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Transport / Mass transit

Ignore the propaganda – getting to work on your own steam still isn't cool

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

It was the revolution that never happened.

David Cameron finished hugging a hoodie and jumped on his bike, nimbly rocking up to Westminster pink-faced and environmentally-friendly, and Boris Johnson guffed past the masses on his sturdy two-wheeled steed.

New Labour built London’s first pedestrian-only bridge, and spawned not only a generation of smug Banksiders walking to their banks, but an iconic Harry Potter moment.

You’ve seen the film… now walk the bridge! Image: Wikimedia Commons

And yet getting to work on your own steam still isn’t cool. The walk-to-work, cycle-scheme revolution never quite came to pass. The overwhelming majority of people in British cities still use either public transport or private vehicles to trudge the lonesome road from bed to desk and back again.

Exeter is an outlier when it comes to walking to work – 22 per cent reported doing so at the time of the 2011 census.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

But beyond that, the proportions trickle down through York, Brighton, Oxford, and Edinburgh to the doldrums, with most cities claiming about one in ten people as walk-to-workers, and around half of all British cities showing fewer than ten per cent walking to work.

And it’s not even like there’s any great improvement.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

Again, Exeter saw the greatest improvement by percentage point change from 2001 to 2011– but even that, at 3.4 per cent, isn’t gargantuan. Almost half of all cities in the UK actually saw a decline over the course of the decade, and only 11 cities managed to increase the proportion of those walking to work by more than one percentage point.

The picture isn’t much better for cyclists.

Impressions of cycling are enormously dominated and distorted by two heavyweight political cities – Oxford and Cambridge. The fact that these two cities produce so many politicians, cabinet ministers, and prime ministers through their two respective universities creates an impression amongst the ‘ruling classes’ that not only is cycling incredibly important to the nation’s continued ability to get around, but that there are millions of people across the country just dying to get on their bike and live the cycle-dream.

But the stats don’t back it up.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

Cambridge tears miles ahead of the pack, with a phenomenal 29 per cent cycling to work in 2011, while Oxford trails behind with a meagre 17 per cent. York follows, with 11 per cent, but beyond that – it’s a barren state of affairs. In all but ten cities, fewer than one in 20 people cycles to work, while there are 33 cities in the Centre for Cities’ data where fewer than one in 40 joins Boris and Dave’s crusade of getting on ‘yer’ bike.

Most telling of all is the fact that the percentage of people cycling to work actually fell in a strong majority of cities between 2001 and 2011.

Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities. 

The falls varied from Bradford, where the percentage point change over the decade was -0.1, to Hull, where cycling collapsed by 3.59 percentage points.

And although London, with its heavy focus on cycle lanes, infrastructure, Boris bikes, and encouraging propaganda, managed an increase of 1.5 percentage points, that boost has neither seen the huge numbers one might have hoped for, nor filtered through to the rest of the country in any meaningful way.

The Revolution Will Have Dodgy Brakes. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is, of course, a chance that these figures have changed radically since the last census – after all, five years is a long time in commuting. The 2021 census may show that a fifth of us on average are cycling to work, while another fifth are walking; figures that would represent a sea change in the way we get to the office, and would change the look and feel of our cities from traffic-clogged streets and body-odour-laden trains to slightly-less-clogged streets and severely-faded-morning-cologne. They may do. But they probably won’t.

And that matters. Cycling and walking to work save the planet – energy saved from the electricity used to power diesel and the fuel burnt to drive cars is all part of the bigger picture of the changes we need to make to our lives to stave off the worst effects of climate change, a pressing issue in a winter that has seen the lowest ever levels of sea ice in the Arctic.


Commuting on your own steam is cheaper, too. Indeed, bar the initial investment in a bike or a good pair of shoes – and the odd bit of resoling or bike-mending – it’s entirely free. Economically, that makes good things happen. People have more money to spend on meals out, more things in the shops, more holidays, and so on – and more spending means more economic happy-times.

And it’s healthier. With the NHS in the middle of whatever mess this is, whether you call it a ‘humanitarian crisis’ as the Red Cross does or just a ‘right royal f***-up’ as everyone else does, we all need to be doing our bit to keep the doctor away. That little bit of compulsory exercise every day, even if it’s just walking the mile to the office, or cycling the 2 miles to the desk, makes a huge difference.

So why aren’t we all doing it? 

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