‘Get Britain Cycling‘, the report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into cycling has been published today. I attended one of the inquiry sessions at Westminster earlier this year, where I was able to listen to expert witnesses give evidence on cycling, so it’s exciting to see what came of it.
The report emphasises the need for urgent action to help get Britain cycling and highlights the range of ways in which cycling can play a significant role in addressing problems that need to be tackled. These include sedentary lifestyles and obesity, air pollution from cars and our increasingly congested towns and cities.
The major conclusion is that there are “massive and unnecessary” barriers which prevent people from taking to their bicycles. The report insists that we need a bold vision from government to get Britain cycling, which, like many things, really rests on top down support. It also talks about the need for a “fundamental cultural shift” in how Britons think about travel.
The report calls for a target of increasing cycle journeys from the current less than 2 per cent of journeys to 10 per cent by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050. It suggests that to do this we will need a national cycling champion and a national action plan. Key elements the report identifies that will be needed include:
- Better, more consistent and more coherent funding
- Incorporating the needs of cyclists at every stage of road design
- Safe speed limits (20mph in all residential streets)
- Training and education (for children and adults)
- Political leadership
The issue of funding is clearly key, and the impact of long term lack of investment in cycling shouldn’t be underestimated. Outside London, less than £2 a head is spent on cycling in England – compare that with the £24 a head spent in Holland and you can see why the Dutch are leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of having a national cycling culture.
I haven’t yet read the full report, but the headlines from the summary and recommendations seem to me to hit the nail on the head. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been examining the issue of cycling in recent months. From the perspective of the Social Brain Centre, the need to get people cycling can be seen as a behaviour change challenge, and I’ve been working on ways which small steps can be taken to contribute to what the report has called a fundamental cultural shift.
There is a need to normalise cycling, as well as the very urgent need to invest in better infrastructure to make it safer and more appealing. Part of the process of normalising cycling is to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of cycling, and it is this side of things that we’re intending to focus on in the action research currently under development.
Watch this space for more on that as it develops. In the mean time, the report is going to be presented to the government, and a coalition of charities and cycling organisations, led by the Times, have set up an e-petition calling on the government to implement the recommendations. If you agree that it’s time to get Britain cycling, do your bit and sign the petition now!
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.
We lag way behind the rest of Europe, with only just over 2% of Brits using bikes as their main mode of transport.
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.
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.
I work at home most Fridays and pick my (almost) 3 year old son up from nursery around 3.30. This usually involves a pleasant 15 walk home in which he typically falls asleep in his pram, but on Friday it was windy, raining heavily and I was ill-prepared. There was no rain cover for the pram, and I had a hole in the sole of my right shoe.
That much was my fault, but we were both eager to get home quickly, and I think my decision to swiftly walk to the closest bus stop was a good one. I was relieved when, through the rain, I saw the 93 was coming down Putney hill.
Like most passengers, I associate bus numbers with standardises bus routes. The 93 connects North Cheam with Putney Bridge station and I have taken it literally hundreds of times. So what happens at a cognitive level is that I search and acquire the information I need. ’93′ was that information, but ’85′, ’14′ or ’39′ would have done just as well.
You look for a number, because the number is the proxy symbol for a complex piece of information, namely the bus route, which looks silly on the front of the bus. I rarely look at where the bus is going, and when I do it’s typically a clear day were I have lots of time on my hands.
On Friday, I was cold, wet, my son was grizzly, and I stopped at ’93′- to the automatic system that number meant fastest way home and I got on the bus, swiped my card for £1.35 and expected to be taken to the bottom of Putney high street, which would leave us with a two minute walk home.
After one stop, however, there was a machine announcement: ‘this bus terminates here’. The bus had taken an un-typical route and stopped about three stops before its usual terminus, approximately 3/4 of a mile away. A fellow passenger got to the driver before me to complain, asking that he should at least scribble a note or give a ticket so she could complete her journey for free, rather than having to pay twice for the same journey. I had the same request, so backed her up but the driver argued: “Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”
“Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”
I loved that question because although it sounds fair and innocent, it highlights that there may be a lack of insight into how automatic most passenger behaviour in London has become. Perhaps Oyster cards are partly the cause of this (and the reason you have to pay twice if you take two busses instead of one to complete the same journey) but more generally we tend to take in as little information as possible while making transport decisions.
My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.”
My answer of course, was ‘no’, and my fellow passenger said the same. We both just saw 93 and assumed it was following the normal route. The driver was pleasant enough, but his attitude was that if we didn’t read where the bus was going, it was our own fault. My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.”
He said the policy of giving discretionary fares only applies when the bus doesn’t say where it is going at the point at which you board the bus(in this case it said Putney Station, which could also easily be misread where you expect to see Putney Bridge). In the wet heat of the moment, I asked for his bus number (#17) and said, calmly, that I would report this incident because I felt he had discretion he wasn’t willing to use.
(Also, why do they stop early in any case? Is it just for driver convenience at getting on and off, or are the deeper reasons why buses don’t complete their routes?)
It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result.
Thankfully, by the time this conversation ended, the worst of the rain had subsided and I pushed the pram home for ten minutes, enduring little more than a soggy sock, my son fell asleep as planned…and soon all was well.
It was a minor incident, but interesting for what it indicates about the assumptions behind transport policy. Thinking through related assumptions may have implications for the massive campaign to improve transport behaviour during and after the Olympics.
It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result. (Indeed, ‘expect error’ was one of the main pieces of advice from Thaler and Sunstein in Nudge).
My practical point is that lots of passengers rightly make the assumption that the bus is following its normal route. So when the bus is going less than all the way, it is incumbent on TFL to make that irregularity clearer than merely having it on the front of the bus(which few will read). This might mean a notice by the oyster card machine before you swipe, or, perhaps better, a dotted line around the bus number to indicate that although it is the same bus, it is not going ‘all the way’.