The government should not encourage people to walk and cycle

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you might think that the site has been hacked, or that I’ve gone mad, or that there’s a mistake in the headline.

But you have, in fact, read it correctly. The government should not be encouraging people to walk or cycle. They should be changing the way our roads and streets are designed in such a way that people will want to walk or cycle.

Having read today’s news reports about how 29 000 people die due to air pollution in the UK every year — most of it motor vehicle emissions — the reported solution has the right goal, but the wrong method.

The report says that the government must “encourage” people to make more of their journeys on foot or by bike.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of the report to suggest how this might be achieved, but this word “encouragement” is dangerous. What would “encouragement” entail? A poster campaign, or maybe even a TV advert if the budget stretched that far. It might mean some sort of tax break on bike purchase, or free cycle training sessions. At best it might mean a few 20mph zones and toucan crossings.

We need to do more than this to solve this problem. For more than 60 years now the country has been designed and built with motor vehicles in mind. That is the reason that so many choose to drive even for very short journeys.

Why would somebody choose to walk the half-mile to the shops if they have to wait at three or four separate ‘red man’ lights to cross one road, while their neighbour who took the car gets to cross the same junction in one go?

A road in Leeds, with a huge central reservation which must be walked along in the middle.

A safe, convenient and pleasant walking environment? No. This is one reason why my five year old niece is driven one mile to school. (Photo: Google Maps)

Why would anybody choose to cycle on a road designed for driving at high speeds, with multiple lanes and wide-mouthed junctions designed to enable speedy motoring? It’s perfectly normal and reasonable to not want to ride a bike amongst large, fast, dangerous machines.

A man on a bike overtakes a stopped bus as cars overtake him.

Is it any wonder so few in the UK choose to travel by bike, when the conditions for it are so poor?

“Encouragement” has been tried before – indeed, we’ve had little else – and there’s been no discernible effect. So “encouragement” is the wrong thing. What is the right thing?

Walking and cycling need to be made the obvious choice for short journeys. People need to feel that walking or cycling is a safe, pleasant and convenient way to get from home to shop, work to pub, cinema to home. If walking and cycling feel like a dangerous hassle, as they very often do now, why should anybody do it? It’s the environment that dictates our choices, not some wagging-finger poster campaign or motivational slogans.

If we are to bring down those 29 000 annual deaths — that’s 79 per day, one person dead every 18 minutes just from pollution, we’re not even counting all the deaths from traffic collisions and inactivity — the only way to do it is not by badgering and hectoring people into doing something unpleasant, but by making those modes of transport the obvious choice – safe, easy, attractive, and convenient.

Active travel doesn’t need encouraging, it needs enabling.

Dutch families on bikes on a cycle path at a junction. In the foreground we can see a teenage boy on a bike, next to him is his mother with the younger brother sat in a child seat on the back of her bike. Further away is another mother with her children in a box-bike.

These families have chosen to use a bike for this journey because the dense network of cycle paths make it a safe, easy and convenient option — and not because of some poster campaign or training session. There are more photos like this here.


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15 responses to “The government should not encourage people to walk and cycle

  1. Gar

    You’ve made a deliberate mistake Schrodinger. It is 2,900 deaths not 29000, which sounds up on 2,8 since 2 years ago.

    “They should be changing the way our roads and streets are designed in such a way that people will want to walk or cycle.”

    Design and Law go hand in hand. The law with regard to the meaning of the word ‘vehicle’ in the context of push bicycles should be changed, especially with the liberal use of quite fast motorized wheel chairs on it. That change alone would transform the perspective of design immediately.

    A push bicycle, whether ridden or not, on the pavement, should not be a vehicle,(as in France), the same as motorized wheel chairs.

    Regulations could be applied without resorting to Act of parliament.
    Currently pushbike cycling on the pavement is usually honored in the breach by the police , but it creates serious friction between pedestrian and cyclist not knowing what their respective rights are.

    Commuter push bike cycling is quite specialized and your demands should be met.

  2. Gar

    Ah! AIR pollution not road accidents! sorry. I wonder!

  3. Your first photo is a lousy choice. There’s nothing in it which would put me off walking along that road. There’s a footpath on both sides, with a nice wide grass verge separating it from the road (wide enough to have a separate cycle path in fact!). What puts people off walking or cycling is narrow country lanes with no footpath on either side.

    • Sure there are worse places to walk, but this is in an urban area with housing estates on both sides and a primary school down the road to the right. Walking and cycling should be the obvious choice for the people making the journey of one mile or less.

      Can you really not see how inconvenient the council have made it for someone to walk from the left hand side of this photo to the right? You’d have to walk to that second set of lights, wait at the red man, cross to the middle, walk back towards the first set of lights, wait at the red man again, before finally getting to the other side.

    • A reason for walking or cycling needs specifying. Walking on roads in rural areas is not pleasant, but should I be walking from let’s say Albury, to my job in Guildford? On the other hand, for recreational excercise, problems with lack of footways are usually more than made up by pleasant off-road routes. If walking is recreational, many will drive to car parks like this from where they can enjoy excellent walks or (with bikes in the back of the car) off road cycling:,-0.360403&spn=0.010466,0.009592&t=m&z=16&layer=c&cbll=51.351469,-0.363268&panoid=R_A44dQqdzss0yClnMrKBw&cbp=12,238.29,,0,16.13

      More importantly, though, for a commute you don’t have to do your entire journey by one means of transport. Enabling multi-modal is maybe more likely to succeed than focussing on one mode i the UK. Except… the footways and carriageways are quite well developed in the UK. It is the cycling network that is in such a parlous state. The UK, to catch up with it’s high-cycling neighbours, needs a proper triple (foot, bike, motor), not dual (foot, vehicle) network, and this, as Gar says, would benefit from bicyles being declassified as vehcles and reclassified as … bicycles. I rest my case.

      In fact I aver that for commuting and increasing cycling modal share, the focus should be on enabling journeys to school. From that much else follows.

      PS according to–deaths-registered-in-england-and-wales–series-dr-/2012/sty-causes-of-death.html

      and Schrödinger’s Cat’s figures, including strokes, air pollution may account for as much as 1 in 7 deaths from cardiovascular problems in the UK, while exluding strokes this rises to 1 in 5. An epidemic. On current stats, most of this is affects the over 60’s, but how long will it be before it is affecting the over 50’s and younger? How’s that cough?

      PPS Encouragement does have its place too.

  4. Excellent article. We are well beyond encouragement. I started riding a bike again after 20 yrs and I love it. We need more slow streets for bikes.

  5. Sarah

    Broadly agree – change the environment (the physical environment and the legal/regulatory environment) to make walking and cycling more attractive (driving and parking even more tiresome than they already are) and people will adapt. But that’s not to stay that there’s no place for initiatives geared to speeding up the adapatation process. Skewed perceptions of reality and ingrained habits have to be challenged. Inertia and path dependence powerful.

    It’s interesting to see the emphasis on the environment, behaviour and how they interact in Copenhagen: “We also challenged some of our respondents to take the bicycle or train to work to test the hypothesis that the choice of transport is very much driven by habit and the idea that the bicycle is stigmatised without having their own experience.”

    If the bicycle is “stigmatised” even in Copenhagen, I would suggest that the return on investment from successful behavioural change campaigns geared to de-stigmatizing it in the UK could be impressive. That’s not an anti-infrastructure argument, of course, just one in favour of a multi-pronged approach.

    • We can’t begin to promote walking and cycling (especially cycling) until there’s somewhere to do it. I’m all for promoting cycling when there’s something to promote. But right now, we’d be suggesting that people ride bikes amongst motor vehicles travelling fast on busy roads.

  6. Andrew K

    They use weasel words like “encourage” because they don’t have the balls to commit to an actual target. Once you commit to a target, it means you have to keep trying new ideas until you reach it. They would soon learn that education campaigns do nothing if it means going against our instincts (of safety and convenience).

  7. Ian Macdonald

    I would agree that there is a major issue with country roads in particular lacking safe walking or cycling facilities. On many such roads the tarmac extends right up to the hedges, leaving no pedestrian refuge. This creates a situation where use of a car is mandatory for people living in villages.

    Though in cities -and on the kind of road in the first photo- speeding pavement cyclists have become a serious concern for pedestrians. The injuries inflicted by a collision may not be as serious as for a truck, but this activity, technically illegal but often tolerated, creates a toxic and unpleasant environment in which the walker has to constantly look over his or her shoulder for approaching danger. It’s a bit like as if you were crossing a road all of the time you are walking, and have to maintain that level of vigilance for your whole journey.

    It would be interesting to see a survey of how many people have stopped using footpaths due to the problem of misuse by cyclists. Or, more likely, forbidden their children to go on certain footpaths because of the risk of being struck by a speeding adult cyclist, which for a small could could easily be fatal, or might put them in a wheelchair for life.

    • I fail to see the relevance of your comment to this article, Ian! Who is talking about cycling on the footpath? Your comment sounds like some anti-cycling rant, to be honest.

      In fact, cycling on the footway isn’t illegal in the UK, though I’d argue that it’s not widely tolerated either. If people are riding on the footway then that means the road is unsuitable, and the solution is – again – to provide proper cycle paths.

      • Barney

        Cycling on the footway isn’t illegal? I thought it was banned by the Highway Act 1835, section 72. Although this was before the bicycle was invented, the term “carriage of any description” is now interpreted to include bicycles.

  8. Sarah

    The fist pitcure of the traffic lights and the person complaint about driving half a mile if the lights were there in the first place then I would not have been knocked over and scared for life and other kids would not have been hurt or killed these things save life’s just remember that the next time you strap your child into the car it could be you or child or both of you!

  9. Pingback: More Dutch cycling scenes in a British context | The Alternative Department for Transport

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