‘rush hour’ traffic in what is effectively a slow moving car park. Liberation to go enjoy yourselves and discover your town & city; perhaps discover that little pub on the riverfront that you keep hearing about but their car park is always full but it’s a little too far to walk in a reasonable amount of time (we all lead busy lives, after all). Or go to the local football match for the local team, but again the car park is always full.
- The other great advantage is certainty. Certainty that getting from A to B will take a fixed amount of time; there are no trains to break down or traffic jams for the car to be stuck in. Of course, there will be some variability, but that variation is very close to zero. Obviously, invest in some good tyres to avoid repeated punctures.
- If you enjoy your food and drink, and let’s face it a lot of us do, cycling regularly often does mean that you can indulge yourself a little more. Obviously, there’s a balance to be had here, as with anything else.
For society as a whole, mass cycling offers the following advantages:
- Reduction in medium and long term NHS costs. NHS could save billions of pounds if people led more active, healthy lifestyles and mass cycling helps with that. One of the easiest way to have healthier population is to get them to exercise without knowing that they are exercising! Again, cycling for utility serves this purpose perfectly.
- Reduction in pollution. Our towns and cities suffer from a lot of air and noise pollution and a significant portion of that pollution comes from motor vehicles. Who doesn’t want to live in a place that has clean air and not much in the way of noise? Mass cycling would mean fewer motor vehicles being used, especially for those shorter journeys, and therefore lower emissions as a whole. Again, this saves the NHS and us tax payers, money.
- Compared to cars and HGVs bicycles do virtually no damage to our roads and paths. Lower maintenance costs mean lower tax bills for all of us.
- When dedicated cycling infrastructure goes together with mass cycling, it means that those people who used to drive their cars around all the time are driving less. This leads to a lower number of deaths on our roads, which is currently around 2,000 deaths per year in the UK.
- With mass cycling our towns and cities just become nicer places to live in and are not being overrun by cars everywhere. Have a look at Copenhagen or pretty much any town in the Netherlands.
So, the reasons for having mass cycling are pretty obvious in the short term and long term.
I’ll try to deal with why we don’t have mass cycling and look at potential solutions in a future post.