Cycling in the UK: Exploring the Rise

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Cycling is on the rise in the UK. Data from the official Cycling Index has revealed that, in the year ending December 2022, cycling levels were at a 23.7% increase in comparison to figures gathered in the previous year. alongside a 63% increase from March 2013 – 2021.

Cycling increasing in the UK
Utility cycling is up 47%

The UK’s average mileage per year has been gradually increasing since 1993, averaging 3.5bn miles between 2015 and 2019, rising to 4.2bn in 2021. For most individuals, the largest proportion of trips continues to be for leisure, reflecting the change in trend for journey purpose seen over the last few years. However, data analysed by Cycling UK in 2022 revealed that significantly more people have turned to utility cycling as a convenient and cost-effective mode of transport during the cost-of-living crisis. Compared to 2021 figures, levels rose by 47% on weekdays and by 27% on weekends, with over 70% of all journeys made in the UK being under 5 miles.

Of major influence, however, is the greater emphasis on implementing essential sustainability strategies and methodical urban planning in the 21st century. Socio-cultural factors like climate change, consumer demand and the improvement of urban infrastructure, combined with rising fuel prices and disruptions to public transport, have all helped to contribute to a modern growth of cycling in the UK.

A Golden Era of Cycling

Regarding the annual increases in miles cycled, it would be tempting to consider cycling as at an all-time high in the UK. However, annual levels are still some way off the late 1940s, specifically 1949, when cyclists covered some 14.9 bn miles, amounting to around 37% of all traffic that year. Since this peak, and combined with the increase in car ownership following WW2, there was a steady decline in cycling that persisted through to the 1970s.

Nonetheless, contributing factors like the rising cost of oil and the impact of road traffic and congestion soon began to create evidence for the need to implement changes to public transport. A study conducted in 1977 by The Department of Transport highlighted the potential of cycling as an alternative means of commuting. The Government’s Transport White Paper of that year then offered budgets for local authorities that were aimed towards developing cycling infrastructure, with the aim of making paths safer and more accessible for users in order to encourage higher levels of cycling.

By 1981, a number of schemes had been implemented successfully by local authorities with the help of Government funding, who focused their efforts on county’s with significant cycling rates. Some of London’s key cycling routes were introduced during this period, with the Greater London Council established alongside a specific cycling unit to lend assistance to the London Boroughs in order to develop cycling schemes and a city-wide strategy.

Busy motorway
UK road expansion halted cycling growth

By 1989, however, the controversial white paper Roads for Prosperity, published by the Conservative government, outlined the most significant undertaking of UK road development since the time of the Romans. As a result, many of the cycling initiatives introduced by the previous Labour government were abolished to make way for the proposed ‘great car economy.’

Despite the major difficulties caused by these developments, many new policies, charities and campaign groups sought solutions to the long-established concerns over traffic congestion and urban pollution. By the end of the decade, cycling had managed to re-emerge as a popular mode of transport for shorter, local journeys, with the early 1990s a recognised date in which public interest in cycling began to see a sustained revival.

While cycling levels remain comparatively lower than that of the 1940s, largely due to the widespread adoption and use of motor vehicles across the country, in addition to wider and more enhanced public travel networks, present-day considerations are essentially disparate. The rise of hybrid working has attributed to a reduction in annual mileage by UK motorists, however, at the end of 2022 there were still 33.2m cars registered in the UK, close to half of the UK’s entire population.

Cycling UK: 145 Years of Cycling Promotion

At the COP26 Summit in 2021, held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Cycling UK campaigned alongside Pedal on Parliament to demonstrate to government officials how cycling and active travel must be embraced as part of urgent solutions towards tackling the climate crisis.

The world’s oldest transport organisation, Cycling UK has been campaigning to promote cycling for 145 years. Their history largely runs in-line with the growth of cycling during this time, and they remain one of the select few organisations permitted to establish road signs in the UK.

The charity was founded in 1878 and soon began inspiring change for cyclists when they were successful in their efforts to introduce an act that declared the right to use bikes on roads in 1888. This success led to the production of dedicated maps for cyclists for the entirety of Great Britain, with the first copies printed in 1901.

Cycle path sign
Countryside Act key for cross-country cycling

In the years leading up to WW2, the organisation published their Code of Conduct, entitled ‘Cyclists Take Care’, with the distribution of leaflets reaching 5m in 1936. In the 1960s and 70s, the organisation made great strides in gaining rights for cyclists with governmental entities, first obtaining the right for cyclists to ride on bridleways and long-distance cross-country routes, with this decision incorporated into the new Countryside Act. Then, in 1977, following nearly a century of sustained effort by the organisation, rights were granted for cyclists to carry their bikes on trains free of charge, with certain exceptions.

In the years leading up to the modern era, Cycling UK had significant influence on improving cycling infrastructure. In 2012, they successfully campaigned to the Secretary of State for Transport in order to develop and fund a strategy for improving cycling and walking infrastructure. Ultimately, their considerable efforts across 3 distinct centuries have directly contributed to the growth of cycling in the UK.

UK Cycling Initiatives

Delivered through a mix of charities, organisations and workplace schemes, there are a number of active initiatives helping to promote cycling across the UK. With a focus on promoting inclusivity, these national and local community-serving groups have helped to develop cycling routes and infrastructure, and encourage the adoption of cycling as a sustainable and proactive mode of transport, contributing towards the overall growth of cycling.

Cycling on the Rise Again

Between the years of 2014 and 2016, the average annual distance cycled per person was listed at an average of around 53 miles. Annual distance collectively between 2015 and 2019 averaged at around 3.3bn miles, with the average distance of singular cycling trips increasing around 26% between 2019 and 2020.

While a number of people cite the influence of successful UK cyclists in the Tour de France and Olympics over the past few years, the considerable increases in UK cycling rates over the last 20 years have generally coincided with the development of greater cycling infrastructure.

One majorly significant example of this is Active Travel England, the new £32.9m Government scheme which was introduced in January 2023, with the ultimate aim of encouraging more individuals to adopt walking and cycling for the purpose of commuting and public transport, in addition to a means for simple exercise. Investments have been proposed that will help to establish a network of specialists, operating nationally alongside local communities in order to develop infrastructure and increase accessibility for the wider population.

Bike hire
Dockless bikes have increased access

The scheme forms an aspect of the UK Government’s recovery initiatives following the Covid-19 pandemic, namely the Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. As part of plans to make investments towards establishing the UK as a global leader in green technologies, specific funding will be reserved for enhancing cycling infrastructure across the country.

London specifically has seen an expansive increase in cycling rates this century. New data compiled and published by Transport for London found that increased cycling rates have directly coincided with more easily accessible infrastructure, with 22% of the city’s population living within 400 metres of a dedicated cycle route.

London figures compiled in 2019 discovered around 6x as many people cycled across the city’s central district compared to the figures of 1977. As of 2022, cycling rates are up 40% on average in comparison to pre-pandemic levels, and by as much as 90% on weekends. Much of this can be attributed to the widespread availability of bike hire services across the capital, such as the Santander-sponsored docked bikes, in addition to dockless services such as Lime and Dott.

Cycling Cities and Developing Infrastructure

While a number of leading European examples lead the way in terms of developing cycling infrastructure, the UK is home to a number of “cycling cities” favouring the simple bike over motor vehicles. These tend to be older cities, such as York, Oxford and Cambridge, where cycling has long been a regular fixture for the majority of city residents as the infrastructure wasn’t originally designed with motor vehicles in mind. Indeed, Cambridge has recently developed a new bike park constructed as part of their Railway Station redevelopment in 2016, accommodating nearly 3,000 bikes in an effort to provide secure bike parking for city residents.

Secure bike parking
Secure urban bike parking is in demand

London, meanwhile, saw its cycling rates increase following infrastructure enhancement. A congestion charge was introduced in central London in 2003 in an effort to discourage car travel, while a network of “Cycle Superhighways” was first opened back in 2010 by then-mayor Boris Johnson. Offering cyclists a safer means to traverse the city on bikes, these dedicated bike paths were painted blue to provide intent and segregated from the roads to protect users.

Actions such as these demonstrate steps are being made to encourage cycling uptake in the UK, however, those in the industry continue to argue that ongoing developments are required. The design and integration of better, safer cycling routes and highways, alongside investments in secure bike parking spaces are regarded as integral to the continual growth of cycling in the UK.