Cycling Popularity in Britain Compared to Belgium and Netherlands

Posted by tan xiao yan on

In Belgium and Netherlands, almost everywhere is designed to have cyclists in mind, larger motorways will have a detached cycling road next to it, and smaller roads will have a colored part, usually red, signifying that that is meant for cyclists. Some roundabouts are designed so that cyclists have the right of way before a car. See the triangles telling cars to stop for oncoming cyclists. People of all age groups cycle to school or work, vehicles go around them carefully and the drivers don’t seem to moan or complain constantly.

In the UK, there are hardly any cycling facilities. Roundabouts are dangerous for cyclists. What you can see most are probably aggressive behaviors from both sides constantly trading accusations. Therefore, generally speaking, the cycling popularity in Britain is not as widespread as that in Belgium and Netherlands. The following points implicate how the differences come into being.

Horrible road conditions.
Hills are common in the UK. Even if you have a mountain bike with absorbent suspension, some roads in the UK are terribly rough, shaking the filling out of your teeth and causing you to lose balance, and the problem is amplified if you want to ride a racing bike, being physically sore with painful wrists is not amusing to tolerate, especially if you have 8 hours of manual labor to do afterwards.

cycling popularity, UK, uphill

The infrastructure in the UK varies wildly.
Each town, city, county, region and nation of the UK has its own cycle strategy and funding priorities. London, for example, is now investing heavily on segregating as much of its cycle network as possible and redesigning junctions to keep cyclists as far away from cars and lorries as they can. However, go only a few miles to an outer borough of London like Bromley or Enfield and the picture changes rapidly as they both have different views on how to implement cycle friendly roads or pavements. Go only 10–15 miles outside of London and you’ll see Essex, Kent and Surrey (to name a few of the ‘home counties’) all have different priorities and spend accordingly.

The result is that there are about 500+ different views on how to implement cycle safety and make cycling more attractive. There isn’t any joined up thinking to everything from cycling infrastructure (cycle hire, segregated lanes, etc.) to advertising means that Paris - a city which is actually really awful to cycle in - beats London in the global rankings despite the latter literally bending over backward to accommodate cyclists.

Contrast this with Copenhagen and the surrounding towns and areas for miles have a joined up segregated cycling system with traffic lights, etc. In Taastrup - almost 10 to 12km away from the city center - and there was a direct segregated cycle lane heading out all the way. Completely different to how things are planned and executed in the UK.

cycling popularity, UK, bike lane

The culture is different.
In Europe, cycling is seen as an egalitarian mode of transport. You get any old bike, hop on and off you go. If there is a cheap form of cycle hire like in Paris then even better!

In the UK it is rather different. Class does play a role I believe because the more you spend on your bike and your kit (lights, clothes, lights, helmet, etc.) the better you look amongst your mates. It’s seen partially as a way of showing off and a form of exercise. So you’re more likely to be crowded by lots of people on racing bikes in lycra than some scruffy guy or girl meandering their way to work on a bike that wouldn’t look out of place in a WW2 film.

Lots of money, testosterone, and stress mean a bit of a toxic cycling environment. Also, there is a lot of resentment against car drivers (and vice versa) which means road rage between cyclists and other road users is very high. You simply don’t get this on the continent even when cyclists have to share the road with other users like drivers.

Other modes of transport are very competitive.
In London, buses, trains the tube are all cheap, reliable and extremely frequent. The Mayor of London has introduced a “hoppa fare” (basically two for one bus journeys). So why cycle when you can just jump onto the tube or the DLR and get there just as quick? Add into that Uber and Gett (the black cab app) and there are so many other alternatives to cycling in London.

cycling popularity, UK, bus

Elsewhere the same is true but to a lesser extent. People in Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield are more likely to use the bus, train or the tram than cycle because the former are simply more convenient. In the UK our buses don’t have the seriously useful bike racks that American and Canadian buses do (something which SHOULD be implemented in Europe IMO if they aspire to be truly cycle -friendly). Cycle spaces on trains are sparse so most people tend to buy bikes and lock them up at the major train terminals in London, train it in and then cycle to their place of work instead. And that’s an optimistic scenario.

Other cyclists’ behaviors.
In the UK, there are two kinds of cyclists, those who need to get to work but do not have the luxury or privilege of having a car or in some cases anywhere to park. They stick to the cycle lane, treat the road as any other road user does and adhere to the rules. Then you have the lycra’s, SOME of whom believe themselves to be above the laws of the road, ignoring signals, blocking traffic by riding three or four abreast on narrow roads - thinking themselves athletes, when in truth many are rude obnoxious potbellied people to every other road user and that includes those of us who refuse to dress like a prat.

The weather.
cycling popularity, UK, rainy weather

Being a varied climate, you can get four different weathers over the course of an hour, which can be tricky to adapt you on the fly, going from 20 degrees C one moment then feeling it drop to 5 degrees C over the distance of a few miles is shocking, we get a lot of ‘micro climates’ in the UK that affect how you approach riding, riding without waterproof clothing is a bad idea even in summer, it is often windy too which can drain your energy rapidly.

Cycling can be fun, but the reality in Britain is very different to the idealistic images that we see from other European countries.