Considerate Cycling 39: How much cycling is there in Bristol?


With the publication of the Bristol Cycling Manifesto “Freedom To Ride” and the launch of a petition to support it, I have been having lots of conversations with people in Bristol about our hopes for big increases in the number of people who choose to cycle. Questions about how many people already cycle, and how many used to cycle crop up regularly. So what data have we got, and how confident can we be with the numbers?

The most up to date figures that cover the whole of Bristol come from the Active People Survey. This is a household telephone survey run by Sport England that enables us to make national and local comparisons. Reports and data from 2010/11 and 2011/12 are available on the UK Government publications site. Samples of about 500 households in each local authority are used for this survey so we can be confident that actual numbers revealed are within a couple of percentage points of the numbers that would be gained from polling all households.

Each of the following graphs compare percentages in Bristol with those in neighbouring authorities and in the other “core cities” of England that Bristol would see as its real peers. Figures for adults who say that they cycle at last once a month (for any reason) and for those who say they cycle at least once a week (for any reason) are shown here. It’s important to note that these are people who cycle “for any purpose”. Leisure, fitness, commuting, shopping, company … anything. Cycling is an activity in its own right, it’s also a means to other ends or places.

At least once a week last year

Figure 1. Proportion of residents who cycled (any length or purpose) at least once a month in England’s 8 core cities (plus Bath and East Somerset, North Somerset, and South Gloucester during 2010/11

At least once a month last year

Figure 2 Proportion of residents who cycled (any length or purpose) at least once a month in England’s 8 core cities (plus Bath and East Somerset, North Somerset, and South Gloucester during 2011/12

Compared to places Bristol should compare itself to, the red bars in all those graphs makes the city looks like a bona fide candidate for its claim to be a “Cycling City”. As a journalist might shout: “A quarter of all Bristolians Get On Their Bikes Once a Month!”

But that’s journalism for you: mere fingers pointing at truth, not the truth, or the whole truth, every time. Detail and caution are needed too. A recent blog from Chris Mason at Cycle Jump looked at National Census data. The Census gives us detailed information about every household every ten years and its summary tables can be explored at fine levels of detail. Chris was able to use mapping tools to illustrate patterns of commuter cycling among residents of small areas across the City. This time, comparisons are between 2001 and 2011. The most striking figure that Chris gives is that in 2011 7.7% of adult Bristol residents reported that they usually cycled to work.

The Census data can be interrogated in a variety of ways. For the graphs that follow I have compared the same set of cities and neighbours as above, but I have recalculated a percentage figure that shows what proportion of those adult residents of Bristol who did go out to work normally used a bicycle. In a blog in February 2013 I compared levels of cycling to work against other modes, using a different base for the calculation. Figure 5 represents, I think, a conservative indication of the proportions of Bristolian commuters who usually cycled to work in 2001 and 2011.

Percentage of Commuters Who “Usually” Cycled to Work in 2001 and in 2011


Figure 3. Percentage of commuting residents who usually cycled to work in England’s 8 core cities (plus Bath and East Somerset, North Somerset, and South Gloucester according to census data from 2001 and 2011

Looking at these numbers and the numbers who use bikes for other purposes any city planner with an eye to congestion and pollution targets (never mind public health and general well-being) should be accelerating plans for putting a big chunk of every transport or development project into meeting the existing demand for cycling and (as happened with car use) encouraging it to grow even faster than the infrastructure. Getting more benefit for less resources really shouldn’t be a dilemma for local authorities. Their citizens who are trapped with no alternative but the car will at least have roads that are less congested if cycling takes more of the pressure. Those who simply like driving to work will enjoy it more and find it safer.

The eager headline from the Census data could justifiably have been “Bristol cyclists increase their share of commuting traffic by 113%!!

The important thing is that there are already plenty of people who would cycle if it looked less of a challenge, people who already have bikes which they really do use on a sporadic basis. Making it easier for them to cycle to work should be an easy priority to establish. Indirect outcomes would proliferate. The school run, for example, could more easily become a family run on the bikes. All that is preventing the next step change is lack of courage to make it happen.

Some headline-worthy statistics about cycling in Bristol

  • On census day in 2011 16,211 Bristolians said that they usually cycled to work. (1 in 12 of the 104,729 who traveled to work at that time).
  • A telephone survey for HM Government indicated that in 2012 nearly a quarter of adult Bristolians cycled at least once a month for one reason or another. That’s about 100,000 of the adult population of the City.
  • Bristol City Council Data collected by observers between 2010 and 2013 show that at peak times there were over 10,000 cyclists on Bristol roads. 7% of all city traffic measured at these times were cyclists.
  • Across the city, some routes carry 300-500 cyclists per hour.
  • At four busy points on roads into the city cyclists constitute over a quarter of all traffic during peak hours.
  • Between 2001 and 2011 the number of cars owned by Bristol households went up by 15%, from 165,334 to 190,530. 7
  • In the same period the number of households with no car increased by 13%, from 46,674 to 52814. 8
  • The Ward with the highest proportion of workers cycling as part of their daily commute is Ashley, with 1,381 cycling (17% of those travelling to work from the Ward).
  • The Ward with the lowest proportion of workers cycling as part of their daily commute is Whitchurch Park, with 102 cycling (2.3% of those travelling to work from the Ward).
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