In normal times, you will find me cycling to work everyday. My cycling style is one of pootling along at a steady pace, wearing my normal clothes, no helmet, and sitting straight up so that I can admire the world around me. I probably caught these habits from living in York for several years, and perhaps I can say my style is more typical of a city with more of a cycling culture than we have in Dundee. York’s cycle culture is, I think, more like that in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
Why has cycling not taken off here in Dundee, the same as it has in the cities I just mentioned and in many others? Actually, York is an exception: cycling has not taken off, it just didn’t go away. But Amsterdam and Copenhagen: what do they have that Dundee doesn’t? We are all compact cities so cycling is definitely a practical choice. One thing Dundee doesn’t have (very often) is the fierce headwinds that are common in Amsterdam. But in Dundee pretty much the only cyclists you see are clad in Lycra with their heads down, dedicated to their choice of transport. Normal people who just happen to be cycling are very much the minority.*
The answer appears in UK government statistics**, which report that 60% of people are put off cycling because they do not feel the road is a safe place for them. This is understandable, but actually it is a matter of perception rather than reality. To quote some more statistics, the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks between 13:1 and 415:1, depending on which benefits the reporting study was looking at. And the risk (in England, but there is no reason to suppose it would be much different in Scotland as we have the same traffic laws and road layouts) is of 0.05 accidents of any severity per 1,000 hours of cycling. That’s 1 accident per 20,000 hours. Let’s say your commute is 20 minutes each way, so 40 minutes a day, and you work 240 days per year, then that is roughly one accident every 125 years. That feels like good odds to me. And remember, this includes even minor accidents, not just serious one which would be even less common. And all of this is taken into account in the 13:1 – 415:1 findings: even with that small risk of an accident, cycling is still really good for you.
But enough numbers. What we need is an experiment. Remove the main source of the perceived risk and see what people do. And what do you know, for all the wrong reasons, we are finding ourselves right in the middle of that experiment.
I have not been cycling as much since lockdown began because I have been working from home rather than commuting into the city centre, but when I have gone out, it has been a revelation. There have been very few cars and those that remain have been mainly very well behaved. Perhaps they have learnt something about giving space to others from the 2m social separation rule, and are applying this to their driving too? They have also become more patient – waiting until there is room to pass instead of squeezing by, too close. And finally, nearly all the lockdown cars I have seen have been travelling at a sensible, non-threatening speed.
So, the causes of perceived risk have gone away. Has it changed cycling? It looks as if it has. The Courier reported that cycling in Dundee has doubled during lockdown, and that is even though many existing regular cyclists like me will have stopped their regular commute. When I have gone out cycling or running, cyclists seem to be much more prominent than before and many of the cyclists are wearing their normal clothes. These are normal people finally feeling able to venture out onto Dundee’s roads on their cycles.
I would say the conclusion is pretty clear. Make the roads feel safe and you unleash people’s desire to cycle. If the volume and speed of cars can be made to stay low enough as we all return to our workplaces over the coming months, then these newly-emboldened cyclists will become used to their new choice of transport. They will have realised that they feel fitter and healthier, and that even the occasional wet or windy day (yes Dundee does have these sometimes, but not as often as you might think) is not enough to put them off. A habit once formed is hard to break.
This brings us back to the question, what do Amsterdam and Copenhagen have that Dundee doesn’t? Those two cities made deliberate decisions to make their roads feel safer for cycling and have been building on that for many years since. The lockdown has done something similar for Dundee, but what will happen as we return to work over the coming months? If nothing changes on our roads, then the answer is that all these new cyclists will be scared away again.
Luckily, the Scottish Government is providing money for councils to make their areas more suitable for people travelling by cycle, on foot and wheeling. It’s called “Space for People”. Dundee has been awarded some of this funding and will make some important changes. It is a start, but they need to go back and ask for more funding to make bolder changes. If this opportunity can be grasped, then Dundee can join the growing number of cities embracing a cleaner, healthier transport system, where people are no longer being scared away from making the choice they want: to cycle, like a normal person.
* I got the statistics from https://www.cyclinguk.org/statistics.
* And I have nothing against Lycra-clad cyclists, it is simply that you do not have a city where cycling has been normalised until people stop feeling they have to put on sports wear before they set out.