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Are Bristolian and British attitudes to cycling on different trajectories?

27 May 2016

Dr Adrian Davis, Director of the Supporting Healthy Inclusive Neighbourhood Environments (SHINE) Health Integration Team, talks about the differences between Bristol and the rest of the country in terms of attitudes to cycling. This is part of a series of blogs, where key players in Bristol's health sector write about a health related subject of their choice. If you want to contribute, email zoe.trinder-widdess@bristolhealthpartners.org.uk.

Bristol has long been a laboratory for change. A recent example is how city transport and spatial planning have improved provision for people to cycle for routine journeys, a direction reflected in the city’s wider reputation for environmental action.

Although cycling had been on the rise in the city from at least the start of this century, the ambition to do more was marked in 2008 when Bristol was designated as ‘Cycling City’ by the Government. This came with just over £7 million for the city, to be match-funded.

By 2010, as Bristol moved into its final year of Cycling City, it was clear to me that the effectiveness of infrastructure and behaviour change programmes would not be fully reflected in usage data for some time to come. The antecedents of behaviour change, attitudes, seemed important to capture over time, to understand behaviour change at the individual level. With a bit of persuasion I managed to grab a little funding and, with UWE Social Marketing colleagues, designed a survey of British adult attitudes to cycling. We boosted the sample for Bristol and South Gloucestershire (with whom we shared Cycling City) in order to have greater statistical confidence in some of the analysis. We then employed YouGov, an internationally respected polling agency, to poll a representative sample of 4,022 from across the British adult population in May 2010. Then we surveyed again in May 2013 with 3,855 respondents.

We sought opinions on cycling in terms of:

  • societal and personal commitments
  • the degree to which it is viewed as ‘normal’
  • influencers of cycling such as role models, media and opinion leaders
  • attitudes to the possible future growth of cycling

What did we find?

Here’s just a taster. Both 2010 and 2013 levels of regular and frequent cycling were found to be similar; in turn, these levels corresponded reasonably well to other surveys using different methods. Only 6 per cent of adults in Great Britain cycled once a week or more - although 12 per cent did in Bristol.

In policy terms the data is very interesting. Focusing on the 2010 sample enabled us to examine the extent that claimed plans to cycle in 2010 translated into behaviour in 2013. In 2010, 38 per cent of the British sub-sample agreed they were contemplating cycling for short journeys, and 21 per cent agreed they’d actually made plans to take up cycling. However, 2013 cycling behaviour remained at 2010 levels, suggesting these 2010 plans did not in fact lead to any significant take up. It is assumed that the barriers to cycling that exist in Britain prevent good intentions being translated into action. Overall this data adds weight to the hypothesis that there may be a large amount of suppressed demand for cycling that might be thwarted in particular by the perceived lack of safe cycling opportunities.

Cycling’s contribution to society

Seventy-two per cent of British adults in 2013 agreed that cycling creates positive benefits in improving the environment and reducing congestion - 79 per cent in Bristol. This positive response even extends to arguably more ‘rhetorical’ claims – Britain would be a better place if more people cycled has 54 per cent agreement (66 per cent in Bristol), with only 13 per cent disagreeing (12 per cent in Bristol).

Is cycling viewed as normal in Britain?

A majority in 2013 view cycling to work as ‘normal’ (65 per cent agree, 10 per cent disagree) and nearly half of British adults agree cycling is ‘cool’ nowadays (46 per cent agree, 13 per cent disagree), although this rises to 56 per cent in Bristol. The results for Bristol are generally rather more encouraging, particularly with very high agreement (82 per cent) with the normality of cycling to work, with only 4 per cent disagreeing, leading to a lower cultural resistance to commuter cycling in Bristol than average across Britain.

The influence of role models, media and opinion leaders

There is considerable agreement (37 per cent agree, 18 per cent disagree) that TV motoring programmes are too negative about cycling, and split views (25 per cent agree, 25 per cent disagree) that the media are generally anti-cycling in Britain. Cycling campaigners can take heart that the apparent anti-cycling stance of some of the media is regarded as such by many of the public, suggesting that calls for more balanced coverage may have some success.

The generally positive views of cycling within society, and widespread support for more governmental funding that we also found, suggest that any media antipathy to cycling does not reflect the majority public mood. Cycling sports figures and celebrity sports people were seen as influential, with 20 per cent agreement that the success of British cyclists has 'encouraged me to think about cycling more myself', in particular among those who already cycle. For almost all questions the response are more positive for Bristol.

Attitudes to future growth of cycling

And, lastly, what of attitudes to the possible future growth of cycling? Perhaps the most important of these results is that relating to the 49 per cent who in 2013 agreed (23 per cent disagreed) they would ‘not support any measure that penalises car use’, indicating a broad lack of willingness to be personally inconvenienced in the cause of growing cycling. We also regard the result for 'roads are for cars not bikes' as possibly concerning for cyclists, with just over 1 in 4 of British adults regarding roads as a questionable place for bikes. However, again for Bristol the results are better: 'roads are for cars not bikes' dropped 10 percentage points to 18 per cent.

At the national level, other responses were more heartening for pro-cyclists. For example 'an increase in cycling will result in the motorist losing out' generated more disagreement than agreement. It may be that (motorist) respondents have simply not appreciated what an increase in cycling might mean in practice: it may mean the cycling mode dominating some urban roads, or the introduction of 20 mph speed limits. Alternatively, these effects may have been noted, but not regarded as problematic.

Overall, with low levels of everyday cycling in Britain, it's surprising that these population surveys find generally positive opinions of cycling. Increased funding of cycling has met with broad approval, both in terms of strongly positive opinions and in Bristol in increased cycling levels. These positives offer useful data to help pro-cycling organisations position any negativity towards cyclists as belonging only to a minority. However, more generally for Britain, the picture of car dominance remains: there is a large gap between the warm predisposition to cycling as a pro-social practice for others, and the hard realities of persuading non-cyclists (or occasional cyclists) to cycle (more) themselves. Indeed, our comparative data on ‘plans to cycle’ in 2010 and 2013 suggests considerable suppressed demand for cycling, but no measurable (by us) shift in actual cycling behaviour between these years. So, take some comfort if you live in Bristol – we appear to be choosing a greener and healthier transport route to the future.

Tapp, A, Davis, A, Nancarrow, C., Jones, S. 2016 Great Britain adults’ opinions on cycling: Implications for policy, Transportation Research Part A, 89: 14-18

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