Cycling suffering slump since coronavirus peak, figures show

Cycling on main roads in England has fallen by nearly a quarter from the peak recorded during coronavirus restrictions, Department for Transport (DfT) figures have revealed.

The DfT data demonstrates the surge in cycling – when Covid restrictions affected travel patterns – peaked in March 2021. The amount of cycling on main roads fell by 24.1 per cent from that time up to the end of 2022.

The decline has sparked concern that the government will fail to hit its own targets for increasing cycling activity.

However, the DfT added that cycling remains 11.1 per cent above pre-pandemic levels and had risen overall by 23.7 per cent since 2013. It has a long-standing target of doubling cycling numbers by 2025 compared with 2013 levels.

Chris Boardman, the former Olympic cyclist who heads government agency Active Travel England, said: “It’s great to see cycling in this country riding high at 11 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

“The movement for moving is catching on as more of us choose to ride bikes for everyday trips, putting the joy back into journeys. This is great for our health, it’s free transport and it helps us to be more connected to our communities. Everyone’s a winner.”

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at charity Cycling UK, said DfT plans to boost cycling and walking have consistently lacked funding.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Dollimore said: “Excellent strategies, guidance and design standards have never been supported with the investment the government knows is needed to get anywhere close to delivering those targets.

“Rather than celebrating a 23.7 per cent increase in cycling over eight years, the government should really be asking how it expects to achieve its own doubling targets in the next two years when it’s just cut dedicated capital funding for cycling and walking by two-thirds for that period.”

A reduction in active travel budgets was announced in March this year. This was despite the government announcing £2bn in financial support for 100 ‘levelling-up’ projects across the country, including new transportation infrastructure such as improved cycle routes in towns and cities.

In February this year, the Welsh government took the decision to scrap all major road-building projects in order to focus on infrastructure initiatives that “reduce carbon emissions and support a shift to public transport, walking and cycling” as part of the country’s ‘National Transport Plan’.

In England’s capital city, Transport for London (TfL) has been using the ultra-low emission zone (Ulez) as a stick-and-carrot approach to encourage people to move away from driving polluting vehicles and to walk and cycle more in order to improve overall air quality.

After the Ulez was first launched in April 2019, TfL figures suggested that the number of the most polluting vehicles had fallen by one-third within a matter of months, as people were nudged to walk, cycle or use public transport.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw a rise in cycling activity, as the DfT figures highlighted today. In tandem with this increased participation, investment in cycling infrastructure also scaled new heights.

However, although the pandemic helped to build new cycling infrastructure in towns and cities across Europe – with around €1bn ploughed into measures such as car-free sections, cycle lanes, traffic-calming zones and wider pavements – it failed to help where cyclist deaths were highest, according to data analysis by E&T.

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