** A warning that this is a long and at times involved and fiery blog post; I've spent many hours going over the figures contined herein and considering the best steps forward. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to our 3 main cycling campaigns, and how I wanted to say it, and whilst I know a post of such length is an endulgence, I do hope you'll be able to find the time to read it and join the debate**
The Government published its National Travel Survey at the beginning of the month showing travel trends and figures for 2009. Detailing how we all move around Britain - by automobile, train, bicycle and foot - the ongoing survey from the Department of Transport shows how and why we get about. The CTC, our national cycle campaign, has been quick to jump on the results with the headline "National Travel Survey proves cycling is on the increase". But I think a more detailed look at the survey, and the national health of cycling in general, is in order here.
The CTC states "Government data... ...confirms that in 2009 cycle use increased to the highest level in decades" If you were a copy editor on a deadline you might feel inclined, on the basis of the CTC's press release, to run a front page splash with a headline like "Meteoric rise in cyclists!" or perhaps even "Cycling grows and goes!". But the truth is rather more prosaic and shows that despite the efforts of the likes of the CTC, the LCC and Sustrans, and the work of official bodies like Cycling England, cycling seems to me to in fact be in serious trouble.
In 2009 cycling made up just 2% of modal share of all journeys in the UK. By comparison, rail (including the London Underground) makes up 3%, buses and coaches represent 7%, walking 23%, other (ferries etc) 3%, whilst trips by car account for a massive 63% of all trips by modal share.
Despite their relatively small percentage share, rail and bus travel are making progress; between 1995/97 and 2009 the average distance travelled by bus outside London increased by 5%, within London by some 66%. Over the same period, rail travel saw an increase of 44%. The number of trips per person per year by bus in London increased by 47% between 1995/97 and 2009.
These are the kind of figures that Government statisticians like to see; clear results as a consequence of direct investment in a type of transport. No self-respecting civil servant is going to recommend investing money into a scheme which doesn't bear tangible results which can be boasted of at the next general election.
Cycling has made a little progress; average annual distance by bike for Britain's cyclists has increased from 42 miles per person in 2008 to 46 in 2009. That is more than the 1995/97 average. That means average trip length has increased from 2.4 to 2.8 miles. Hardly a rolling revolution, wouldn't you say? The survey states clearly: "Frequency of bicycle use has remained fairly stable over time since 1998/00. In 2009, 14% of respondents said they ride a bicycle at least once a week and a further 9% said they did so at least once a month. 68% said they use a bicycle less than once a year or never."
The likes of the CTC might find small victories in the increases in average journey length by bicycle, or the fact that more people in high social economic groups are now cycling, but I do not. I see these figures against the back drop that the rest of the National Travel Survey presents:
"DfT Vehicle Licensing Statistics show that there has been a continued growth in the number of licensed cars in Great Britain (an increase of 25% between 1997 and 2009)."
Clearly travel by private automobile is still seen as something inherently more desirable than travel by bike. The only place in the country that has turned this statistic around to any extent is, of course, central London which has decreased the number of cars on its roads through the introduction of the Congestion Charge. The decrease in cars lead to an increase in cyclists, a relationship that is nearly impossible to replicate elsewhere with such a large increase in cars in Great Britain. Even outside of Zone 1 (in Waltham Forest, say) cycling in London is hardly the nirvana it is sometimes made out to be.
If you look at the overall figure, below, it is clear to see that despite campaigning efforts to the contrary, cycling as modal share is on a steady downward pattern. And whilst all journeys have decreased overall, there are more cars than ever on our roads (click on the image for a closer look at this graph) The green line represents cycling as a percentage of all journeys since 195 and despite the occasional upward tick, the stronger trend is clear, Britain is abandoning the bicycle and cycle rates are flat-lining:
Against these somewhat depressing figures the CTC states in its press release "We expected that the recession, along with high fuel prices, would lead to an increase in cycling... ...sales of bikes have soared by 25% over the same period." This to me says two things; firstly that people are still buying more and more cars despite the economic constraints of our current financial climate, and that people are considering cycling more - even going to the lengths of buying a new bike - but cycling less. Why is this? What's keeping people from their bikes? Why are more and more parents driving their children to school instead of letting them cycle? What's stopping women from cycling? The answer, I suspect, is in the road conditions that would-be cyclists discover when they set out on their shiny new bikes for the very first time. For all the glossy posters encouraging us to 'Catch up with the bicycle', for all the talk right now about there never having been a better time to cycle, cycling on the roads in the UK is still too large an emotional investment for most people. The British are not really so afraid to actually get on their bikes and ride, nor are they fearful of the weather or finding somewhere to park their bike at the end of their journey (though all these things, of course, are contributory factors) The primary reason why most people in the UK do not cycle even though they can and it makes sound economic and health sense to do so, is because in order to cycle on the roads here you have to do so in spite of the prevailing road conditions and not because of them. For most, 'sharing the road' with vehicular traffic is just a step too far.
Einstein once said that do something over and over again and expect a different result was true madness, and yet this is exactly what is happening here in the UK. The UK had a "National Cycling Strategy" back in 1996 which had an aim of doubling cycling by 2002 and doubling again by 2012. It was quietly abandoned by the Government in 2004 after the rate of cycling had actually declined over the previous 8 years.  Over the past 15 years the number of cyclists on the road, by comparison to other transport modes, has grown smaller and smaller. Yet our cycling campaigns are still calling for the same thing over and over; more cycle parking, SMIDSY campaigns, even pot hole reports. None of the three major campaigns in the UK; Sustrans, the CTC or the London Cycling Campaign are calling for segregation out right. Did anyone spot the elephant in the room?
Let us consider the city of Assen, in the Netherlands, home to British bike blogger David Hembrow. It's a largish town of some 65,000, relatively flat and populous, with a population growth of 1.5% per year. Not unlike countless other towns in the UK and totally unremarkable in most over ways. But for cyclists like you and I it is remarkable. You see, unlike here in the UK where the cycling rates pitch down the graph on an ever-downward ebb, cycling rates in Assen are actually increasing. In 2009 this small town quietly announced that it's cycling rate as a percentage of ALL journeys (not just commuting to work) had grown from 37% four years ago to 41% now. That is to say not only does it have a higher modal share than ANY town in the UK, but also that this share is growing. If that's not a measure of success, then I don't know what is. The key to this success? Segregation. David's blog shows in painstaking detail how we can go about 'Assenising' the UK, and for very little money in comparison, say, to building more railways or roads (remember all of the UK rail network represents just 3% of modal share. How much money gets spent on it? Considerably more than cycling!)
If you're like me and a little sceptical of facts and figures, especially those drawn up by Governments, let us take a more humanistic approach to this all. Do you want to see mass cycling in the UK? Yes. OK, mass cycling means everyone will be able to ride a bike as a primary means of transportation; Mums, kids, Grans... Would you be happy for your Gran to cycle on the A-road nearest to your house, mixing it up with the A-road traffic? No? Me neither. Would you be happy for your Gran to cycle on smooth, segregated, wide, well maintained cycle paths like these....
Yes, that's a cycle path! From David Hembrow's A View from the Cycle Path
Yes? Well then, what are we, and our national cycle campaigns waiting for? The past 15 years have shown that campaigning for better bike parking or pot hole repairs are having little or no effect on overall cycling rates here in the UK. In the same time Holland's cycle rate has grown and grown because it has built and continues to improve a quality designated system of segregated cycle paths along side nearly every road in the country. Yes, it will be tricky, yes there are probably places where it won't be possible (certain parts of central London or the hillier parts of Yorkshire spring to mind) but at least let's all hear the canary in the coal mine before it falls off it's perch completely.
If we all want mass cycling here in the UK there is only one thing for it; Assenise! Assenise! Assenise! To do so will involve pushing for Dutch-style infrastructure at a national level.
I would like to see a commitment from our three main cycling campaigns that this is what they are aiming for too, and that they mean to achieve this aim by lobbying for segregated cycle infrastructure. Otherwise I fear, for all the self-serving campaigns they can muster, the downward slide on the National Travel Survey can only continue. What's it to be?