Research suggests a new era of cycling may be here to stay

Issue date: 31 August 2010


Cyclists What with the rise of the Middle Aged Men in Lycra (MAMILS), Boris Johnson's newly opened Cycle Superhighways in London, Clare Balding's new BBC4 series on cycling tourism, and the outstanding sporting success of Mark Cavendish in this year's Tour de France, could we be forgiven for thinking the UK is on the cusp of a new era of cycling?

This was the question asked by a team of academics at the Bristol Social Marketing Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE).

Professor Alan Tapp with colleagues Fi Spotswood and Sarah Leonard commissioned YouGov to undertake a UK wide survey that asked: what do British people really think about cycling? Their research investigated the opinions about cycling amongst a representative UK sample of adults. 3,885 people aged 16-64 were interviewed in early summer 2010.

Professor Tapp comments, “We wanted to find out if cycling is still the 'poor man's transport' populated by badly dressed social misfits muttering about gear ratios, or a fashionable activity of good looking people who rock up to the office with the latest carbon frame. We asked questions about how congestion, global warming and ever rising fuel prices might persuade us out of our cars and back onto two wheels.

“Our findings suggest that most people see Jeremy Clarkson-esque critics of cycling as missing the point. An impressive 42% of the British public think that 'cycling has become cool nowadays', and, good news for those forty-something men with mid-life crises, 38% agree that bike technology is much sexier nowadays. Perhaps surprisingly there was also encouragement for government initiatives, with 43% agreeing that 'there's a new push by the government towards getting people to cycle'.

“These pro cycling feelings might be a symptom of traffic jam stress as much as anything. A whopping 43% of us agreed that 'When I'm stuck in a traffic jam I sometimes wish I were cycling'. The success of the likes of Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish might be rubbing off on us as well: a surprising 18% of us admit that 'The success of British cyclists has encouraged me to think about cycling more myself'.

“But cycling lobbies can't quite break out the champagne just yet. It was quite clear from the study that Britain is still a divided nation over cycling, with a die-hard 28% of people agreeing that 'roads are for cars not bikes'. In fact, only 12% of us cycle quite or very often (once a week or more). What's for sure is that getting over our love of cars isn't going to be easy: 54% say 'I would not support any measure that penalises car use'. Perhaps the divided nation theory is best highlighted by the finding that 39% agree that 'global warming has been exaggerated 'with a similar number, 38%, disagreeing.

“Can things get better for cyclists? Well, we could certainly use our Olympic and Tour de France heroes to help us market cycling as a way of getting about. After all, at the moment, more people recognised David Cameron (picked out by 59%) as a cyclist than Chris Hoy (53%), and Boris Johnson (48%) was a more famous cyclist than Victoria Pendleton (27%).”

“Commuter cyclists not serious career people”

Accepting that the UK is still dominated by a 'car culture', the researchers investigated whether UK cyclists see themselves as a breed apart. How do cyclists see themselves, and what do the motoring majority think of them?

Findings suggest that the way cyclists see themselves isn't always matched by how outsiders see them.

Cyclists see themselves as independent minded and free spirited, environmentally aware, adventurous, and even a bit rebellious. They are also less likely to see themselves as conventional or boring. But a different picture emerges when non-cycling people were asked what they thought of cyclists.

Some descriptions such as fitness conscious and independent minded were not surprising but interestingly the general public thought that cyclists were less happy than they were- perhaps because they see cyclists getting wet and cold.

Professor Tapp concludes, “We were also surprised to find that cyclists were seen as lazy and non-cyclists perceive cyclists as less hard working than they are. Maybe the perception is that if you are a serious career professional in the UK, you don't cycle – you drive a 5 series instead.”

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