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How to expand cycling in the UK

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

Cycle lane - Blackfriars Road, London
Blackfriars, London

Hello readers! I hope you enjoy this blog post, which focuses on the topic of how cycling can be expanded in the UK. This is a topic that is extremely close to my heart since the primary focus of my work in recent years has been empowering members of the public to cycle on the road with the necessary skills and confidence. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion by sharing your views in the comments section below. You can also use the sign-up button above to be notified regarding future posts.

The UK has experienced extreme challenges as a result of the Covid pandemic, but one positive development from the past two years has been the significant expansion of cycling. However, despite the growth in cycling during and immediately post lockdown, reports are showing that numbers cycling are now unfortunately falling back towards pre-pandemic levels. Our cycling statistics also continue to pale in comparison to many of our European neighbours. So what can be done to further develop cycling in the UK? I've put together the following (not exhaustive) list of potential solutions that I believe would lead to a significant increase in the uptake of cycling:

Now let’s get into it…

Well-designed infrastructure:

Over recent decades, much of the UK’s cycling infrastructure has been poorly designed and, in many cases, can actually greatly increase risks to cyclists when they use it. There are many examples of this in my local area of South-East London such as the shoddily thought-out cycle lanes that place riders in the “doorzone” of parked cars, inches from give way lines (read car bonnets!) and alongside left-turning vehicles at junctions.

Riders too often feel obliged to use such poorly designed infrastructure (in the UK, the use of infrastructure is in fact discretionary) and many drivers often inappropriately believe that cyclists must place themselves in cycle lanes regardless of their quality of design: I’ve lost count of the number of perplexed looks I've had by drivers behind me when I’ve chosen to move out of precarious cycle lanes and into the centre of the lane when it’s unsafe for them to overtake!

Positively, as is now clearly visible on quick spins around city centres such as Bristol, Manchester or central London, investment in more carefully thought-out infrastructure is increasing. The creation of more fully segregated cycle paths and lower traffic neighbourhood (LTN) schemes are certainly helping to open up cycling to a wider demographic.

However, while some local authorities are embracing such change, others like my own borough, Greenwich, are woefully poor in their commitment to infrastructure projects. Greenwich Council’s recent closure of an LTN directly adjacent to Greenwich Park – directly contradicting central Government’s walking and cycling strategy – is a depressing recent example of this. Political will clearly needs to be emboldened and investment into well-designed infrastructure be expanded in order to open up cycling to the masses.

Furthermore, traffic and urban planners need to be better educated regarding key issues affecting cyclists: They should ideally have real life experience of cycling, be aware of the different road positions available to riders; and understand the risks of adopting suboptimal road positions – particularly at junctions. I’ve a simple and low-cost solution here: For planners designing the infrastructure to regularly attend cycle coaching or mentoring sessions delivered by qualified cycling instructors. This real life cycling and training experience would help planners better conceptualise common problems affecting cyclists and enable them to improve future road and cycling infrastructure design… win-win!

Expansion of free cycle coaching:

I’m often frustrated that many pro-cycling campaigners fail to share the importance of cycle coaching for riders lacking the skills or confidence to ride on the road. This is significant as infrastructure projects can never be the sole solution for making cycling more accessible; there will always be journeys that require cyclists to share the road with other road users.

In the UK, we already have a helpful competency-based framework for cycling best practice: The Department of Transport's National Standard for Cycle Training. We also have a network of qualified cycling instructors around the UK who are best placed to deliver this training which coaches riders on best practice when cycling on the road.

The syllabus that is based on the National Standard, The Bikeability Delivery Guide, is the framework currently used for school-based cycle coaching across the UK (significantly developed and improved from the former Cycling Proficiency). I would like to see the Bikeability program greatly expanded, more fully integrated into the school curriculum, and have a far greater proportion of its funding targeting secondary school-age children (the vast majority of the current training budget is spent in primary schools for the Year 5 and 6 age groups). Such older age groups are better equipped to actually put their training into practice and cycle to and from school following their Bikeability courses.

An expansion of cycle training was actually promised by Boris Johnson in 2019 when he assured us that free cycle training would be made available for any child or adult in the UK who needed it. In June of that year, our Minister for Transport came to observe me deliver a school-based Bikeability course and I was optimistic that the Bikeability program would indeed be expanded. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a broken promise by our Government: Since 2019, despite all the talk of promoting cycling during the Covid pandemic, funding for Bikeability has actually reduced in real terms outside of London, whilst in London, owing to Transport for London’s financial pressures and their and central Government’s inability to work together, the cycle training budget has been decimated. The result of this is that the vast majority of primary or secondary school-age children cycling to school on busy London roads, have had no training on how to do so – a dereliction of duty by both Transport for London and central Government.

We also need a wholesale expansion of free cycle training for adults in order to empower the public to cycle to and from work and to enable families to ride together. Furthermore, those already cycling on the road also often need coaching to enable them to ride more safely and to address common mistakes such as their propensity to cycle dangerously close to parked cars or failing to adopt sufficiently assertive road positions when riding through junctions.

Alongside an expansion of a cycle training budget for all age groups, I’d like to see the Government develop new cycle training marketing and branding that caters more specifically to adults. This could sit separate from (but be in some way connected to) Bikeability, who’s branding is very much geared towards children.

Ensure all road users are aware of their rights & responsibilities:

Cyclists need to ride sensibly but also become better aware of when they should be riding more assertively on the road, which is a fundamental principle in both the National Standard (which talks of the primary and secondary road positions) and the latest version of the Highway Code.

And just as importantly, motorists need to be fully compliant with the current regulations for when sharing the road with cyclists. I would like to see all learner drivers attend an on-road cycle skills or “awareness” session prior to obtaining their driving licence so that they understand why it is essential to give cyclists plenty of space. Such sessions would also be hugely beneficial through enlightening new drivers on when cyclists should adopt the primary and secondary riding positions, and improving their understanding on how to overtake cyclists safely using at least minimum passing distances. Such an initiative would certainly help improve driving standards and reduce close pass incidents and some of the other illegal manoeuvres that are unfortunately all too common on our roads.

Do you, like me, feel that the recent Highway Code changes required far greater publicity? I would like to see an expansion of well-publicised Government-backed campaigns on such issues of rights and responsibilities: another cost-efficient way to get these key messages across to the whole population.

Tougher enforcement of dangerous driving:

When I meet with teachers or office staff in staffrooms, the nature of the on-road environment and endemic speeding on our roads tends to be one of the most common explanations for why many staff members are unwilling to cycle to work. We clearly need to see a far stricter regulation of the on-road environment to discourage speeding and dangerous driving. This would help to reduce the speed differential between motorists and cyclists, and render our roads far easier and safer to cycle on. This topic was covered in Cycling UK’s June 2021 paper entitled “Five Flaws: Failing Laws”, which our politicians would do well to read and act upon.

Promote cycling-to-school initiatives:

In our towns and cities, I would like to see schools, their surround communities and local authorities empowered to discourage unnecessary “school run” car journeys which congest our roads and make cycling to school far more difficult. Initiatives like the School Streets program, where streets outside schools are temporarily closed for motorised traffic during school drop off / pick up times, need to be further expanded in our towns and cities to enable our children to safely walk or cycle to school.

Boosting such initiatives alongside an expansion in the Bikeability program will make cycling to school a feasible option for families. National Standard cycling instructors can play an important role here in upskilling riders and their parents, and through facilitating group rides to and from schools during school drop off and pick up times.

Bike parking in Ghent, Belgium
Cycle parking outside Ghent station, Belgium

Cycle parking and rental schemes:

Very much integrated into the cycling infrastructure question, our towns and cities need far greater investment into amenities such as secure cycle parking to enable the public to cycle to and from workplaces, schools, or transport hubs. Take my borough, Greenwich, again as an example: Here the council has recently signed off multimillion pound developments at sites such as Woolwich Arsenal and Kidbrooke with a frankly abysmal and inexcusable neglect for cycling: At the entrance to Woolwich's new flagship Crossrail station, there are a paltry 12 cycle locking bars. Compare this to bike parking solutions outside stations in towns in Belgium, the Netherlands, or Denmark, and we clearly have a long way to go!

Our cycle rental schemes are also some way off some available on the Continent. Take this photo from Antwerp, for example, which shows approx. 100 bikes available to hire!

Bike hire scheme in Antwerp, Belgium
Bike hire in Antwerp, Belgium

Development of role models / Upskilling of ride leaders:

Ride leader or “buddy riding” mentoring programs can be very effective in supporting those lacking experience to cycle on the road. This model can work particularly well for workplaces where there are experienced and competent riders who can share best practice and “buddy ride” their colleagues to work. I’d like to see all such programs, where it is financially feasible, to commit to ensuring that “bike buddies” are trained up to ride to the National Standard. This is important to ensure that these “buddies” / mentors do not pass any bad habits they may have onto the riders they are supporting (London Cycling Campaign, please DM me if you need any support with that!).

Make cycling more affordable:

Cycles have become increasingly expensive and this is restricting the uptake of cycling in our communities. Some popular Islabike or Frog bikes for kids aged 8-10 are now retailing in the region of £500-£600, whilst, on the other end of the spectrum, high end adult road bikes are retailing for absurd amounts. Some sections of the cycling media appear to be complicit to this problem: Take road cycling publications that "review" road bikes as an example: These publications are regularly failing to address the flagrant overpricing of bikes that are priced more than fully-fledged motorcycles! I have a soft spot for Specialized since my first serious bike was one of their Rockhopper mountain bikes, but £13,000 for their top end Tarmac road bike… you’ve got to be kidding!

So what do you think of the above list? Do you agree with my points or do you have any other suggestions for how cycling can be expanded in the UK? Please feel free to post your comments below and share this link to stimulate the discussion. Don’t forget to sign up to alerts for my future blog posts using the button above.

All the best and Happy Cycling!

The Eager Cycle Coach


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