The cycling culture in the UK faces numerous challenges and requires improvements to be made so communities can become more sustainable and connected. In this Monologue, Architectural Assistant Mai Smith shares her recent experiences cycling in Europe and discusses her views on what we as architects and designers can do to enhance the current cycle network in the UK.
I recently returned from a charity cycle ride with friends, where we covered 290 miles from the UK, through France, Belgium and on to our destination in the Netherlands. Our efforts were in aid of Cancer research to support our friend who was raising awareness and money due to her mother’s diagnosis of cancer.
Having previously cycled to Germany from the UK, my experience of riding in these countries has highlighted the differences between our country and our European counterparts which support cyclists and cycling culture in a way that is still lacking in the UK.
Belgium canal path
Sustainable modes of transport are incredibly important in contributing to reducing our carbon emissions. ‘Transport’ is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the UK at 27% (2019 figure) with car journeys in the UK alone generating 68 million tonnes CO2e (2019 figure). This is equivalent to 33,000 disposable carrier bags (based on 50gCO2e per carrier bag) or 3,300 showers (based on 6 minute 500g CO2e shower). The 2020 figure was significantly lower at 24% in comparison to previous years, however it should be noted that this was primarily due to the Covid-19 restrictions in place which limited public travel and car journeys during 2020.
By changing our main forms of transport to include more sustainable modes of movement such as cycling, then we could make a meaningful difference to our planet’s future by reducing the tonnes of carbon emissions created from car journeys. If we do not reduce our carbon emissions, it will lead to “irreversible impacts such as loss of ecosystems and the extinction of some species” WWF (2021).
There is still a lot to be done to keep a global warming target below a 2°C increase and return to pre-industrial levels. To avoid the worst consequences of global warming we need to cut our carbon emissions by a staggering 50%. Delivering large reductions as these requires a change at a global scale, with the highest emitting countries of CO2 making commitments they can stick too. As transport is the UK’s biggest polluter, we must play our part in reducing this by creating a stronger cycling culture in the UK.
The challenges cyclists face in the UK
Cycling in the UK is unsafe, lacks a good cycle network and often highlights the poor relations between drivers and cyclists.
The cycle network is very poor, in comparison to other countries such as the Netherlands. The Netherlands cycle network can be seen here. Continuous and far-reaching cycle routes are hard to come by consequently forcing cyclists onto the roads with cars and lorries; an environment that isn’t always safe or easy to navigate.
The majority of cycle paths I cycled on during my trip were beautiful, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands. The routes were along treelined canal paths, through fields and country lanes, and even when we travelled through towns, cities or highways, there was always a designated cycle path. In some quieter places the pavement would be a shared space for both pedestrians and cyclists with drivers actively being more cautious and considerate of cyclists nearby. Even when accidentally crossing a red light over a three carriage-way road, drivers allowed me to cross safely and without beeping their horn.
Something that we also observed on our trip was that hardly anyone wore a helmet whilst cycling. This is not to say that we should discourage the wearing of helmets as they are an extremely important, life-saving piece of equipment, however I do think that it was a testament to how safe it is to cycle in Europe.
In contrast, the difficult relationship between drivers and cyclists in the UK is due to the lack of cycle infrastructure, resulting in cyclists being forced onto unsafe routes with vehicles. Not all drivers are conscientious and look out for cyclists, however not all cyclists carefully navigate traffic. This situation and many other scenarios like this could hopefully be resolved by improved and safer cycle routes, greater cycling uptake and better education for both drivers and cyclists.
Canal route cycle path
Tree lined cycle path
A recent example of improving safety and education are the changes to the UK Highway Code which were published in January 2022. Eight new rules were introduced as well as 49 updates to the existing rules. Of these updates, the Hierarchy of Road Users is a concept that ranks road users in order of those who are most at risk in the event of an accident and affects all road users, including drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. The new code also includes several amendments that may benefit cyclists such as updated guidance on riding two abreast and road position, and the introduction of a new technique called the ‘Dutch Reach’ to encourage motorists to check over their shoulder before opening a vehicle door. These new rules should help to protect cyclists and increase awareness about those using the roads alongside you.
In comparison to places like Belgium or the Netherlands, there is an abundance of cycle highways connecting towns and cities, transporting cyclists safely all over the country. Creating safer cycle routes and increasing the network between and within towns and cities would be a good starting point to improve the driver-cyclist relationship in the UK. By making these changes, it could increase the number of people choosing to cycle, especially for shorter journeys around their neighbourhoods and into their town centres. By having increased cyclists on our roads, more drivers will become accustomed to their presence and may even start cycling themselves, ultimately making them more aware of cycling safety when they drive. In addition to this, the separation of cyclists and traffic where possible such as introducing green buffers, or routes along waterways, adjacent train tracks or through fields, will first and foremost increase safety, but also improve the relationship between cyclists and drivers as there will be fewer hazardous incidences and encounters.
In order to improve cycling culture in the UK, architects and designers need to address these challenges and build places that make sustainable modes of transport the preferred option. By incorporating recommendations such as the below, we can gradually shift this mindset for people to choose and embrace cycling.
- Enforcing the changes made to the Highway Code. The introduction of these new regulations will hopefully make UK roads a safer environment for all users, but especially for cyclists and pedestrians who will be able to move around on the roads with greater confidence concerning their welfare.
- Prioritising bikes over cars. Making places and environments more cycle-friendly by providing secure bike storage or mobility hubs that offer services to repair bikes will make cycling more appealing which in turn will create a cultural shift. By also removing vehicles from public realm such as high streets or town centres will redesignate these spaces for cyclists and pedestrian priority over cars.
- Separation of cycle networks from traffic. Although the solution shouldn’t be to completely segregate these two forms of transportation, but by introducing physical measures to help clearly indicate cycle lane delineation in shared spaces or as waymarkers on cycle path routes will help to warn, inform and protect cyclists and pedestrians, as well as motorists.
- Improving and increasing the current cycle network in the UK. Having better cycle routes and connections will make cycling more appealing and the easier option for people. Taking away perceived barriers to cycling will be key in encouraging more active travel and thereby reducing carbon emissions.
- Using existing infrastructure to create bigger cycle networks. Creating cycle paths alongside waterways, canal paths, rivers, train lines and routes through fields will establish a more inviting environment for people to use.
- Improving driver-cyclist relationship. This can only happen when the above recommendations have been implemented. We can begin the shift of drivers and cyclists viewing each other as threats and instead to a relationship where cyclists are seen just like any other road user.
At JTP we design masterplans for new settlements and urban extensions that prioritise cycling and pedestrian modes of transport to ensure the creation of a successful neighbourhood where residents can move around easily and have access to their local amenities. We approach our placemaking through a sustainable lens which includes forward thinking sustainable transport planning that aims to accelerate a shift to modes of travel that significantly reduce carbon emissions, car use and car ownership.
We strive to integrate pedestrian and cycle routes into our neighbourhoods to encourage active travel and promote sustainable ways of living. The masterplan at JTP’s Cocoa West project situated in York, which recently received planning permission, has been designed to encourage residents to adopt sustainable modes of transport with cycle friendly streets creating strong linkages to the site's wider context. These new and improved routes will make the option of cycling more appealing and safer for both future and existing residents.
Cycle highway through fields
My dad encouraged my brother and I to cycle from a young age and I remember him making it his one and only mission to get me off my stabilisers as soon as possible. He valued the freedom a bike gave you having ventured on his own trips as a teenager where he cycled alone to Germany, camping on the side of motorways as he went! He always got us out on bike rides whatever the weather (including a thunder and lightning storm when I was only seven years old) and cycled with us to school every day. The love of cycling was instilled into us from a young age and for that I will aways be grateful.
Although the cycling culture in the UK seems a very long way off from that of places like Belgium and the Netherlands, I believe we can start creating these cultural shifts by prioritising pedestrian and cycling as the main modes of transport, such as what can be seen on our Cocoa West project. By encouraging this behaviour in the designs of new places can contribute to improving people’s health, relationships and connections with neighbouring settlements and reduce our impact on the environment. These can be steppingstones to encourage people to get on their bike more and in turn, demand better cycle networks across the country.
Promisingly, gradual shifts in the UK are already beginning to happen. Olympian Chris Boardman is to lead a new body, Active Travel England, which aims to improve infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians and fund projects to improve air quality. In Manchester, Chris Boardman helped set up the Bee Network which is in the process of connecting every neighbourhood and community in Greater Manchester.
Taking up cycling won’t only help our planet, but it will improve our relationship with the environment and our surroundings, making us fitter and creating better places to live.
Nothing beats the freedom you have being on your bike and feeling like you could go anywhere in the world. Improvements in our cycle routes to equal those of our European counterparts will help in creating this freedom and activate that sense of adventure in us all.