2020’s leisure driven cycling spike likely to retreat without investment

Fresh Department for Transport data covering walking and cycling rates during the first pandemic year has illustrated how the boom in bike use was driven almost entirely by trips made for leisure.

With offices largely closed in 2020 utility cycling decreased by 20% for the year as a whole, yet with roads cleared of traffic and the UK Government permitting cycling for exercise, leisure trips spiked by 75% to their highest levels since data collection began in 2002.

The result was a percentage point increase of trips made by bike, up fro 2% to 3% of journeys made and covering 2% of all distance travelled. Average cycling trips increased by 26%, from 16 trips per person in 2019 to 20 in 2020. Mileage likewise rose, up 62%, equating to 88 miles per person and more than double the 39 mile average since 2002.

The once in a lifetime low-traffic conditions played a significant part in the sudden interest in cycling and subsequent sales boom. Safety on the roads consistently ranks in studies as the number one factor into whether people will undertake trips by bike.

With motor traffic now running north of pre-pandemic levels on many key road networks and large swatches of Emergency Active Travel infrastructure either removed or in a state of limbo, conditions on the roads have worsened for vulnerable road users. That trend of ever increasing car use is to be locked in by current transport policy, an MP-led think tank has established.

Prior to Covid’s arrival and the roll out of temporary safe cycling infrastructure across much of the country cycling trips were actually gradually declining.

Bike shops in the UK cite safety concerns as the number one influencer on future bike sales, with the majority believing the provision of safe cycling infrastructure is directly correlated to increased bike sales.

Illustrating the point further, men remained more than twice as likely to make trips by bike than women at 28 and 13 trips, respectively. Women are more likely than men to cite safety concerns as a primary factor for not cycling as art of their routine.

Men aged 17 to 20 cycled the most (40 trips per person), but this was closely followed by men aged 40 to 49 (39 trips per person). Similarly, amongst women, those aged 40 to 49 cycled the most (21 trips per person), although still well below levels seen by men in all age groups.

Broken down by local authority there are drastic differences with 19 recording a ‘significant’ increase versus eight with a large decrease. The most pronounced increases came in London where cycling infrastructure is more concentrated. The south coast and East Anglia also performed strongly, while rates changed less further north and in the far south west.

Cycling to school

While for large parts of the pandemic to date there has been an element of virtual schooling, when educational facilities were active 50% of children walked (47%) or cycled (3%), up from 44% in 2019. The 3% rate has remained static between 2% and 4% since 2002.

By the time secondary school rolls around children marginally increase their tendency to cycle, with 2020 data posting a 2 percentage point increase from 3% to 5%. Walking decrease from 3% to 1%.

Elsewhere in the DfT data it is revealed that 1.2 billion stages in total were cycled in 2020, versus an average of 0.8 to 1 billion cycled over the past decade.