More people can cycle than can drive

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Kidical Mass Cropped Horiz

More people can cycle than can drive. It’s a fact that goes counter to our intuition in our car dominated world.

Department for Transport (DfT) statistics show that 75% of adults age 17+ hold a full driving licence (in 2022, the latest year available). No one under 17 can drive, so this is 41 million people, or 61% of the 67 million UK population that can drive.

The best comparative number for cycling comes from a survey by the British Heart Foundation, which found that seven out of eight (87%) of UK adults knew how to cycle, a far higher proportion than can drive. This is consistent with a DfT National Travel Attitudes Survey, which found that only 6% of people had never ridden a bicycle*. In addition, children as young as 4 or 5 ride bikes. Estimating on children riding bikes from 6 and up, gives 48 million adults and an additional 7 million children, a total of 55 million people in the UK, or 82% of the UK population.

Bar chart showing 41 people can drive, and 55 million can cycle, out of 67 million people in the UKIn short, 14 million, more than a third, more people can cycle than can drive in the UK.

Why the big difference?

A DfT survey (NTS0203) gives the main reasons for people not learning to drive. The top three ‘main reasons’ are:

·       Not interested in driving – Learning to drive is difficult, time consuming and requires reaching an examined level of proficiency. For many people, the alternatives are sufficient that they need have no interest, particularly if they live in a city.

·       Cost of learning to drive – It takes an average of 40 hours of lessons to pass a driving test. With a current cost of about £30 an hour, that’s £1200 plus test costs. If you are successful, it costs even more than this to run a car, over £2000 a year, even for people in the lowest incomes.

·       Physical difficulties or disabilities or health problems – The Government lists 191 medical conditions, from Absence seizures to Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome with instructions that may prohibit driving, many related to reduced vision, epilepsy or heart conditions.

Cycling doesn’t have the limitations. There is no extensive and expensive learning to cycle process – must people have learned as a child and for fun. While training such as Bikeability is valuable, it is not compulsory, and a typical ‘Level 2’ course would be 4 two-hour sessions, made cheaper because they are usually run for groups and some councils and charities offer them for free to certain groups.

A cycle is available from a cycle shop for about £100 and can be run for a year with a cost of typically a few tens of pounds, well under the cost of a tank of fuel for a car. Some charity schemes, like Sanctuary Wheels, assist refugees and other people in need to access cycles at very low or zero cost.

While not everyone can cycle, most people would be surprised to learn how modern adapted and inclusive cycles make it possible for almost everyone to cycle. Many disabled people cycle because they find it easier than walking due to the support it provides. Wheels for Wellbeing, the charity for disabled people cycling report that most disabled cyclists use a standard bicycle. Some find electric cycles a great help, some use more specialist cycles such as tricycles, recumbents and handcycles. These more specialist machines can cost several thousand pounds, this will be cheaper than a car, and much cheaper to run.

Photo of a person cycling a yellow handcycle through a modal filter
  Handcycles enable some disabled people to cycle. Modal filters enable many people to cycle.

The consistent theme is that the people crave the independent travel that their cycles give them over ranges up to 50 miles, sometimes more, when they are not able to drive and walking is too slow or painful.

“I find it hugely enabling to cycle around for transport and my commute. It keeps me active and mobile, prevents degenerative decline in my muscles and makes me feel good about myself.”

“Cycling gives me freedom. I have to walk with a stick (sometimes two) or an assistance dog. On a bike I’m free.”

       Quotes from Wheels for Wellbeing, Disability & Cycling 2021

A photo of several cycles and tricycles at a sports ground. These are types that could be used by disabled people.
Inclusive Cycles At Cyclability Oxford

Why don’t more people cycle?

While more people can cycle than can drive, in practice, more people choose to drive for their journeys.

A lot of people cycle, 30% of adults (England 2022), and 59% in Oxford. But the DfT’s National Travel Survey showed only 1.8% of trips were cycled, compared to 39% that were driven (and 19% as a car/van passenger).

This difference is partly because three-fifths (61%) of people think the roads are not safe enough to cycle on, and in many cases they are not. This is something that needs to be fixed. But it is also because societal norms and habits have developed around the motor car, and these take time to unravel. There are strong indications (for example from London) that as cycling infrastructure improves, the diversity of people cycling expands to match the population.

What about ownership?

Car ownership in the UK varies by income. In 2022, 78% of households and 71% of adults had access to a car (and could drive). The latter varied from 80% in top quintile income households, to 52% in lowest quintile income households.

The cost of car ownership for those in the bottom income quintile is £2200 per year, which is a large share of the median income of £13,000 for this group.

Cycle ownership is 37% of adults, and 74% of children (up to age 16) for a total of 43%.

A usable cycle is available for about £100, or much less through eBay or other private sales (£40 when we looked). It can be run for a year sometimes with no additional cost, or just a few tens of pounds. This low cost is one of many reasons why the cycle remains important as an effective mode of transport into the 21st Century.

A display of used bicycles outside the Cycle King shop in Oxford

* This survey was unfortunately poorly constructed, with a response for ‘I have never ridden a bicycle before’, but not for ‘I have ridden before, but cannot now’. The report states that people in all other reponses report some cycling, but we are not confident to the extent of implying that 94% of adults can cycle, so use the lower BHF number.