Cycling in Britain Today

In Britain, cycling conditions are far from brilliant, currently. This is largely because our urban streets have been designed almost entirely around motor traffic, and maximising traffic flows, rather than around people. Often, cycling facilities have been added on as an afterthought.

British cycling infrastructure and conditions are generally poor (left and centre), but there are exceptions (right).
Photos courtesy of Cycle Facility of the Month and LFGSS

This is large factor in explaining why in Britain only 2% of journeys are done on a bicycle, which is one of the lowest figures in Europe. In Holland, by contrast, 27% of all journeys are done by bicycle, and in Germany the government plans to have 15% of all journeys in the next few years.

Meanwhile in Britain, there is is no national cycling plan and cycling policies are entirely left to local authorities, with several design guidelines at their disposal.

Some of the problems we have in Britain are:

  • A lack of quality cycle lanes and cycle tracks. Often UK cycle infrastructure consists of painted dashed lines by the side of the road.
  • Lack of coherent networks
  • Routes which take cyclists round a long way (this known as not observing the 'desire line'). Cyclists are rational beings and do not to do large detours!
  • Lack of shortcuts between streets, known as "permeability".
  • Shortcuts which are not designed for bicycles, or their access points have kerbs.
  • It is often faster to drive than to cycle for short joirneys thanks to a road system that is entirely designed to maximise traffic flow rather than to reduce traffic flow.
  • Lack of storage at home and on the workplace.
  • Our streets are congested with motorised traffic doing short journeys that could otherwise be walked or cycled. Many car journeys in London are less than 2 miles.
  • Lingering misconceptions and stigma about cycling.

Cycling conditions are a lot better in Holland, Belgium, Germany and Denmark, as cycling has been prioritised in these countries by their governments as a large scale, viable, cost effective transport option. These countries are continually investing a lot more money than in Britain in their cycling infrastructure. It is said that Holland is approximately 40 years now ahead of Britain in terms of its cycle infrastructure.

A Dutch cycle path, photo courtesy the Alternative Department for Transport

The following graph shows how far we are lagging behind in Britain, vs the other EU member states, in terms of the number of trips that are done by bicycle.

Image courtesy

The consequences of having such a low cycling mode share, and relying so much on the motor car for short urban trips, are plain to see:

  • Congestion
  • CO2 emissions
  • Pollution
  • Decline in the quality of life and wellbeing
  • Lack of physical activity resulting in health issues

Can we catch up with Europe's best? Yes, if we invest enough money and design well engineered, comfortable and safe cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities. It is not too late to start now, and the dividends will be enormous.

Do we have the rights conditions for mainstream everyday cycling, as is the case in Holland? Yes. We have a cool temperate climate similar to that of the Netherlands, our towns and cities are in the main relatively flat, we have relatively low rainfall levels (especially in eastern areas), and we have a large urban population.