Two-thirds of people in England feel “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”, according to the latest National Travel Attitudes Survey. That’s two-thirds of people who feel too intimidated to take to two wheels as part of everyday trips, or for leisure – and it’s up from 61% the previous year. Astonishingly, 57% of people who already cycle agreed with the sentiment.
The survey was conducted in January. Then the Covid-19 lockdown happened, and with motor traffic levels suddenly at a half-century low, cycling levels grew by more than 300% on some days. This tells us people will cycle when roads feel safer – and we’ve seen people from all walks of life, and of all ages, doing just that. Now road traffic is back, we risk losing all that progress.
The government says it wants a golden age of cycling, with Boris Johnson banging the drum for a physically active nation, and for cycling as a way of achieving that. When I spoke to Chris Heaton-Harris, the minister in charge of cycling, about the government’s recently announced plans to deliver this vision, he said he sees cycling on prescription as potentially transformative for health. It’s crucial, however, that once people get on their bikes, they aren’t scared off them again.
Physical cycling infrastructure is one of the minister’s top priorities, which is good news, as we know a network of safe routes is vital to help people feel safe cycling. The raft of plans – from proposed Highway Code changes and new design guidance for cycling infrastructure to cycle training, bike repair vouchers and cycling on prescription – will help, but more is needed. The £2bn announced to “create a new era for cycling and walking” won’t buy much in the way of cycle routes.
Our roads are actually pretty safe – there is one death or serious injury per million miles cycled. The problem is that they often don’t feel safe for everyone. A recent report by Sustrans and Arup, Cycling for Everyone, notes that while 55% of people from ethnic minority groups, 38% of people at risk of deprivation, 36% of women, and 31% of disabled people who do not cycle would like to start, about three-quarters of people from those groups never cycle.
The report notes that as well as fear of accidents, crime and harassment, many people feel cycling just isn’t for them. The imagery and language promoting cycling often aren’t inclusive, and the transport sector is still mostly white and male – which is a problem because people design for people like themselves. Economic and cultural barriers to cycling can be overcome with access to low-cost cycles, and community groups like Cycle Sisters in Waltham Forest, north London, a Muslim women’s cycling group.
Driver behaviour is a major issue, even when it does not result in an accident. Research shows that most cyclists experience a scary near-miss at least once a week – and women are disproportionately affected. Proposed Highway Code changes include a minimum safe passing distance for drivers overtaking cyclists – Cycling UK has put together a guide to the Highway Code Review and the responses to the government consultation.
Policing of driver behaviour is a key piece of the puzzle. Police have caught record numbers of drivers “extreme speeding” on quieter roads during lockdown, but these dangerous actions aren’t met with the kind of sentencing that reflects the risk they pose to others: lifetime driving bans are vanishingly rare in the UK. More positively, West Midlands police found that by tackling driver close-passing with education and enforcement, they reduced serious cycle collisions by a fifth in a year.
We have multiple emergencies that cycling can help tackle, from health to the climate crisis, to challenges around Covid-19 – but it needs to be treated like a real mode of transport, not just a hobby. If two-thirds of people were too afraid to take trains, there would be a national outcry.
My solution would be to use the spending review to ramp up active-travel funding and support for local councils to deliver these measures. The government should reallocate its misguided £27bn fund for road-building in England to their Gear Change cycling and walking programme, and to roads policing – and focus resources on measures to help communities with greater barriers to cycling and walking. We need a long-term, concerted effort to rid our streets of a culture of fear, and make them comfortable and equitable places for everyone; the potential rewards are great, for all of us.
• Laura Laker is a journalist who writes about cycling and urban transport