We have just spent 6 weeks overseas (mostly in the UK but with 2 weeks in Spain in the middle). While we were there we drove all over the country from the Peak District south including Wales, Cornwall & Devon, the home counties and Norfolk. We also visited or passed through a few middle sized cities (like Cambridge & Manchester), and stayed a few days in London. We noticed a few things that interested us (and I am not saying this was in any way a comprehensive or accurate survey – just our observations).
- We didn’t see a lot of cyclists on the road – a lot less than we expected – in the south (around or just outside the London commuter belt) we saw a few pretty wobbly commuter type cyclists riding between localities – its mainly flat here and there are quite a few bike lanes, but some of the areas we spent time in were nice and hilly with quietish country roads but we just didn’t see lots of people riding. Same thing in some of the really picturesque areas where I would have expected to see heaps of cyclists (the Peak District seems to be ideal cycling country if you like hills, same thing in Wales). Hardly any cyclists, maybe a few hardy touring bikes with panniers/tents etc etc. but really no packs of training cyclists/clubs etc. Now I know that these groups exist in the UK so I wonder where were they? Were we just getting up too late to see them?
- We saw heaps and heaps of cyclists in Cambridge – I think they outnumbered cars in a lot of the central area and were so numerous as to be a distinct danger to pedestrians. Here there are so many cyclists that many of the roads have been reorganised to privilege cyclists (i.e. cycling only allowed into one way systems, shared pedestrian areas etc.) So many cyclists that as a motorist in Cambridge my driving behaviour was completely changed – it was absolutely essential to look out for cyclists as it was highly likely that there would be some there. This is completely different to here where there are so few cyclists relatively that often they come as a surprise to the driver (even a cyclist friendly/aware driver).
- Public transport in the UK and in Spain allows bikes – in fact seems to almost welcome them suggesting that planners and policy makers at least consider cycling part of an integrated transport solution to the extent that rules/regulations and infrastructure has been changed to accommodate them. (for example we saw whole areas of the Madrid metro set aside for bikes with big signs painted on the floor and no seats in those areas of the carriage, and in London advanced stopping boxes that were actually of a useful size - like right across the road in front of the traffic – again privileging bikes over motor transport)
Now I doubt that either the UK or Spain are considered cycling nirvanas but I thought there were a few things to learn from what we saw. As far as driver behaviour I certainly learned that it is essentially painless and automatic to look for cyclists when there are a lot of them about . Also that a culture of cycling begets a culture of cycling – I believe they have been cycling around Cambridge for as long as there have been bicycles – it is compact, flat, and not particularly amenable to driving (little parking, narrow lanes, many pedestrians etc.) So cycling makes sense. Similar incentives operate in London but the road conditions are more hazardous. So I wonder whether our population densities are partly responsible for the lack of cycling? If densities are high then the efficiency of driving vs cycling goes down (too much traffic, insufficient parking etc.) When densities are lower people are more spread out so have further to travel and there are simply less cyclists spread over a greater distance (compare Adelaide 659 people/km2 with Amsterdam 4832 people/km2) – or is it all a modal share question?
And why when the conditions seem often so amenable are the so few cyclists on England’s country roads?
Anyway, food for thought…