Cycling is not practical for the transportation or commuting needs of most people

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Summary of the claim

Cycling is all well and good, but it's not practical as a mode of transport. It's slow. You get hot and sweaty.  You need to wear special clothing. You can't carry things, especially heavy objects. When the weather is bad, cycling is difficult or impossible. Many people can't ride a bike, or are too unfit, or too elderly. Trips with children have to be made by car.

Example sources

'Not all of us can pedal up and down in rubber knickers, you know' - Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.

Motoring journalist Hilton Holloway.

'Cycling is not an option for oldies'.

'Cycling to work is not practical'.

Summary of responses

  • No-one is suggesting that every single trip has to be made by bike, or that everyone has to cycle. The argument is that many (not all) trips currently made by car, or by public transport, or even some that are walked, could theoretically be cycled, if we made it attractive enough as an option.
  • Heavy loads can still be carried by car; longer trips can still be made by car. Likewise, if you don't want to cycle, no-one is forcing you to. The bicycle should, however, be made an easy option for those that want to use it. 
  • Indeed, many bicycles are capable of carrying significant loads, and (increasingly available) electric bicycles allow longer trips to be made by bike, with little or no effort.
  • Most of the barriers that stand in the way of cycling being a practical, convenient mode of transport -without requiring special equipment, or exertion - are to do with the environment in which people currently have to cycle, and have little to do with cycling itself. Longer trips can be made with ease, with suitably designed cycling infrastructure.
  • Cycling is only unpopular in Britain because it is unattractive. Where conditions are attractive, cycling is very popular. 
  • Age (old or young) is no barrier to cycling. In the Netherlands, 40% of all trips children under 17 make are cycled; 23% of all trips made by over 65s are cycled1. Cycling is a viable mode of transport for these age groups, again, because the conditions are attractive.
  • A comfortable, relaxed cycling speed - involving no more effort than walking - is around 10-12mph. That means that, with good infrastructure, trips of around 3-5miles can be made in around 20-30 minutes, with little or no exertion. 66% of all journeys made in Britain are under 5 miles long.

In more detail

Increasing the use of the bicycle as a mode of transport in Britain does not mean that it has to be used for every single trip, by every person. There are many loads that are too heavy, or too inconvenient, to carry by bike. Sometimes the journey is too long, or the weather is too bad. Or you may simply be a person who doesn't want to ride a bike.

This does not matter.

Even in the Netherlands, where conditions for cycling are far, far better than in Britain, not every trip is cycled. Dutch people walk, and drive, and take public transport, just as they do in Britain, depending on the mode of transport that suits their purposes. The difference with Britain is that, in the Netherlands, cycling is a viable transport option for everyone, almost everywhere. This is not true of Britain, where - to take just one example - cycling to school rates are forty times lower than they are in the Netherlands.

But this apparent unpopularity has little to do with cycling itself. It has everything to do with the environment in which we expect people to cycle in Britain, which all too often forces people to choose between hostile roads, or inconvenient (and often illegal) cycling on footways. It is this environment that explains why cycling is a minority pursuit, and why many people feel the need to don protective equipment, and to ride bicycles designed for speed, rather than practicality. If we are designing properly for cycling, then fast bicycles, and special clothing and equipment, should not be necessary - the environment should allow trips to be made in ordinary clothes, just like walking, by anyone who wants to ride a bike. 

Utrecht cycle track

And there is enormous potential for increasing the levels of cycling in Britain. A large percentage of British trips are very short, and could easily be cycled by most people, provided that the environment for cycling is good enough - which unfortunately is rare at present. Indeed, it is the poor and often hostile conditions for cycling in this country that account for why cycling remains a minority mode of transport, not any innate unattractiveness of cycling.

Many of the journeys which British people currently make are of a distance that is easily covered by bicycle23.

British Trips by Distance

  • 20% of journeys in Britain are under 1 mile (a distance easily cycled in around 5 minutes);
  • 38% are under 2 miles (a distance easily cycled in around 10 minutes);
  • 66% are under 5 miles (a distance easily cycled in around 25 minutes).

A significant percentage of these short trips are currently made by car or van4.

Short journeys by mode

  • 20% of British journeys under 1 mile are made by car or van;
  • 38% of British journeys under 2 miles are made by car or van;
  • 55% of British journeys under 5 miles are made by car or van.

Likewise, a substantial percentage of trips to work are short enough to be cycled. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics5 -

  • 49% of the population in England and Wales travel less than 3.1 miles (5 km) to work
  • 68% of the population in England and Wales travel less than 6.2 miles (10 km) to work 
  • 83% of the population in England and Wales travel less than 12.4 miles (20 km) to work

At a modest pace of 12 mph (20 km/h), it would take a person 15 minutes to travel 3.1 miles by bike, 30 minutes to travel  6.2 miles, and an hour to travel 12.4 miles. These journey times are less than the average journey times for trips of the same distance by car in many urban locations, such as London. (These figures may also be misleading, as some travellers for example may make part of their journey by train but can use a bike to get to and from trains stations - a bicycle can make up a useful part of a much longer journey.)

The average distance travelled to school in Great Britain is 2.5 miles, a distance which can be easily cycled in less than 15 minutes,6 and the average distance travelled for the purposes of shopping in the Great Britain is less than 4.3 miles7. However, this latter figure is skewed upwards due to the current trend for driving to large (often out-of-town) retail outlets which offer abundant free parking, necessitating their situation in remote locations where enough land is available to be given over to parking. Improving conditions for cycling in urban areas makes shopping locally more viable than it is currently by car (and in turn helps to ensure the vitality of the high street).

Clearly, therefore, a large percentage of British trips to work, or to school, or for shopping, or for any other purpose, could theoretically be cycled - distances are not a problem. 

In 2010 Transport for London produced a report called Analysis of Cycling Potential8 which showed that in London '23% of all trips by all modes are cyclable' and that 'of the 4.3 million potentially cyclable trips made every day, 3.5 million would take less than 20 minutes for most people to cycle'. They found that 54% of potentially cyclable trips are in outer London, but that currently only 5% of these are made by bike. These figures are actually highly conservative; the 'cycleable' trips identified exclude trips -

  • by those over the age of 64, or under the age of 5 
  • after 8pm, and before 6am
  • longer than 5 miles
  • with heavy/bulky loads
  • that are already being cycled

The 23% figure is therefore likely to be a large underestimate of the true cycling potential in a city such as London.

While not every trip has the potential to be cycled (as already observed, some trips are too long, or too inconvenient, or involve heavy or bulky loads), there are bicycles available that can carry significant loads, and others that have electric assistance, reducing (or removing) the effort involved in carrying heavy loads, or cycling longer distances.

Jono Kenyon Cargo Bike

Even the typical Dutch urban bike has panniers and/or a basket, and is capable of carrying a substantial amount of cargo - including human cargo.

Wageningen cycling

And one final thing - it's a lot easier to cycle in high heels, than to walk in them.

Related claims

The weather in Britain is just not suitable for cycling 

Cycling is only for the young, fit and able bodied