Bike Life - Making movement in cities more efficient

By Tim Burns,
cyclists on quietway

Cycle infrastructure improvements contribute to modal shift towards riding a bike

Cyclists on a traffic free path

Only 58% of people feel safe riding a bike

group of people walking in the city

Walking and cycling takes up less space and can move more people than private motor vehicles

This blog is the first of a series linked to the Bike Life project exploring how we need to better make the case for cycling and walking in cities.

Bike Life works with seven cities across the UK to report and share progress towards making cycling an attractive and everyday means of travel that benefits everyone living in cities. The next set of Bike Life Reports will be out in November 2017.

Changing leadership across many of our cities

In towns and cities across the UK there is great potential to make cycling and walking a normal option for everyday journeys but achieving this is a significant challenge for city leaders.

Opportunities to do more, however, do exist. Cities in Scotland and Wales have full council elections in May and there are some promising signs in Northern Ireland, where Belfast is developing its Bicycle Network plans.

In England too, Sadiq Khan has committed to prioritise active travel and six new Combined Authorities will be electing Metro Mayors for the first time: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, West of England, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands.

If we are to create a step change in levels of walking and cycling in cities across the UK, a number of significant barriers need to be overcome.

The first of which is for city leaders to buy into the vision that walking and cycling is not a fringe activity but one that can play a significant role in making movement in urban environments more efficient, with the added benefits of being healthier and cleaner.

Moving people

The fundamental question for transport planners in every city across the UK is how do we keep people moving, or in other words, as populations continue to grow how do we make the best use of all available transport options to make urban movement as efficient as possible.

As Chris Hazzard, former Minister for Transport in the Northern Ireland Assembly recently said:

“I have instructed my officials to develop an overarching strategic framework, with the focus on moving people, not vehicles, around our towns and cities.”

Walking and cycling takes up less space and can move more people than private motor vehicles. Botma and Papendrecht, for example, found that a typical 3.5m wide lane could transport 19,000 pedestrians and 14,000 cyclists but only 2,000 private cars each hour [1].



Walking and cycling therefore should be viewed as an essential component to underpin a city movement strategy alongside public transport. So how do we move away from seeing cycling and walking as a fringe activity?

Mainstreaming cycling and walking in cities

There is huge potential for everyday travel by foot or bicycle in urban areas where the majority of people live and journey distances are typically shortest. Safety, however, is an issue. As suggested by our Bike Life survey in 2015, only 58% of people feel safe riding a bike.

We can only realise the potential of cycling and walking by improving infrastructure and the built environment.

This will require political leadership and bold plans, including the reallocation of road space where necessary, to create safe, joined-up, attractive streets for people of all ages and abilities to walk and cycle on. 

The challenge is for our city leaders to recognise that cycling and walking can play a significant role in making urban travel more efficient.

This is not just about reducing congestion but moving people as efficiently as possible, no matter how they travel and making the best use of the limited road and rail space available.

It is beginning to happen

We are beginning to see this argument gain real traction in cities like Cambridge, York, Leicester and London.

In London we have seen an 11% shift from private to public transport and active travel over the past 15 years [2].

Transport for London acknowledges that while reallocating road space to achieve this shift has made journeys for motorised vehicles slower in some locations, it allows for an efficient road network as more people can travel on the same amount of road space. After opening, the East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighway corridors are moving 5% more people per hour than they could without cycle lanes.

In fact public transport, cycling and walking can liberate people from congestion and the impact of congestion. This means that even if congestion occurs, less of the traveling public are affected by it and therefore the overall economic cost of congestion reduces.

Every journey on rail, on bike, on foot or on buses with priority are also journeys that are not affected or less affected by congestion.

There are numerous examples from around the world of where cycle infrastructure improvements have contributed to modal shift towards riding a bike while being associated with a reduction or no overall increase in congestion [3].

It’s time for others to catch on

Sustrans, through Bike Life and our wider work, in cities and at a national level will continue to make the case for walking and cycling. We want to see it normalised, to fulfil its role as part of an efficient urban transport system.

This includes:

  • Improving the evidence base as to how cycling and walking can benefit cities, including publishing our new set of Bike Life [4] reports later this year to demonstrate progress and the impact of cycling in cities.
  • Working in partnership with cities across the UK, including the new Metro Mayors and administrations, to build commitment to, and recognise the benefits of, walking and cycling in their combined authorities as part of an integrated approach towards improving transport.
  • Helping cities to implement ambitious plans to create attractive, safe and people-designed streets and neighbourhoods that put cycling and walking on an equal footing to motorised modes, to reduce congestion and benefit our health, the local economy, and the environment.

Find out more about Bike Life

Sign up to our Policy Scan or the Network to keep up to date on our work with UK cities

Come and hear more about our work at Cycle City Active City Bradford

[1] Botma and Papendrecht, 1991. Traffic operation of bicycle traffic, TU-Delft

[2] Transport for London, 2017. London Assembly Transport Committee: Congestion Investigation Call for Evidence Submission.

[3] FLOW, 2016. The role of walking and cycling in reducing congestion.

[3] Sustrans, 2017 Bike Life