Saturday, 26 November 2011

How many UK drivers cycle?

The question of how many drivers in Britain have the experience of regular road cycling interests me. It feeds straight into the 'us v them' debate. How divided are we? How common is relevant cycling experience with drivers?

Is our society really one where drivers exclusively drive, or does the majority have on-road cycling experience? Hence know what it feels like and hence understand how to behave around a person on a bicycle.

To find out, I needn't go far. A simple look at the Department of Transport's National Travel survey (NTS) does the trick. It's most recent issue (2011) released travel data for 2009. (If anyone knows why it takes two years to release data, please let me know!) 

In any case... let me tell you it's not looking rosy for the we-are-all-good-friends-we-share-the-same-experience camp.
NTS 2011 (data 2009)

Cycling makes up 2% of all trips. With around 1,000 trips per person per year, that makes 20 cycle trips per person per year. Equating to one bike trip in a fortnight. Oh, my! I would not call that regular cycling!

And it's getting worse when you start taking into account this...

1) To give more detail, consideration could be given to the distribution of cycle trips. Some people may cycle more (are dedicated cyclists or have even reduced or totally forgone car use altogether) that means that some drivers cycle even less.

2) The one cycled trip a fortnight does also not take into account whether it's on- or off-road. For all we know, it might well be a journey where you are free to choose your route, call it a leisure trip (as opposed to utility journey to work, shops etc). People would tend to stay off-road on traffic-free tracks then.

In conclusion to the question whether UK drivers have regular on-road cycling experience, the simple answer is "Nope, they damn well have not". 

Next time a drivers tells you he* is a keen cyclist too (and that some of his best friends are cyclists), ask him how much he uses his bike, when he's last clambered on it, and where he cycles. 

Sorry to break it to you like this: 

On our roads it really IS us v them. If we continue our chummy we-are-all-friends approach, we'll keep getting laughed at. It's never been a plain playing field. We are 'at war with the motorist' (as well as the status quo, oil corporations, the political and economic system).

Or she, for total inclusion. Fewer women than men cycle... a women driver therefore is rather unlikely to cycle, even less likely she cycles regularly, and on the road.

Some of my best friends are cyclists...


  1. The Institute of Advanced Motorists did a survey on this and wrote a report "Cycling Motorists":

    They estimate there are "up to five million who ride regularly and seven million who ride infrequently." Given DfT estimate there are 34.7 million driving licence holders in the UK then I guess that leaves 22.7 million who NEVER cycle!

    So when that car cuts you up, it's a two to one (65%) chance it's someone who never cycles...

  2. A tweet from Rod King "@KatsDekker This report says 12% of those questioned cycled regularly, but how many were drivers? I will keep looking!"

  3. I have had a driving licence for 42 years, and have cycled regularly since I got rid of my car about 20 years ago. I drive vehicles occasionally, and have kept a car for short periods since going car-less. I am sure that my experience of driving a car for 22 years helped me develop self-protective strategies for cycling. The cycling soon had a feedback effect onto my subsequent driving - less aggressive, in less of a hurry.

    But the two experiences that influenced my driving and my cycling more than anything else were 1) going through a session on school minibus driving with a Police instructor and 2) helping supervise primary school children (on my bike) while they were being given cycling proficiency instruction by Police cycle trainers.(I joined in with the children's exercises - and was corrected when necessary).

    My point is that "experience" is all very well. But it only becomes genuine expertise when time is taken out to be observed, to be told some home truths and to re-think things that had become automatic.

    I have some experience/knowledge in teacher education - and I am convinced that expertise requires, but cannot be guaranteed either by mere experience or by initial training that isn't followed up.

    In an ideal world all road users would have advanced or refresher opportunities to re-consider their habits - whatever vehicle they controlled. Such opportunities might be a normal alternative to cautions or small fines, or just available for those who volunteered.

    As a sociologist, though, those numbers quoted above and the sheer power of social behaviour make me very pessimistic about where roadcraft/courtesy are going. Most of the officially-backed things we do fall prey to the law of unintended consequences. Progress is very slow (at best).

    Official reports take ages because the data sets are huge, complex and time-consuming. They might be the main reposnsibility of just one individual who has other work and there will have to be thorough checking and redrafting at one or more levels of seniority. Those (usually police officers) who make the original reports cannot always be reliable and do not always complete all sections of the forms - checking and chasing also take time. I have a blank report form in front of me - it runs to four pages and includes (among other things) a "contribtory factors" page, where 77 possible factors are listed. Up to 6 of these can be attributed to any of the partipating vehicles and then have to be judged as "very likely" or "poosible". It's a miracle that we get the data at all - and it would be very surprising if it were a foolproof record of what had really happened in all cases. As is well known, data collection itself can sometimes be an important variable in explainng the patterns that emerge in final reports. Undereporting of "slight" casualites will influence cycling data (I guess) more than motor vehicle data. Anecdotes prove nothing - but of my 4 or 5 slight casualites in what has probably been 50 or 60,000 miles of cycling only one was subject of a police report (because I needed stitches in A&E).

    Sorry to go on so long.

  4. Hi Sam. Thanks for your comment.

    I start thinking driving brings out the worst in the human psyche. Especially in a proven selfish society like the UK (ref. Spirit Level), car driving is most likely to l be done in an egotistical way. Not much hope and scope for change?! I followed a IAM's discussion group on linkedin for a while and it became clear to me that they (caring considerate drivers) are grappling with this exact same problem: how can selfish society steer a car selflessly, caringly? Answers on a postcard.

    Don't get me started on reporting. Or DfT studies... the political will to civilise our streets simply isn't there and that's why nowt shifts. Oil runs in our veins. Clogging our minds.

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