The Great Big Academic Round-up

A summary of some recent cycling research, written for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain’s weekly blog round-up, cross-posted from

This is a guest academic-themed post which may look a little different from the usual roundup, because I’m linking to academic papers rather than blogs. I’m focusing on peer-reviewed papers published in 2015, and a few themes that I find particularly interesting. Inevitably I’ve left quite a lot out. There’s plenty more great academic research.

A note on access. Some articles are subscriber-only, so without a university affiliation you probably can’t access the final version for free. However, most journals let authors self-publish an open access version; you can often find these by Google Scholar searching the article title. If an author hasn’t shared a version in this way, I’d feel free to email them and ask for a copy.

The Danes and the Dutch

Ironically, the UK has traditionally done badly in cycling, yet well in cycling research. Much of our infrastructure may be terrible, but for twelve years we’ve run an annual Cycling and Society symposium, an affordable and accessible way in to some world class research. Do consider going. I think it’s very important that academics and non-academics discuss these topics together.

But scanning this year’s work, Copenhagen stands out; rather greedily producing good papers and good infrastructure. Gössling and Choi’s paper in Ecological Economics reports on how the City of Copenhagen has used a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) framework to compare the costs of cycling and driving. Using a traditional CBA approach, it still shows the costs of driving as being six times higher than those of cycling. This helps to justify the City’s spending on cycling.

I’m a CBA-sceptic, but at least in Copenhagen, it seems to be part of the mainstreaming of cycling in infrastructure planning. On the broader topic of CBA and cycling, I suggest van Wee and Börjesson’s recent summary. Relatively supportive of using CBA to evaluate cycling policies, they conclude it is in practice currently poorly used. Additional resources include two videos of symposia held this year at UCL on transport appraisal (here and here); while I’m soon talking to the Transport Economists Group on Is Transport Appraisal Failing Cycling? The debate is set to continue.

Back in Copenhagen, I’ll highlight two more articles. Carstensen et al’s paper on changes in Copenhagen’s bicycle infrastructure between 1912 and 2013 analyses four separate periods in the city’s development, discussing the roles that cycling and infrastructure have played in each. Three points stand out for me: firstly, how important it’s been to focus on planning specifically for cycling in Copenhagen in recent decades. Secondly, I’m jealous of their GIS database of cycle infrastructure over the years, as well as the infrastructure itself! Finally: the paper provokes thoughts on reaching the limits of infrastructure: if volumes get so high that even wide, high quality, dedicated cycle infrastructure (which attracted many people to cycle in the first place) gets uncomfortably full.

Freudendal-Pedersen’s article picks this up, and points out that although Copenhagen allocates much more space for cycling than the UK, there is still more space for motors. ‘[E]ven if 60% of Copenhagen’s residents cycle to their jobs or school on a daily basis, cars still occupy a major amount of the city space’. Even in what looks to outside eyes a cycling paradise – and Copenhagen is a beautiful, liveable city, with some of Europe’s best cycle infrastructure – car dominance can still continue to silently undermine cycling. As elsewhere in Europe, many feel children necessitate car ownership and use. This is reinforced by a scary stereotype of the ‘egotistical cyclist’; an image which, linking back to Carstensen et al, is partly caused precisely by cycle path congestion.

Moving on to the Dutch: and a paper by Schepers et al on Dutch success in reducing road danger for cyclists so successfully. Separating cycling from motor traffic features heavily, not just through separated cycle paths which, crucially, provide protection at junctions, but also by ensuring motor vehicles and cyclists take different routes (network-level separation or unbundling). Motors are diverted away from residential areas, where modally filtered streets allow direct, safe and pleasant routes for cycling and walking. Lots of other insights too.

While injury risk puts people off cycling, if we can get cycling levels up, health benefits are massive.Fishman et al’s paper uses the World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool(HEAT) to show just how great the benefits are in the Netherlands. In their words: ‘Cycling prevents about 6500 deaths each year, and Dutch people have half-a-year-longer life expectancy because of cycling. These health benefits correspond to more than 3% of the Dutch gross domestic product.’ These benefits are so far only available to a minority here; but they’re waiting. A paper by Martin et al using British longitudinal data shows switching from car use to active travel or public transport is associated with a significant reduction in Body Mass Index.

Cycling and Equality

A fascinating article by Eyer and Ferreira called ‘Taking the Tyke on a Bike’ explores the role of cycling in women’s lives in Amsterdam, focusing on mothers and their children. While in the UK my research found that even many keen cyclists fear letting their children ride the picture’s very different in Amsterdam, despite it being a busy capital city. Although having children implied a substantial change in parental activity patterns, this didn’t mean less cycling. In fact, Eyer and Ferreira found cycling allowed mothers to feel safe and relaxed while travelling, and provided enjoyable opportunities to bond with children.

In the UK, we often assume that cycling is for super-fit young men, and that other people can’t, won’t, and/or don’t want to cycle. This has fed through into policy and planning; traditionally we’ve failed to consider the needs of all potential cyclists, and built for the 2%: the fit, the able-bodied and the fearless. This in turn shapes cycling demographics. Between 2001 and 2011, my co-authored paper found that even in the ‘success stories’ – places where cycling increased, it didn’t get any more gender-equal and representation of older people actually declined.

How can we change this? Two recent papers look at older people and cycling from different methodological perspectives. Winters et al’s paper offers an in-depth exploration of older people’s feelings about cycling in Vancouver. While motor traffic risk was a key barrier to cycling for older people, and protected infrastructure important, older people disliked shared pavement-type infrastructure.Velasco et al’s more quantitative investigation similarly concluded that older cyclists strongly preferred protected cycleways, but preferred these cycleways to separate them from pedestrians too. This makes sense: while pedestrian-cyclist conflicts are a lot less risky than conflicts with motors, older people are more vulnerable to injury than are younger people.

If in the UK older people’s cycling is marginalised, disabled people’s cycling has been even more so. But this is changing. Hickman has a useful paper published in Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers on (lack of) visual representation of disabled cyclists in policy and design. His recommendations include improving our planning tools to better comply with the spirit of the Equality Act 2010, as well as a broader process of re-considering what we understand cycling to be.

Changing infrastructures, changing cultures

One pleasing aspect of doing this roundup has been reading about a diverse array of methods and perspectives, a hallmark of cycling research. Latham and Wood’s recent ethnographic paper explores how London cyclists deal with a system that often designs them out. Illustrated with cartoons, they show the behavioural and experiential fallout when rules, policies, and designs that should keep the vulnerable safe actually put them at greater risk. Similarly, Ponto’s paper links infrastructures and policies found in different European cities, to how cycling is portrayed and understood – as an environmental act, as facilitating independence, as convenient and so on. I liked the stress on interaction between culture and infrastructure: ‘in Groningen, social movements and political will enabled the widespread development of cycling infrastructure [which then provides] the safe and secure cycling environments that many cyclists seek out.’

While there’s ample evidence that people don’t like cycling in busy motor traffic, until recently there has been little high quality academic evidence showing the impact of providing specific high quality routes (or indeed other interventions: see the review by Stewart et al 2015). The problem has been two-fold: firstly, failure to build good infrastructure (including connecting networks: building a mile of wonderful Greenway in an otherwise massively car-focused city surprisingly enough doesn’t seem to change travel patterns), and secondly, a failure to put money into relatively expensive, higher quality forms of evaluation, like longitudinal research.

Luckily, we’re now both building and evaluating better. And research is starting to show that the results of interventions, as in Heinen et al’s paper on the Cambridge busway cycleway – can be spectacular. Heinen et al’s longitudinal study demonstrates that building a high-quality route, that connects to key destinations and a decent (in UK context) wider network, has substantially changed people’s travel behaviour. Taking a different approach, Ford et al conduct a GIS-based accessibility analysis for London and find that the East-West cycle superhighway will change the attractiveness of cycling versus driving for many trips using the route, by making journeys both faster and safer. They suggest that if protected routes were built along main roads in London, it could be a game-changer, with cycling becoming more attractive than driving for short trips across the capital.

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