This morning I had a meeting with a representative of one of London’s Business Improvement Districts, to talk about cycling provision in the area, and the potential for further improvements. I offered to pull together some recent research evidence on preferences for different types of cycling environments, and as I was doing so I thought it might be worth also highlighting some of it here.
One of the things I’ve been arguing for lately is the need for high standards in planning cycle provision, based on the evidence about what will get those new people cycling. It’s not just about new people though. We sometimes assume that to get existing cyclists riding more, we can just do more of the same.
But that’s not necessarily the case. In London, there is a substantial disparity between commute mode share, and mode share for all trips. For example, Hackney has an impressive bicycle commute mode share of around 15%, but the overall bicycle mode share’s more like 5%. We’d expect some disparity, but these differences are very large.
Why is this? It seems like people are fussier about cycling environments when they’re not commuting. This makes intuitive sense if you think about it. When I’m riding to work, I know my route extremely well as I ride it most working days. I’m travelling on my own, so I only have to worry about my own safety, not that of any companions. I know where the dodgy bits are, where I need to concentrate super hard. I know the timing of the traffic lights – whether I have lots of time to get through or not. I know the hidden cut-throughs I can take to make the journey nicer. As I’m travelling with the peak commuting flows there’s often plenty of other cyclists around, creating a greater sense of subjective safety.
For people’s non-commute journeys, often those things don’t hold. They don’t know the route well (maybe it’s a trip to visit family that they do once every week or two). Maybe they’re not even sure what their destination is (maybe they’re going to a shopping area, but haven’t decided which shop to choose). They don’t know the traffic light timing, and they don’t know where to expect those super-hostile sections you just can’t foresee from the cycle map. It’s off-peak, and there aren’t many other cyclists. They don’t know the nice cut-throughs. They may well be cycling with less confident or able others, or have a child with them.
No wonder then that the research and the data suggest the bar is higher when you’re not commuting. I cycle into work every day, but I don’t have a great desire to get on my bike and tootle down Regent Street at lunchtime to do a bit of impromptu shopping. (Regent Street’s loss is the Internet’s gain.)
I believe that the way we model transport tends to mis-represent decisions about cycling. We know that in the UK, most people simply don’t consider getting on a bike for everyday trips. They are not doing a cost-benefit calculation. Cycling just doesn’t come into it at all. It’s more of a threshold calculation than a trade-off. If cycling seems normal and safe, they might start considering it; but right now, it’s completely outside the choice set. That’s even the case for existing cyclists, for certain types of journey (like me, for whom the bike commute’s normal, yet at lunchtime, not even considering a cycle down Regent Street to buy the new shoes I want).
So one thing that worries me about stated preference surveys into cycling environments (where we ask people about hypothetical route choices) are that we are shoe-horning the evidence into a decision-making paradigm that doesn’t fit most people, given the current (woeful) state of infrastructure. We ask them, ‘would you be prepared to spend an extra 2 minutes to ride through a park rather than along a main road? An extra four minutes? An extra six minutes?’ And we end up coming out with a result that people say they’d be happy to make long detours for the sake of safety. The problematic policy implications of this (in the context where London’s Quietways are still being defined) are clear.
With this in mind it’s instructive to read Appendix C of the route choice research commissioned by TfL recently. This is where the researchers discuss the results of their pilot survey and what surprised them there. One interesting finding that they didn’t expect was that respondents showed no preference for cycling on a high street compared to a main road; which tells us something about the state of London’s high streets in relation to cycling. But more relevant here, they were surprised by the extent to which people said they would be willing to travel further for an off-road route. The authors write:
We found that the off-road option was almost always selected, even at the highest levels of time increase. This makes it difficult to accurately value this attribute and therefore we have increased the time intervals from 12, 15, 20 to 15, 20, 25 minutes.
Now I find it hard to believe that people would potentially double their journey time to take an off-road route – at this level of time penalty it’s going to be well out of their way. Personally, if the choice was this stark (the on-road route hostile, the off-road alternative lengthy) I would probably just use another mode for the journey. And this is exactly the choice that most people are making in the UK. So for me, the responses to the route choice survey show just how strong the support for separated infrastructure is (and this is a survey among those who currently cycle in London). It doesn’t tell us about an accurate coefficient to use in a route choice model (it is indeed ‘difficult to accurately value this attribute’); but probably more importantly, it tells us what people want.
And this is backed up by other evidence. Here I just pull out a few quotes from the TfL report and from other relevant research:
‘The presence of an off-road route was particularly highly valued.’ (TfL 2013: iii)
‘Across all cyclists, the key considerations around route choice centred on choosing the safest routes, and avoiding traffic […] Female respondents were much more likely to prefer safer routes, away from other traffic, and away from difficult junctions.’ (TfL 2013: i)
‘Facilities that were segregated from traffic are the preferred form of cycling infrastructure, regardless of cycling confidence. Routes through residential streets and parks are the second choice.’ (Caulfield et al 2012 – Dublin study).
‘[R]egardless of the level of cycling confidence, routes which have ‘no facilities’ or ‘bus/cycle lanes’ are the least favoured cycle route types. There appears to be no direct correlation between cycling confidence and route choice preference with confident cyclists demonstrating a similar preference for the presented infrastructure types as respondents with no cycling confidence. There are, however, a small proportion of very confident cyclists who place high importance on short journey times and direct facilities with low cyclist volumes.‘ (Caulfield et al 2012)
‘the biggest shift to cycle that may be possible is if all cycling after the change takes place on the bike path far from the road. The proportion of cyclists in this sample would then increase from 51.0% to 61.3%, i.e. an increase of 20%.’ (Björklund and Isacsson 2013, Swedish study combining stated and revealed preference data)
‘Everyone prefers routes with less interactions with traffic and riding in safer conditions.’ (Wang et al 2012, Auckland study)
‘Most respondents were likely or very likely to choose to cycle on the following broad route categories: off-street paths (71%–85% of respondents); physically separated routes next to major roads (71%); and residential routes (48%–65%).‘ (Winters and Teschke 2010, Canadian study).
My conclusion: set the bar high, using the evidence to define what will get people cycling, and then look at what trade-offs are needed in specific contexts to realise this level of service. If compromises are proposed, be honest about them – knowing that advisory lanes and ASLs are pretty irrelevant to the discussion, if a city seeks to be in cycling’s Premier League.