Tuesday 1 January 2013

People in London go out of their way to avoid cycling on busy roads

Transport for London's latest annual Travel in London report is, as usual, full of interesting information. I found this paragraph from p. 122 on attitudes to cycling particularly striking:
Cyclists generally feel safer on quieter roads. A survey of Londoners found that cyclists consider quiet roads to be safer than busy roads. Four-fifths consider quiet roads to be safe, compared with 49 per cent (regular cyclists) or 28 per cent (occasional cyclists) for busy roads. A recent study of current cyclists in London found that cyclists were willing to increase their journey time to travel on better, safer routes. Current London cyclists are prepared to travel further to cycle in cycle lanes, bus lanes, on residential roads and would travel three times further to cycle on off-road routes. Around half of all cyclists would change their route to travel through parks and green spaces, or to travel on a dedicated on-road cycle lane. And around 40 per cent said they would change their route in order to use a Cycle Superhighway.
The key fact is that only 28% of occasional cyclists in London think busy roads are safe, compared to a majority who think quiet roads are safe. That may sound obvious to some, but to me it shows illustrates two important points:

  • Most people don't think cycling itself is unsafe, just cycling in heavy traffic.
  • Busy roads are more likely to have cycling 'infrastructure' such as advisory cycle lanes, but they don't seem to have much impact on safety perceptions. This suggests we need better infrastructure, a la the Netherlands.
The research about how far out of their way people are willing to go for a safe cycle route is also important. Choosing a slower but safer route is a form of 'avertive' behaviour, just like people moving away from a polluted road. It lowers the observed costs in the form of road accidents (or respiratory disease from the polluted road) but it increases the hidden costs borne by people in the form of higher expenditure of time or money to avoid the problem. Avertive behaviour prompted by unsafe cycling conditions ranges from finding a slower but safer route to spending loads of money on luminous clothing to not cycling at all. These costs are very large but to my knowledge are not well accounted for in current transport assessment methods.


  1. While I would 100% endorse what I take to be your message, ie that cyclists should not have to divert significantly to find usable routes, indeed I would go furher and say that cycle routes should be straightened and motor routes ziggy-zagged to accentuate the cycling advantage, as they do in the Netherlands in residential areas, I can see a positive conclusion to draw from these findings.

    That is, that very few people indeed find motoring so enjoyable that they will go out of their way to lengthen their journey, preferring instead to take the fastest or the most direct (not always the same thing) route to their destinations. Indeed I can say that there are motorists where I live who will drive a mile or so further to avoid traffic queues, even though the extra distance takes longer than the queuing, simply because it feels like progress.

    Cyclists on the other hand will seek out routes which are safer or - importantly - more pleasant DESPITE the extra distance, which requires actual effort, unlike the slight foot pressure on the right hand pedal required in a car, because they LIKE what they are doing.

    Of course there are limits - I find I can zig-zag through the City of London relatively comfortably because the permeability here has improved considerably in the last few years. Westminster on the other hand is hell on wheels for cyclists, with a choice between streets like the Strand (v narrow lanes, a horrible central median, loads of heavy vehicles) or a St Vitus Dance through the back streets of Covent Garden, Soho etc.

    And I would still prefer to be able to cycle tha Strand, on a proper separated path, because it is nomre direct and in London I am normally on my way to a business appointment.

  2. "there are motorists where I live who will drive a mile or so further to avoid traffic queues, even though the extra distance takes longer than the queuing, simply because it feels like progress"

    I live in an area where this is prevalent - you're describing rat running. The unfortunate side effect of which is to render residential streets unsafe for children to play on and to make the 'quieter back routes' just as unpleasant to cycle on as the busy roads.

    The Netherlands deal with this properly too using filtered permeability to ensure through traffic cannot rat run through residential streets.

  3. I live just off a dual carriageway and I know as soon as I step out of the door if it is stuffed as the nutters are whipping down my street!

    I think quiet routes can also be direct (through parks for example), but they are not often designed for cycling and just 'evolve'. For commuting and utility cycling, routes need to be direct. If on a quiet route, fine. If on a heavily trafficked route, we do need to invest in high quality measures.

  4. The routes cyclists choose are selected for a number of reasons. Speaking for myself, I try to plan the most direct route (subject to avoiding insurmountable obstacles), but I studiously avoid main roads when feasible and like to use traffic-free routes where possible. It's typically much more pleasant to be passed only occasionally by a vehicle on a side road than every few seconds on a main-road, in particular, because I treat every approaching vehicle as being driven by a potential homicidal maniac. I choose limited-access or no-through roads where possible.

    Apart from places that are 'out in the sticks', quieter streets give one the closest thing to the 'full cycling experience' achievable in the UK, the unalloyed joy of cycling the freedom to relax briefly and let one's attention wander, something one just cannot do, or rather dare-not do on a busy road.

    On little-used streets the air must be cleaner and the noise levels substantially reduced. As an occasional visitor to Central London, one thing that always amazes me is the sheer deafening sound volume generated by London traffic, next to a busy road. It's quite impossible to hold a conversation in parts of London.

    Clearly side roads would be much improved for cycling if the principles of filtered permeability were adopted to prevent rat-running. The result would be reduced traffic-danger, noise and air-pollution for the residents, and VRUs.


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