A billion bicycle journeys past...

I came across this photo on the excellent Spitalfields Life blog of an old east London street.  What interested me was the sign on the door which reads "City Bicycle School"; it got me to thinking about the people who would have learnt to ride their bicycles there.  How would they have found the roads of old London? Where did they ride, who with and why?  When horses and carts were the predominant traffic on the roads having a bicycle in one's life must have made quite a change to family life.  Suddenly, personal transport was available to all; how did that change family life?  Did cyclists have a better reputation in society before traffic lights had been invented?!

And here, in this short film from the British Film Institute Archives are regal ladies of 1899 showing their slalom cycling skills in full Victorian dress. How's that for cycle chic?  With the advent of the bicycle, women suddenly found themselves able to move around independently without a male chaperone.  Furthermore they could show that they were just as capable as riding as any man - just a few years previously infamous Annie Londonderry had set off from Boston and ridden round the world (with the help of a few ferrys and trains) in full Victorian dress, tailored jacket, tie and floppy hat.  What did cycling mean to these women, and how did it change their lives?

Fast forward to 1959 to that great English University city Cambridge and regard the young Dons of a generation past tearing through the city on their bicycles.  In '59 it seemed that a scholar's cape, a smoking pipe and long socks in to which to tuck your trousers were all the cycling accessories you needed in order to ride to lectures and dream of the cheap oil future ahead; motorways, service stations, rocket ships, that kind of thing...  Little could they dream that one of the City's pre-eminent cyclists would find conditions for bicycles so inhospitable just 40 short years later that he'd up sticks and move to Holland.

Once upon a time there were over a billion bicycle journeys every year in the UK.  Anyone who tells you that the Dutch cycle more because of their historical tradition of riding bikes has not done their homework.  If you track private car ownership rates in the UK against bicycle use from about 1959 onwards one went very steeply upwards whilst the other went steeply down.

So what killed mass cycling in the UK?  The ease and accessibility offered by new roads and cheap automobiles, or the fear and danger that those roads filled with automobiles presented?  And what can we do to try and remedy this situation (bearing in mind that on a national scale nothing we have done seems to have worked so far)  These are the thoughts that fill my head from one day to the next, and one of the primary reasons I write this blog.  How would you rehabilitate the bicycle?

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ndru said...

Great post Mark! I would say the first step would be to make the bicycle as cool as the car is - none of this lycra crap - I am talking about everyday usage, fit girls and guys riding their cruisers - make bicycle fashionable and stylish. At the same time make the car uncool and socially unaccepted. A little bit like smoking - yes some people smoke but it's generally frowned upon.

Anonymous said...

Before we can rehabilitate the bicycle, we must euthanise the automobile.

More specifically, travelling by car needs to be made less convenient so the others will flourish. This is the only way forward. It can be controlled and ordered through governance or uncontrolled and disordered through the rapid decline of cheap energy.

We are at a crossroads.


Dr Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

JClay said...

Guess how many cycle journeys there are in the UK now? 936 million.

As for private car tracking against cycle use, this is of course true for Britain, just as it is true for the Netherlands: http://transportretort.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/making-graphs-fit-the-point/

ibikelondon said...

Thanks for stopping by JCLay. If you don't like the analogy of comparing car usage rates vs bicycle rates then let's look at cycling along with all other transport options over here at the national travel survey:


It clearly demonstrates that all other sectors of transport (rail, bus, private cars etc) are increasing their modal share. Cycling IS flatlining at 2% and has been for a very long time. Over in Holland small towns like Assen are quietly increasing their modal share by 4 or 5% - figures we can only dream of here in the UK, even in London.

Having read the post you've linked to I'm failing somewhat to see the point you are trying to make? That current cycle rates are fine as they are? That we are doing the 'right thing'? What would you change or do differently for cycling in the UK?

Sam, aka The Minx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam, aka The Minx said...

Sorry - noticed lots of typos in previous attempt.
I have now proofed myself:

Having now cycled to Ikea and found myself more than capable of carrying the usual amount of not-neccessary-but-irresistible-tat home via the panniers and a couple of bungees, my main problem was the route. Along huge chunks of the A4 is a clearly designated cycle lane on the nice wide pavement. Along the A406 to Wembley, there are narrow pavements designated as shared use at best. When there isn't pavement, the signage is ambiguous, you end up crossing busy junctions to get to the next stretch of marked lane rather than ending up on the A406 itself - and at one point, surrounding a very busy junction near Stonebridge Park, there's cycle provision in one direction only, meaning you have to hop off and walk, along with a lot of pedestrians, and wait at lights set to favour the very busy roads.
I have no problem with using roads when cycle paths aren't up to scratch, but when that option isn't available - as here - I can see why so many people would say the facilities are not safe / convenient / fit for purpose and stick to the car / taxi / bus.

The irony is that once I'd got to Ikea, I must have been one of the calmest people there, no doubt partly because I didn't have to get involved in the hostile training course known as Car Parks At Peak Hours.

I'm a strong believer in the Build It And They Will Come philosophy for all transport - look at what happens whenever the M25 gets another lane. Having to rely on a charity to provide cycle networks is not good enough.
Perhaps we should get Mia Burke over here to show London how it can be done - and enforce the cycle-friendly laws we have (ASLs etc).

ibikelondon said...

Thanks for stopping by Sam (and don't worry too much about typos - I'm notorious for typing on the hoof and littering my comments with spelling errors. So long as people get the general idea then I'm happy!)

Bravo for your Ikea cycling escapade and I'm sure you are right, it was less stressful managing the A406 than it was driving the Ikea car park (there should be a separate section in the driving test dedicated just to this) With regards to the infrastructure that does exist there I think it's worth pointing out that I think we should reject 'crap' cycling facilities wherever they exist. If the path is no better than mixing it up on the A road it might as well not exist at all.

With regards to 'build it and they will come' I agree to a lesser extent; there still needs to be the 20MPH campaigns, the cycle training, parking and marketing etc in order to encourage cycling numbers to fill the facilities built. However, of course, I do believe that actually building it in the first place should be our number 1 campaigning priority whereas at present it's not even on the list.

I like your idea of getting Mia Burke over here too!!

Anonymous said...

Like a lack of investment in the rail infrastructure after the Second World War and the closing down of many lines, town planning in many UK cities killed the cycle.

Chris said...


I've just read:


I take issue with the very first line in your post:

"For those who believe that the only solution to cycling in Britain is the construction of ‘Dutch-style’ cycle paths everywhere, "

I don't think anyone pro Dutch Model Infrastructure is suggesting that we campaign for segregated cycle lanes EVERYWHERE, or that SEGREGATED cycle lanes be the ONLY thing that we campaign for. We are merely pointing out that campaign organisations in the UK are completely radio silent on segregated cycle lanes as a means of achieving high modal share - which seems rather odd when you consider that this is one of the main tools for achieving high modal share in the Netherlands. I personally think that Dutch Model Infrastructure (which doesn't just include segregated cycle lanes) should be our number one campaign, period.


You raise some interesting points about kms travelled in the UK vs the Netherlands. Indeed, from your data it does appear that the Netherlands is flatlining in terms of km travelled. But I think you've missed the point.

If you were an average guy, which country would you prefer to cycle in, UK, or Netherlands?

Perhaps a better way to describe the situation here in the UK would be: 'Flickering' rather than 'Flatlining'.

The Netherlands have world class infrastructure. Infrastructure we should be lobbying for here in the UK. Doesn't mean we'll get great infrastructure anytime soon - but shouldn't we be campaigning for it?

I suspect your modal numbers will look somewhat different if measured by 'journey' rather than kms - but I'm splitting hairs.

Far from being disheartened by your Dutch numbers, I take heart. The average Dutch person travels approx 10,000kms per year (assuming 16M population, and 18B km by bike, and 150B km by car). Assuming a rough split of 10% share of cycle use vs car use (using your figures), the average Dutch person cycles 1000km/year. I calculate that the average UK person cycles 36km/year. 36km is dismal.

Interestingly, the Dutch cycle 1000km/head/year, despite the fact that they are a country of petrol heads. It appears that per head, they drive more than people in the UK: 9000km/head/year vs 6000km/head/year. Subjective safety perhaps? No 'us and them' mentality in the Netherlands.


If you've had enough of all this talk about segregated cycle lanes, may I point you to the perfect antidote (Dutch-style):


Sue 'sans' helmet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue 'sans' helmet said...

Whoopsie! that was me having to use the delete button - jeez! way too many errors in my haste to comment!!

I expect people will jump on this thought - but I think we need 'strict liability' for 'people using motor-vehicles' collecting 'people using bicycles'!

If the former group had to do some real explaining about the atrocities they commit, and were not so easily let off the hook, then I think we might start getting somewhere useful.

'People using motor-vehicles' must take responsibility for driving the weapon they drive, and not plan on ducking behind "nanny's skirts" whenever they get caught being naughty, namely whenever they kill and/or maim 'people using bicycles'

Great post, Mark, as always!

ian... said...

How would you rehabilitate the bicycle?
Tackle the hardest one first Mark - rehabilitate the motorist!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to take issue with one thing you wrote: "Anyone who tells you that the Dutch cycle more because of their historical tradition of riding bikes has not done their homework." I have done my homework and found an interesting graph in the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan. According to that cycling in a bunch of Dutch cities peaked just after WW2 at 80 to 90% of all journeys, fell to about 30% in 1975, when they suddenly realised that was bad and did something, thanks to which it's crawled back to 40%ish. The same graph shows Copenhagen: 55% postwar peak falling to 25% in 1970, now 35%. And Manchester: 35% postwar peak falling to less than 5% by 1975.

So NL does have a historically much higher level of cycling. More importantly, they staged their cycling revival when cycling was still almost as much a mass movement as it has EVER been in UK.

I don't want to sound defeatist, but it's obviously a whole lot easier to grow cycling when one quarter of all journeys are already done that way, than when it's less than one in 20.

At one quarter of journeys, most people are cycling at least occasionally. It's still a mass movement, there are votes in it, the political will to make cycling better can be found.

At 5% you can do little more than damage limitation. Nothing that makes real a difference will find enough political support, since there just aren't enough votes in doing good things for cycling - especially when those things make driving just a little bit worse.