Is Bristol a cycle friendly city?

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As a recent addition to The Landmark Practice, I am very grateful that I can and choose to cycle to work every day. Each morning, whatever the weather, I leave my house in Easton to weave along the Bristol to Bath bike path and head to the office in Hotwells.

This bike path runs from the centre of Bristol, passes through Mangotsfield, Warmley and Saltford before arriving in the heart of Bath. It’s hugely useful, not only to cycle between these two cities but as a link within Bristol itself. The route was the first major project undertaken by Sustrans and is open to walkers and cyclists alike, with disabled access provided. The path also features a number of interesting sculptures and rest stops. It’s a great amenity and allows me to share my daily commute with a cross section of cyclists, ranging from lycra clad enthusiasts to gangs of giddy school kids. It’s enjoyable to cycle and not have to worry about cars.  The increased number of cyclists at rush hour does, nonetheless, mean you have to be on high alert for other cyclists.

As a relative newcomer to Bristol (this October marking a year living in this green city), I can’t help but compare Bristol to other cities which I have explored on two wheels. It makes me wonder whether Bristol is, in fact, truly bike friendly?

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Bristol cycling facts

At a first glance the facts look impressive. In 2008 Bristol was named Briton’s first ‘cycling city’.  There was a 94% increase in cycle commuters between 2001 and 2011, and the Council ́s adopted a “cycling manifesto” in 2015, pledging to spend £35 million by 2020 with the aim of boosting the percentage of journeys made on two wheels from 8% to 20%.

A 2010 Cycling Plus survey ranked Bristol as the “number one cycling city”, and the city also came out on top in terms of cycle parking per head of population.  Bristol was lauded as a cycle friendly city and Bristol’s ‘cycle friendly’ streets were a contributing factor to it being awarded European Green Capital for 2015.

In terms of usage, and according to Sustrans report ‘Bike Life 2015’:

  • There are 18 million bike trips in Bristol in a year;
  • 31% of people ride a bike once a month or more;
  • 8 in 10 people support increasing the safety of cycling – more than for any other way of getting around the city;
  • 70% of people want to see more spent on cycling; and
  • In terms of indirect benefits, it is estimated that there is a £28.5 million saving to health in the city.   Based on current levels it is considered that 11,755 tonnes of CO2 per annum is saved by people making trips by riding a bike rather than driving – equivalent to the annual emissions of around 4,629 cars. For each individual and to the local economy there is a saving of £0.67 for every mile biked instead of driven – which works out at over £26 million a year for Bristol at current levels of cycling.

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Cycling organisations

There is no shortage of helpful and encouraging cycling organisations, such as the Bristol Bike Project, an excellent set up to get bikes fixed or use the workshop space for a nominal fee. I can personally vouch for this scheme through which I refurbished my second hand bike to working order for next to nothing. Other organisations include Life Cycle UK, a similar charity which helps to unlock the benefits of cycling and Roll for the Soul, a not-for-profit café, bike workshop and event space. The latter celebrate and support people who customise and fix bikes, and the DIY culture more generally. You can now rent a folding Brompton bike from Bristol Temple Meads for as little as £2.50 per day and drop it back at a number of locations. In the same station there is the Bristol Bike Shack where you can get a repair, rent a bike anything you might need really.

These organisations make cycling more accessible and genuinely more achievable to all, providing a no excuses scenario. One thing is clear, people of Bristol tend to get involved in schemes like this and get behind these grass roots movements. So in many ways the intention and want is there but, is the infrastructure in place.

Sustrans

At national level, Sustrans, a leading UK charity championing sustainable transport, makes a huge difference. Sustrans is collaborating with seven cities in the UK – Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Greater Manchester and Newcastle to report on progress towards making cycling an attractive and everyday means of travel.

‘We’re the charity that’s enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day.’                    

Sustrans work with the community, policy-makers and partner organisations so that people are able to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys, with better places and spaces to move through and live in. Their vision is that by 2020, four out of five local journeys are to be made by bike, foot or public transport, thereby doubling the current figure.

Sustrans is, without doubt, an impressive organisation which delivers excellent work. Is it, however, the job of a charity to be responsible for delivering essential cycling infrastructure?  Is it not the function of the government and local authority to deliver the overarching strategic job of managing investment in sustainable transport?

Safety

Central and local governments in the UK spend around £300 per person on transport every year. Of this about £3 per person is spent on cycling, rising to £10 per person in some cities.

Many people that I talk to claim that cycling safety is a major concern to them, and a barrier to taking up regular cycling.   According to the Bike Life Survey 2015, whilst 61% of people think Bristol is a good place to ride a bike overall, only 31% of people rate cycling safety in Bristol as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, and only 22% of people believe that safety for children riding a bike is ‘good’ or ‘very good’.  80% of residents want better safety for people riding bikes.

Better safety requires more investment. Across the seven cities involved in Bike Life, the average that people want government to be spending on cycling is £26 per person per year, quite a bit more than the £10 per head currently invested.

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Competing with motorists

The facts, figures and best intentions are undoubtedly laudable in a climate of tight public sector budgets. When faced with the challenge of completely overhauling a city ́s infrastructure and transport system, however, is it actually possible for a city such as Bristol to  turn away from decades of car focused planning and invest in a network that favours cyclists?

The city’s narrow, dense network of roads was not designed for cars, let alone cars, buses and cyclists. Nor, however, were cities in well know cycling nations like Holland and Denmark, until investments were made to promote cycling. We have a lot of catching up to do with the underlying culture of these European cites, which is to prioritise cycling over other modes of transport in cities.  As an example, Denmark became a cycling nation because;

Gradually it became clear to most people that the solution to the problems had to be city planning that gave space to cars, bicycles, pedestrians and public transport. Out of this realisation grew the Danish model with its extended network of cycle lanes along the roads, which continues to be further developed. In the last 10 years, new challenges have emerged. In Denmark, as in other countries, there is a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. In Copenhagen and several other Danish cities it has led to an intensified effort to maintain and strengthen cycling culture.’

Achieving a genuinely ‘Cycling City’

Cycling in wealthy nations like Denmark and Holland is an active additional choice for commuters and recreation cyclists.   We need to learn from this, and to understand that cultural change is as important to making cycling a safe, easy and attractive option, as changing the transport infrastructure. .

Implementation and championing of cycling as the preferred mode of transport for many residents is not going to be achieved overnight, but the simple and important message is the need to prioritise cycling as a realistic mode of travel. This switch changes everything.  If tomorrow everyone in Bristol decided to take their bike to work, and continued to do so, the roads would be a very different environment for all users, and there would be an urgent need for new bike lanes, improved signage, lighting and so on.

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September 14th was #CycleToWorkDay which we took part in at the Landmark office.

So is Bristol a cycle friendly city? Yes, Bristol has excellent intentions and the vibrant cycle scene and culture is clear. Since living here I’ve seen as many parents with children being towed behind them as I have in my whole life. Hard work is clearly being done by the Council, Sustrans and grass roots organisations, but the benefit of that effort is still hindered – by congestion, the need for more cycle routes and more education.  More work needs to be done and greater encouragement given to people to get on their bikes.

Figures show whilst that some 31% of people do not want to ride a bike, a further 25% say that whilst they don’t currently ride a bike, they’d like to. Combined with new, returning, and occasional bike riders, 51% of people in Bristol could potentially begin to ride a bike or ride their bike more.

In Bristol there is something for everyone, whatever their bike, its type, age and colour, including riverside and country rides for leisure and pleasure, and an extensive and growing network of city centre cycle routes. I feel fortunate to be in a city with a focus on cycling and, in spite of the steepest of hills, I will continue to explore.

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