England's travel habits 2016: any surprises?

Cycling might be popular on the Downs Link, but how is it doing across the rest of England?
Cherry Allan's picture

England's travel habits 2016: any surprises?

Did cycling in England take a great leap forward in 2016? Or was it a great leap backward? Here Cycling UK Policy and Information Officer Cherry Allan scrutinises the latest National Travel Survey.

We're always looking out for signs of the promised cycling revolution, so each year we like to delve into the Department for Transport's annual survey of England’s travel habits. What are the figures telling us this year? Are there glimpses of a boom, or does 2016 looks much like 2015 all over again (just as 2015 looked much like 2014 all over again)? 

Cycling's share

In 2016, as in earlier years, 2% of trips and 1% of total mileage were cycled. Car/van travel remained the population's top choice, at two-thirds of trips and over three-quarters of total distance. No surprises here, then.

How many people own bicycles, and how often do they ride them?

Another figure that doesn’t change much from year to year is how many people aged five+ own bicycles – it’s still around two-fifths (42%).

How likely they are to take them out for a ride is never much of a surprise either, and 2016 is no different: 14% said they cycle at least once a week, just a slight drop on 2015 at 15%. While this 1% decrease is accompanied by a 1% rise in those who cycle less than once a year or never (65% in 2015, 66% in 2016), this needn’t trouble us too much for now given the small number of cycle trips overall. If there’s another drop next year and beyond, though, alarm bells will certainly start to ring.

How many cycle trips do people make each year and how many miles do they tot up? 

There was a slightly bigger change in the average number of trips cycled per person a year. It was 15 in 2016 down from 17 in 2015, but this number always fluctuates and, over the last 10 years, the average comes in at 16. In 1995/97, however, the average was 20 trips and it would be good to see this achieved again at the very least (it nearly got there in 2014, with 18).

People do seem to be making fewer trips in total nowadays, though, however they choose to travel. In 2002, they made an average of 886 trips each (excluding short walks of less than a mile), but in 2016 this figure dropped to 774 (-13%). Average distance travelled per year (again excluding short walks) dropped over this period too, from 7,104 miles to 6,396 (-10%).

Cycling distances, on the other hand, do seem to be creeping up. On average in 2016, people totted up 53 miles of cycling each, the same as in 2015, but the good news is that this is a whole 37% higher than in 2002. Interestingly, the average trip length in 2016 stood at 3.5 miles, half a mile up on 2015, and higher than it's been for years (in 1995/97 it was only 2.3 miles on average). 

Purpose and terrain

Most cycle trips (c.70%) in 2016 were for commuting or leisure purposes (leisure being defined as visiting friends, entertainment, sport, holiday or a day trip). Shopping and education purposes were next, but not very close contenders at c.12% and 11% respectively. This mirrors the distribution each year for the last decade and, indeed, back to 2002.

Over this period, the average number of trips made for each purpose per person remained remarkably stable, too - around six for commuting, five for leisure, two for shopping and the same for education. On its own, this implies that the increase in the average total cycling distance a year (see section above) isn't linked to any surge in any particular type of cycling activity - commuting, say.

Yet, in London at least, cycling has experienced a major renaissance over the last few years, with the number of daily average cycle stages and trips in 2015 making a leap of 63% from 2005. This is essentially a good news story for cycle commuting, but it doesn't seem to have got through to the NTS table on trip purpose, probably because a national survey can't quite pick up on changes happening locally.

Also, a separate NTS table on where people said they usually cycled over the last 12 months shows that riding 'mainly off the road in parks, open country or private land' continues to grow in popularity, now up by a huge 72% since 2002. This suggests that leisure/recreational cycling has been burgeoning for some time too, but unbeknownst to the trip purpose table.

In other words, we know that people are cycling more miles on average each year but, rather surprisingly, the trip purpose table doesn't help tell us why. Maybe putting in a few extra miles for health reasons comes into it?

As usual, more people said they usually cycled ‘mainly on the road’ in 2016 than ‘mainly on pavements, cycle paths or cycle lanes that were not part of a road’ - the share was 35% and 30% respectively. The difference, though, was much more marked back in 2002 (47% to 24%). The growing desire to cycle alongside the road rather than on it is probably linked to the misperception that cycling with other traffic is an especially risky thing to do: in 2015, 64% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey agreed, or strongly agreed, that, 'it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the road'. Thinking positively on the other hand, maybe the improved design of some segregated cycle facilities here and there is making them more attractive to use? 

Gender and age

Males, as always, still cycle three times as many trips as females (22 to 7 in 2016), even though the latter make more trips overall (927 to 981).

Again, given the small numbers, it’s hard to say whether the rise in the percentage of children aged 5-16 who usually cycle to school is anything to go by, but let’s take it as a positive for the time being. It’s a small increase - 2.9% in 2016 from 2.2% in 2015 - but we haven’t been able to round the figure up from 2% to 3% since 2009. More children cycling to secondary school seem to account for this (3.9% in 2016, and 2.1% in 2015).

More about the National Travel Survey

The above data come from the National Travel Survey (NTS), a long-running survey based on interviews and seven-day travel diaries, and involving around 18,000 individuals in about 7,000 households.

Other sources of data

There are other sources of travel data, though, and it's important to refer to them too. These are, principally, Road Traffic Estimates for Great Britain and the Active People Survey for England.

Road traffic estimates

Traffic estimates are based on counts so, unlike the NTS, they don’t and can't gather any information from individuals about their travel habits. Over the years, however, these estimates have mostly reported higher and steadier growth in cycle use than the NTS suggests. For instance, between 2015 and 2016, they suggest that cycle use rose by just over 6% and, over the last five years (2012-16), by 11% (from 3.11 billion miles, to 3.45) in Great Britain.   

Active People Survey

The Active People Survey (APS) is an annual household survey that collects data on the prevalence of walking and cycling at local authority level in England – so it’s a good way of checking up on whether or not cycling is booming where you live.

Figures for 2016 haven’t been released (they’re expected in September), so we don’t yet know whether or not they’ve identified an upturn in 2016 or otherwise. Generally speaking, though, the APS, which has reported on walking and cycling since 2010/11, has (like the NTS), uncovered little change nationally over recent years, although it has given some local authorities grounds to celebrate.

What's NTS 2016 telling us?

The latest National Travel Survey, then, seems to be telling us that cycling is ticking along but nothing much more spectacular than that. Bright spots, maybe, are an uplift in the distance people are cycling, and the percentage of children who are cycling to school (though it's early days to pronounce on the latter). 

Inevitably, there is a wide range of factors that influence levels of cycle use from year to year: the weather, fuel prices, population mix, the economy, to name but a few. Nevertheless, as Cycling UK has been saying for years now, the big boosts that cycling needs are higher levels of sustained funding and more Space for Cycling, so that people of all ages, gender and ability feel that cycling is for them, too.

For more on what we’re doing to help make this happen, see our latest round-up of Cycle Campaign News, and subscribe to our monthly bulletin. 

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