Why a ‘cycling and walking revolution’ will not reduce car use

The Prime Minister has announced expenditure of £2bn to kickstart a ‘cycling and walking revolution’. While this reflects his personal predilection for cycling, as was evident when he was Mayor of London, there are two pressing policy imperatives. The coronavirus pandemic necessitates reduced occupancy of buses and trains, for which cycling and walking provide healthier alternatives. And in the longer term, active travel, as it is termed, has a part to play in plans being developed to decarbonise the transport system, as well as to improve urban air quality.

Cities are promoting active travel in response to the pandemic. Manchester has committed £5m to enable socially-distanced cycling and walking.    Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London, has reallocated road space with the aim of increasing walking five-fold and cycling ten-fold.

A ten-fold increase in cycling in London would take the present 2.5% share of journeys to the level found in Copenhagen, currently 28%, in a city that has excellent cycling infrastructure and a longstanding cycling culture. However, 32% of trips in Copenhagen are by car, only a little less than London’s 35%. Aside from cycling, the other big difference is public transport use: 19% of journeys in Copenhagen versus 36% in London.

This indicates that we can get people off buses onto bikes, which are cheaper, healthier, better for the environment, and no slower on congested urban streets. But it is harder to get people out of their cars, even in Copenhagen where everyone has experience of safe cycling. Features that make the car attractive include the ability to carry people and goods, including the stuff your lug around in the boot; and trips a bit long for a bike ride, or where you need to appear well dressed at the destination. And many people positively like cars and driving for feel-good reasons – witness the enormous choice of models, including the current fashion for high fuel consumption sports utility vehicles.

Cars typically are parked for 95% of the time, which makes an economic argument for those keen on sharing vehicles or journeys. But conversely, the willingness to pay substantial sums for an item used for only 5% of the time indicates the value people place on personal ownership and the mobility that this make possible.

The fundamental attraction of the car is the access it allows to people and places, opportunities and choices, at least when roads are not too congested and when it is possible to park at both ends of the journey. To achieve access to the wide range of destinations to which we have become accustomed, within the time available for travel during the busy day, the car is the most efficient mode of travel for moderate distances. If you live in a village without a car, and with limited or non-existent bus services, your opportunities and choices of work, shops and services are limited. Acquire a car and the possibilities are expanded substantially. Although there are many ideas and initiatives for replacing cars outside cities, the cumulative impact is unlikely to be transformative.

Where it is certainly possible to replace cars is in cities, where roads are congested and parking is limited. Car use in London was at its peak in the early 1990s, accounting for 50% of journeys. Subsequently the population increased while road capacity for cars was reduced to make room for bus lanes, cycle routes and pedestrian space, and at the same time there was substantial investment in rail capacity, all of which reduced car use to the current 36% of journeys. But beyond densely populated cities, the cost of urban rail is hard to justify, and buses on congested roads are not an attractive alternative to car use. On the other hand, buses on dedicated routes free of general traffic – Bus Rapid Transit – can be attractive as a lower cost alternative to rail.

The pandemic lockdown showed how we could make substantial changes to our travel behaviour, some of which are likely to be long-lasting – less travel for commuting, shopping and on business. Yet such decreases could well be offset by increases in other kinds of trips, reflecting our need to get out of the house and engage with the wider world.

There is much uncertainty about the extent to which we can count on changing travel behaviour to contribute to transport decarbonisation and improve urban air quality. We will therefore need to rely largely on technological change, by replacing oil as the main fuel for motive power – electrification of cars, vans and most trains.

Policy to promote walking and cycling is undoubtedly worthwhile and will yield both health and environmental benefits. Yet the attractions of motorised mobility and the experience of Copenhagen suggest that the main impact will be to attract people from public transport, rather out of their cars.

This blog was the basis for an article in The Conversation on 24 August 2020