17 April 2009

Bike boom? No, says Social Trends 39

Social Trends 39, the latest snapshot of UK life in figures from the government's National Statistics office, has just been published. The data go up to 2007. Many newspapers, and the BBC website, followed the office's press-release headline of 'one-third of men live with their mums', but in the transport section there are several entries about bikes and bike use that are worth downloading the full report (3MB, PDF) for.

For example:
* The number of reported stolen bikes was 0.4m in 2007-08 (out of 10.1m reported crimes overall): about the same as the previous three years, compared with 0.2m in 1981 and 0.7m in 1995.
* Car use has more than doubled since 1971 while bike use has stayed the same. Total passenger kilometres travelled by car rose from 313bn in 1971 to 689bn in 2007; the bike figure stayed constant at 4bn. (Bike boom? What bike boom? Maybe it's just a London thing...)
* Over the last dozen years, distance travelled by all forms of transport has stayed about the same, though bike use has dipped a bit and rail use risen noticeably.
* Richer households do three times as much mileage by car as poor households (so it isn't true that more expensive motoring 'hits the poor harder')
* Motoring costs overall have nearly doubled since 1987, with cheaper cars offsetting big rises in tax, insurance and petrol. Rail fares have nearly tripled. They don't give prices for bikes but a rough guess suggests it's cheaper or about the same.
* Since 1981, the chances of a fatal accident by distance travelled has halved for cyclists, walkers and cars. In 2007 the rate of cyclist deaths was 31.5 per billion kilometres, compared with 2.5 for cars, 106.7 for motorbikes, and 35.5 for pedestrians.

So, you can expect to cycle 30m kilometres before a fatal accident. Which means, even cycling everywhere every day, I should be OK for the next 4,000 years.


  1. No boom: you're forgetting that cycling *declined* a lot in the 70s and 80s. For it to be back up to its level in 1971 is pretty impressive. Although of course if you consider that the population has increased over that time it's still a fall in percentage of people cycling.

    Of course the increase in cycling in London isn't typical of the rest of the country anyway.

    And just because poorer households are hit by 1/3 as much total cost if you increase the cost of driving on a per mile basis that doesn't mean it's not a larger proportion of their total spending. You can't tell whether it would make more or less difference to them until you know how much of their budget is already devoted to motoring.

  2. You speculate that since 1987 cycling costs have become "cheaper or about the same". I don't know how much of the cost of cycling is the capital cost of the bicycle itself, but in that year I bought a Dawes Galaxy bike for £384. (Two decades later it remains my vehicle of choice for getting about town). The same shop now sells it for £899. Now I know this is a long-running brand rather than a bike, but it would suggest that the cost of a bike has roughly doubled in the last 22 years.

  3. @lnr... According to Social Trends 39 (page 176), cycling levels (as they measure them, however that is) stayed pretty constant even through the 1970s and 1980s at 4 or 5 billion passenger kilometres: one part of society, it seems, where there really was no boom or bust.

    Certainly those figures don't reflect the experience anyone who cycles regularly in London - as you suggest, it feels here like there was a dip in the 1980s and 1990s and a steady growth since 1999.

    How hard a rise in motoring costs would hit poor families is hard to say without knowing things such as what alternatives they have. But I wanted to make the point that a frequent objection to any rise in car taxes is that it will 'hit the poor', which certainly isn't supported by the figures in ST39.

    I suspect most of the people making that complaint are among the 27 per cent of households that have two or more cars, who - ST39 suggests - are the ones most likely to be able to afford higher taxes. The fact that car use has doubled as costs have doubled in the last few years suggests that few people are being priced off the roads.

    @Nigel... All the figures quoted are relative to inflation. So, on the same relative basis as figures for cars and buses and so on, a rise in price of your Dawes from £384 to £899 is not a doubling, but a much smaller rise of (at a guess) something like 10-15 per cent.

    That said, I grant that you're right: basic cycling costs (bike, parts) may well have increased a bit and labour costs probably a bit more (though nowhere near a doubling, I think).

    But I don't doubt that people spend a lot more *in total* on cycling-related stuff that they didn't buy 25 years ago, such as helmets, visibility stuff, 5-kW lights, bombproof D locks, etc.

  4. Ah, you didn't mention that the figures were adjusted for inflation, though perhaps I should have guessed. In that case I'd certainly agree with you that cycling costs have stayed much the same.

    For what it's worth, I'm still using the same Citadel D-lock as I bought (for £35) 22 years ago. And I live in one of the bike theft hotspots of Britain.

    One other thing: the introduction of LED lights means that I spend far less on batteries than I did in the old days.

  5. @Nigel...I'm still using the same Citadel D lock bought in 1984! The first key wore out in 2008. Second one works fine.