Wednesday 30 January 2013

Reflections on Census statistics for cycling

The Office for National Statistics has just published another selection of data tables from the 2011 Census.  You can find the latest list on their website here.
I have linked directly to page 4 of today’s list, as this is where you will find table QS701EW  - Method of travel to work, local authorities in England and Wales.  (It is the 7th down from the top).

The excel spreadsheet you can open from here shows information for all 392 local authority areas in England and Wales.  Most of these are boroughs within counties, although some are Unitary Authorities, such as the London boroughs, and cities such as Portsmouth.  The borough of Waverley in the south-west of Surrey is at line 382 of the spreadsheet, which is organised firstly by region, then by unitary authority followed by counties in each region.

I performed a couple of additional analyses on this spreadsheet.  Firstly I created a set of columns to show the percentage of people using each transport mode as a percentage of all working people, ie factoring out non-working people.  I could have also factored out those who work at home, and so don’t actually travel to work, but their percentages are generally small and wouldn’t make much difference to the results.  Secondly, I did a data sort to rank all areas by reference to the percentage travelling to work by bicycle.

Unsurprisingly, the top two places in the rankings were claimed by Cambridge, then Oxford, on 29.9% and 17.7% respectively.  You get the same ranking when you look at a slightly different question, which is the number of people who cycle 5 or more times per week.  Of course both areas are relatively flat and have large student populations, most of whom cannot afford a car, even if they are permitted to keep one in the town – they certainly were not in my Oxford days – and distances in the cities are relatively short.

Following close behind is the London Borough of Hackney, at 14.4%.  Hackney has one of the most developed cycle infrastructures in the country, as well as the other advantages of relative flatness, shortish distances by rural standards, and the speed advantage which a bicycle enjoys over cars only in the very most congested environments.

Also highly placed are Gosport, my home town on the south coast, at 10.8%, and its next-door neighbour across the harbour, Portsmouth, at 7.5%.  Both have specific historical and geographical factors influencing the use of bicycles but both have also invested quite heavily in cycle-friendly infrastructure, primarily off-road cycle tracks linking major housing areas with schools and the town centre in Gosport, and a blanket city-wide 20mph limit – generally judged to be a great success in terms of frequency and severity of collisions even if it hasn’t actually brought average speeds quite down to 20mph yet -  in Portsmouth.

So, how does Waverley fare?  Not well.  It ranks 272nd out of 392, with a miserable 1.6% commuting by bicycle.

(I was actually quite surprised to see how few people commute by train in Waverley.  6,656, or 11.3%, compared with 60% who drive themselves.  I had always imagined far more of our neighbours worked in the City, and I find it hard to imagine that many of those would drive all the way there.  If they think parking is bad/expensive in Haslemere, they should see Westminster or City of London conditions!)

It probably isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.  The question posed was what was the primary mode of travel to work, not what modes are used for all “journey stages”.  Accordingly, my estimate of perhaps 250 people who cycle to a railway station (of which there are six in the borough) and park their bikes there, and perhaps 75-100 people who, like me, carry a folding bike onto the train, are not counted.  Also not counted are those who pick up a hire bike at Waterloo, or a few who have bikes locked up in the bike racks just outside the concourse.  They may of course be the same people as ride to their local station and lock up there (because taking a non-folding bike on South West Trains is a truly depressing experience, unlike in most European countries) but I do have one good friend who drives to the station, parks in Weydown Rd, and uses a “Boris Bike” to get from Waterloo to her job in Hackney.  If you were to add these to the 916 Census respondents who reported they commute by bike, the ratio does improve a bit, to a little over 2%.

However, it does reflect how uninviting it is to cycle on Surrey Roads.  No doubt part of that can be put down to terrain – hauling your ass back up Haste Hill or Woolmer Hill is not for the faint-hearted – but much of it is entirely man-made, with poorly maintained roads on which speed limits are too high and in any case are never enforced by our local police, and with almost negligible concessions to non-motorised road users.  After all, significant parts of the borough are not so very lumpy, and around some of the stations on the Portsmouth-Waterloo line the morning peak traffic can be extremely congested and car parking hard to find at any price, you’d think a bicycle would start to look quite attractive, wouldn’t you?

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