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How Can Research into Cycling Help Implement the National Cycling Strategy?

A Review of Cycling Research Findings and Needs



During the past decade, cycling has gained an increasingly prominent position on the agendas of central and local government, environmentalists and health professionals.  Cycling is regarded as beneficial to individual health and well-being as well as to wider interests.  The reduction in congestion that comes when journeys are transferred to the bicycle results in benefits to the economy, to communities affected by traffic and to the environment.  For employers, encouraging staff to cycle can help solve parking space limitations, promote their green image and reduce working time lost in traffic.  There are similar benefits for other journey destinations, too, such as retail and leisure sites.

National policy on cycling is embodied in the 1996 National Cycling Strategy (NCS), which identified barriers to cycling and potential solutions, and established a target for increased cycling trip rates.  This was endorsed in the 1998 Transport White Paper, and again (with a slight revision to the targets) in the Ten Year Transport Plan of 2000.  The gist of the argument is that cycling should be encouraged and barriers overcome, yet this is made difficult by the fact that as well as practical barriers such as poor infrastructure and facilities, there are others which are less tangible and hence less easy to alter.  Some aspects of the natural world put people off cycling such as hills and the weather.  Social and psychological factors also have a significant influence, such as attitudes to cycling, perceptions of danger, and concern about other people's attitudes and behaviour.  More broadly, wider cultures of transport and mobility – summed up in the phrase 'car-dependence' – do not favour cycling as a serious modal choice.

A considerable body of research into different aspects of cycling has been building up over recent years, helping construct a picture of who cycles and who does not, which kinds of journey are most commonly done by bicycle, which barriers are the most obdurate, and which kinds of solutions are most likely to be effective.  At the same time, the charity Sustrans has been implementing the National Cycle Network with local authorities and other partner bodies, such that a cycling equivalent of the national road network is close to being in place.  Cycling facilities – especially cycle racks – have also been increasing at popular destinations such as workplaces, town centres, retail sites and leisure facilities.

Defining the problem

Defining the Problem

Despite this improvement in knowledge about cycling and in the provision of facilities for cyclists, the UK's cycling trip rates have shown no sign of increasing since this issue first came onto the agenda.  Following a steady decline since the 1950s, cycling accounts for some 2-3% of journeys, depending on how they are measured, with exceptional levels of 10-30% in a few specific cities such as Cambridge, Oxford, York and Nottingham.  Neither the NCS target of quadrupling 1996 cycling rates by 2012, nor the Ten Year Plan target of trebling 2000 rates by 2010, seems likely to be met without quite radical change; achieving such change is the goal of the Strategy.

The purpose of the research is to contribute towards the realisation of cycle trip rate targets, by conducting a systematic and critical review of the cycling research field.  This review will be combined with interviews with key stakeholders in cycling policy, cycle campaigning, the bicycle industry, infrastructure providers and others in related fields such as health and the environment.  In addition, the research will assess the potential contribution to cycling policy of approaches not currently being deployed to any extent, such as the variety of transport modelling approaches, analysis of consumer behaviour and Foresight and Futures methodologies.  The resulting report will highlight both existing findings and gaps in the knowledge base.  It will thus provide guidance for the National Cycling Strategy Board, DfT, research councils and charities which fund cycling research.  This is an opportune time to conduct such research, closely following new appointments to the National Cycling Strategy Board including its Chair Steven Norris, and with sufficient time before the target deadlines to make effective recommendations. 

Themes & approaches

Cycling Research: Themes and Approaches

Research into cycling spans several different areas.  There is insufficient space here to do more than sketch this work, which includes both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, larger and smaller scale studies, coming from a variety of analytical perspectives.  Much of the research deals with the attitudes and/or behaviour (actual or planned) of cyclists.  Some studies focus on cycling itself (both leisure and utility – especially commuting – trips), others on particular kinds of cyclists (commuters, new cycle owners, children), and others still on the various facilities, destinations, cycle types and accessories.   There is also work on specific dimensions of cycling, such as health, economics and social exclusion.  In addition, wider transport and environmental research often covers cycling issues to some degree, for example work on employer travel plans or surveys of motoring organisation members.  Finally, a host of data pertaining to cycling can be found in analyses of the National Travel Survey, census and other government-generated statistics, in cycle industry analyses and in market research data. 

There is a great deal of common ground in the work referred to above, even where the focus or methodologies differ, yet there has been no systematic attempt to review cycling research as a whole.  Individual research papers usually review only the literature which is directly relevant, whilst the cycling bibliographies published by DfT (as a Traffic Advisory Leaflet) and Sustrans (its Research Bibliography) include only a small selection.  The on-line database of transport and planning literature set up by Prof. Hugh McClintock of Nottingham University includes many cycling references, but these are not reviewed as a single body of literature.

Critical review

A Critical Review of Cycling Research

This project will build on these examples by producing a systematic review of cycling research, identifying topic areas and themes, research methodologies and gaps yet to be filled.  It will review completed (since 1990), current and planned cycling research conducted in academic, consultancy and government settings.  It will elicit expert assessments of existing data and remaining research needs by means of telephone, email and some face-to-face interviews with representatives of cycling and wider transport bodies, policy personnel, research funders and the cycling and transport research communities.

The findings will be assessed critically in order to evaluate the state-of-the-art in cycling research, but will focus on a few specific issues guided by the needs of the NCS Board.  Topics which have strong potential for addressing the NCS objectives include the following:

The notion of 'barriers to cycling' is common in much cycling research, yet it is not generally used in a very sophisticated way.  Barriers such as the fear of danger, the reluctance to cycle in poor weather or the need to use a car for multiple purposes over the course of a day are often assumed to apply in a fixed and uniform manner which cannot therefore be altered.  Yet research in other areas of social life and behaviour (and in a few cycling studies such as the reports of the Transport Research Laboratory) shows that people's actions are highly adaptable, often responding, for example, to changes in circumstances.  The review would therefore look critically at how barriers are understood in the knowledge base, and aim to tease out the variety of ways in which they are discussed.  This would generate a more nuanced notion of barriers that opens up routes for overcoming resistance to cycling.

Whilst modelling is a common feature of transport research and policymaking, it is not very common in cycling research, which focuses more on qualitative understandings of attitudes and behaviours.  The review could examine in which contexts modelling has been deployed by cycling researchers, and identify – especially through discussions with cycling and research stakeholders – new areas in which it could be usefully introduced.  The objective would be, firstly, to ascertain how appropriate existing modelling techniques might be to cycling applications, for example is the volume of cycling trips carried out sufficient to generate trip-based models, and what use might such models be in pursuing increased cycling rates?  Secondly, the research would aim to learn whether models from other kinds of application could be adapted to understand cycling.  For example, models of consumer product choices could prove useful in understanding the decision to use a particular transport mode.

There are other examples too where cycling research could potentially benefit from techniques and approaches originating in other fields.  Health promotion and individual marketing are examples which have been adopted successfully in cycle promotion work in recent years.  Another potentially useful range of techniques relates to Foresight exercises carried out within particular economic sectors, national and regional settings.  The UK Foresight panel responsible for transport has in fact made only minor reference to the role of cycling in its future visions.  The research would consequently aim to assess – based on both the existing cycling literature and interviews with Foresight experts – to what extent such techniques could be useful for furthering the objectives of the NCS.

Overall, the cycling knowledge base will be evaluated against the objectives, mechanisms and outputs set out in the National Cycling Strategy.  Evaluation here will follow the Strategy's key themes of:

  • increasing the amount of cycling
  • improving accessibility
  • improving safety
  • improving road space and priority for cycles
  • increasing cycle parking provision
  • tackling cycle theft
  • changing attitudes
  • improving resources

The research will identify how each of these themes has been addressed in cycling research, and what – if any – further contributions would still be valuable.  Any areas not identified within the Strategy for which further research might be beneficial will also be identified.

Project plan

Project Plan

The research is being conducted in Whitehall during Summer 2002, making use especially of DfT resources, access to civil servants and policymakers, proximity to key decisionmakers in London and the South East, and to resources such as the British Library.

There are five stages of the research, comprising research design, literature review, interviews (email, telephone and face-to-face), analysis and the production of outputs, outlined briefly as follows:

Research design
  • identify key themes and issues, in collaboration with NCS Board/DfT
  • identify key stakeholders in policy, campaigning and research
Literature review
  • drawing on applicant's existing resources, DfT resources, British Library
  • Whitehall cycling actors, e.g. NCS Board, DfT
  • UK local authority cycling officers
  • cycle campaigners
  • bicycle industry personnel
  • other transport stakeholders, e.g. AA, RAC
  • modellers in transport studies and other fields
  • key actor(s) involved in Foresight for transport 
  • construction and analysis of annotated bibliographical database of cycling research
  • construction and analysis of qualitative database of interview findings
  • database of completed, current, planned and potential cycling research
  • report for the Summer Placements scheme
  • report and recommendations to the NCS Board and the DfT