Cycling Culture in UK

An interesting report on UK cycling culture from an ESRC funded cycling cultures project, based at the University of East London (UEL) (pdf format)

The study investigated cycle use and cycling culture in four UK cities with higher than average cycle use. – Hull, Cambridge, Bristol and Hackney (London)

Cycling Oxford
Some of the key findings of their report.

  • Different factors determine bike use in different cities. Hull, has a low rate of car ownership (0.72 cars per household). In Hull, cycling has traditionally been an alternative to public transport for people without cars. In Bristol, car ownership rates are higher (1 car per household) cycle use has developed through stronger promotion of cycling culture and cycling initiatives. Cambridge is relatively prosperous but has a strong tradition of cycling, and high student population. Hackney in London has one of lowest rates of car ownership in UK (0.55 cars per household) and cycling is often an alternative to public transport.
  • There is no key socio-economic factor behind cycling rates. In Cambridge, many cyclists are affluent professionals, who have a car, but use a bike because it ‘makes sense’ for short journeys. In Hull and Hackney, low car ownership rates play a greater role in encouraging cycling.
  • Cycling infrastructure plays an important role. Hull council were one of earliest councils to promote traffic calming schemes, 20mph speed limits and replacing lanes of motorised traffic lanes with cycle paths.
  • Bike Theft is a significant cause for concern. This is especially the case in Hackney, where high density flats, makes storing bikes securely safely difficult. The report mentioned one household with 4 bikes stored inside a small flat. As the report noted. ‘An interesting thought experiment is to consider how driving would be affected, if drivers had to remember to bring their own lights and locks each time they made a journey, removing their lights again while the car was parked.’.

15 Key Findings of Report


    1. Compared with motorised modes, cycling creates distinctive experiences of places - Cyclists tend to be more aware of surroundings and cities than in a car where windows create a greater sense of personal space.
    2. Emotional benefits from cycling are important -Cyclists are often motivated by health, environmental and fitness benefits of cycling.
    3. Social riding creates ‘mobile public spaces’ different from individual riding. People enjoy cycling with others, this experience can encourage solo cycling
    4. In terms of skills, knowledge, and ‘stuff’, a lot is expected of cyclists. Cyclists have to be reasonably competent at bike maintenance and preparation for inclement weather e.t.c
    5. Storage issues shape and limit the use of bicycles. Fear of bike theft and safe places to store bicycles is a disincentive to cycle. Those who have experienced bike theft can give up cycling completely.
    6. The meaning of cycling are different in different localities. Many in Hull, associate cycling with the more traditional British club scene and long distance cycles – In the days when cycling was often an alternative to car journeys. In Hackney and Bristol, there is a sense of cycling as being an alternative activity – for example, a thriving fixed gear scene, support of independent local bike shops.
    7. Key life course events affect what cycling means to people – People often cycle at certain ages, and give up later when they get a car.

Cycling Oxford

  1. Cyclists are still stereotyped and stigmatised (including by other cyclists) This is quite an interesting point. There are two types of cyclist stereotypes. The negative stereotype from motorists that cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road. The second stereotype people fear is being labelled a ‘cycle nut’ or cycle fanatic. For example, in a blog, they report one response to questions of what a proper cyclist is ‘Oh I would say an avid cyclist is somebody who like, they live and breathe it really. You know the sort, you’ll see them when you’re driving somewhere going up a really steep hill and all you can see is these legs like tree trunks (laughter)’. [link]
  2. Cyclists are often judged by the way they dress. A widespread understanding that cyclists will get judged on how they dress, how they look. What they wear and don’t wear. What cyclists should wear is often a hot topic. (Imagine if motorists were always being judged for what they wore when they got in a car. This judgement comes from other cyclists as much as anyone else)
  3. In some contexts, cycling is being redefined as aspirational – Traditionally cycling has been used by those who can’t afford a car or petrol. But, increasingly cycling is seen as something middle-class. In Hackney cycling is a seen as a sign of affluence because it means people can afford somewhere to store a bike!
  4. Personal support plays a key role. To get started, most people relied on support, encouragement of fellow cyclists. This is why cities with high cycling rates can encourage more to get started.
  5. Advocacy, activism, and organisations matter It matters in terms of infrastructure created. But, also whether there is a positive image created of cycling.
  6. Utility cycling’ can limit our understanding of cycling practices and motivations Even in utlity cycling, e.g. commuting a strong motivation is the enjoyment gained from fresh-air and being outside.
  7. Cycling policy is shaped by broader ideas about social and public policies. Cycling is essentially left to local provision. There is no national co-ordination of cycle policy like there is for roads.
  8. Existing everyday cyclists in higher-cycling areas have a lot of ideas about improving cycling. Although there are a wide range of ideas what should be implemented.

Cycling Oxford


It is encouraging to see some shift in perceptions of cycling in the UK during past two decades. The response of people to cycling varies enormously. The relative success of cycling in some cities shows that it is possible to encourage and increase cycling rates. What the report didn’t look into are cities with incredibly low cycle rates. For example, my visit to cities like Bradford showed that cycling was so marginal you might not think cycling was possible.

My own city, Oxford, is a similar story to Cambridge. Relatively well off. People cycle simply because driving isn’t always so practical. Rates of cycling are boosted by the number of students, who in theory are not allowed cars. The limited size of historic city has forced council to limit traffic in certain areas. There is a reasonably vibrant cycling culture and advocacy group which help to raise cycling issues.

It is interesting to see the different factors that motivate people to cycling. And it’s interesting to see what puts people off cycling.

6 Responses to Cycling Culture in UK

  1. Paul M June 25, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    It’s interesting that whenever anyone thinks of cities with higher than average cycle use, or something similar, the same handful of examples comes to mind – Cambridge, Bristol, Hackney.

    I was somewhat surprised a while ago to learn that my own home town, Gosport in Hampshire, actually has a cycling modal share of over 11%, quite a bit higher than some of these examples – not up there with Cambridge I’ll admit but certainly higher than Hackney or Bristol. And yet I’ll bet that most of the researchers have never heard of it.

    It would be interesting to know their view on what factors have driven this, probably taking Gosport with its immediate neighbour, Portsmouth, where the modal share is also well above average although somewhat lower than Gosport.

    I think I could predict some of their findings. One is the history of these places – and a number of other places share similar history, Plymouth/Devonport for example, or Barrow in Furness – as locations of the great naval dockyards. These were traditionally very significant local employers dating back to the early nineteenth century or earlier, which have changed little since in terms of their physical geography (although employment patterns have of course fundamentally changed). They were not designed, not could they be adapted, for mass motor car use as space simply did not permit. As they were also fairly flat areas, a bicycle became a highly viable means of shortening a journey of perhaps 2-3 miles to work. It is within my memory, in fact in the 1980s, that you could observe with shock and awe what happens when the end of shift hooter sounds – something resembling a Le Mans start headng to the bike sheds, and then a fast-flowing river of bicycles against which nothing could stand.

    The world has of course changed, and those employers are no longer what they were, but the culture has stuck, and people still see the bicycle as a tool of convenience and not simply as a leisure toy or the resort of those who can’t afford a car. And the geography hasn’t changed – there is still no room for parking large numbers of cars. In Gosport, perhaps the reason why there ar more cyclists than in Portsmouth is that many Gosport residents work in Portsmouth – you can either take the foot-ferry (which also takes bicycles, but there is no car equivalent) across Portsmouth Harbour, or you can undertake a drive all the way around the harbour which is probably more than 15 miles to go to a point which is literally only a stone’s throw away by sea.

    Gosport has also done more than many local authorities to provide safe infrastructure for cyclists. It has some quite good off-road cycle paths, admittedly shared with pedestrians but mainly in locations where pedestrian traffic is likely to be light. And recently it has seen the arrival of a dedicated bus road, formerly the track bed of the railway line which terminated in Lee-on-Solent and which also served as the route for transport of munitions to the naval armouries at Gosport (rumour has it that nuclear weapons used to travel this route at one time). The plan had been to make this a tram line but that didn’t happen, and instead a single-lane tarmac road, for the exclusive use of buses and bicycles, was put in its place. Needless to say, motoring groups are belly-aching about being denied access to the bus lane and the normal roads get heavily congested at peak hours, but the local authotiries in Gosport and its neighbour with whom it shares the lane, Fareham, have – despite being fairly traditional shire tory councils – firmly rejected any such idea.

    I do wonder why Gosport doesn’t publicise itself more as a cycling destination. It has beaches (pebble), several sailing clubs, marinas, historic buildings, museums such as the submarine museum at HMS Dolphin, and a nice flat cyclable terrain to enjoy.

    • tejvan June 25, 2012 at 11:33 am #

      interesting post. I had not even heard of Gosport before. I do like the idea of workers rushing to bike sheds after end of shift! (even if it doesn’t happen so much these days)

  2. gary June 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    hi all .stimbled across this site ,its really on info nice chat and pics .keep it up .

  3. Jonathan June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Glad to see this link and a good summary here.

    For me (as I mentioned earlier) the only disincentive – other than the useless weather of late – is theft. The main incentive for me is two fold – one is the obvious access to activity whilst at the same time having a purpose and not just going nowhere on a treadmill in a gym. The second is that I can get the 11 miles into work in London faster than any other means of transport (save the motorbike). Biking then became a bit more addictive and now it is also a weekend event.

    But what I do find very interesting is how the perspective of cycling has changed amongst my own peer group. I am fortunate to come from a well do section of the community – virtually all of the people I know have kids at public schools and live in large houses. But virtually everyone rides a bike – even as recreation or to commute (or both in my case). Very few play golf and alike (actually I can think of no-one).

    Cycling is now seen as something as a badge of honour – none of us overly interested in the environment (above everyday general concern) and definitely not eco-warriors. Cycling is seen as a healthy and fun thing to do and waste our money on – long may it continue!

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