Going round in circles: the benefits of cycling

It’s seemingly rare for a political speech to be made in Westminster nowadays without a joke about Boris Johnson’s new cycle superhighways in London. George Osborne at this week’s Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year ceremony was the latest example. But sometimes, instead of light-hearted cynicism, cycling receives outright opposition. The Daily Mail recently launched a campaign to halt the spread of cycle lanes in the UK, claiming they are underused, polluting, and add to congestion.

Of course, cars are very popular. More than four in five people travel by car as a driver or passenger at least once or twice a week in the UK. Car traffic increased by 1.1% last year, to the highest level on record. So it is important that measures to incentivise cycling are complementary to policies to support motorists. It should not be a zero-sum game.

What policies are driving the increase in cycle lanes?

The Government recently finished consulting on its draft Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy - intended to help deliver by 2040 their aim to “make cycling and walking the natural choice for shorter journeys, or as part of a longer journey”. There are also sub-targets to double the number of cycling journeys and reduce cycling fatalities and injuries.

The largest scheme is ‘Cycle Ambition Cities’. Launched in 2013, this gives £10 per resident to eight cities to spend on cycling (Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, and Oxford). Funding will be spent on segregated cycle ways, improved lighting and parking facilities for cyclists, and better cycle links to key services.

Although the Government is investing over £300 million throughout this Parliament to support cycling, some campaigners have criticised them for not giving it sufficient funding. Cycling UK claim that funding amounts to just £1.38 per person (excluding London) – far short of the £10-20 per head that many were calling for to deliver a cultural shift in favour of cycling.

The Government’s plans to mandate five cities to establish Clean Air Zones is an important nudge to get people out of their cars and onto bikes. By charging older, polluting vehicles that enter the city centre, cycling becomes a more attractive option for local residents who may not wish to upgrade their vehicle. The High Court’s recent ruling on the Government’s air quality plan makes further Clean Air Zones more likely.  

Cycling already plays a central role in London’s transport system. The new Mayor is planning to introduce an ultra-low emission zone from 2019, which will restrict access to central London for older vehicles. The most polluting vehicles will also be made to pay a £10 emissions surcharge from 2017. These two measures should help to nudge Londoners towards taking up cycling.

Sadiq Khan is continuing his predecessor’s work to improve cycling infrastructure in the capital. In 2013, Boris Johnson launched a cycling strategy to reflect the fact cycling had tripled on London’s roads over the previous ten years. He allocated up to £400 million to invest in new cycle superhighways as part of securing the Olympic legacy for London. And of course he set up the ‘Boris bike’ hire scheme, which recently celebrated its sixth anniversary.

The benefits of cycling

Health: Promoting cycling creates significant benefits for public health by encouraging more people to exercise. There is strong medical evidence linking physical inactivity with cardiovascular disease, strokes, obesity, cancer (colon and breast), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and depression. For this reason, the Government made cycling a component of its recent childhood obesity strategy. Bikeability, a government-funded scheme, will provide £50 million in funding over the next four years to give free cycle training to schoolchildren.

Wealth: Cycling yields fiscal benefits, many of which come from savings to the NHS. A government study in 2014 found that the direct cost to the health service of physical inactivity is £1 billion, with an indirect cost of £8.2 billion. The cycling industry also generates significant value to the economy, estimated at £2.9 billion a year according to 2011 research by the London School of Economics. Cycling charity Sustrans also found that every pound of public investment in cycling in the UK yields a £19 return.

Cleaner air: Air pollution is significantly reduced by shifting from cars to cycling. Road traffic is responsible for around 95% of pollution hotspots in the UK. So encouraging more people to switch from cars to bikes can help reduce the number of places affected by poor air quality. Cycling can also help to reduce carbon emissions in the transport sector, which have in fact increased in both 2014 and 2015.

Less congested roads:  Increasing cycling reduces congestion on roads as more people get out of their cars. Research by British Cycling finds that cycling saves a third of road space relative to cars, because it is more space efficient. Moreover, building new cycle lanes does not preclude expansion of road capacity. The Government is in fact investing huge amounts of money into building new or upgraded roads, in tandem with its plans for cycling. In 2014, a £15 billion programme was announced out to 2021 to add new road capacity, dwarfing spending on new cycling infrastructure.


Despite the clear benefits of cycling and the policies which support it, levels of cycling have stayed relatively stable in recent years. Just 15% of the English population cycle at least once a month, according to government figures.

This summer saw Team GB’s cyclists enjoy incredible success at the Olympic velodrome in Rio. The Tour de Yorkshire has become a fixture in the county’s sporting calendar, providing a permanent legacy of the enthusiasm created by hosting the first stage of the Tour de France in 2014. We have the sporting heroes to inspire us to get on our bikes. Now the Government needs to ensure we have the cycling infrastructure and policies to allow that success to be rolled out to more people across the country.

Sam Hall is researcher at Bright Blue