Commuter analysis will get more people on bikes

Laurence Oakes-Ash B&W
Laurence Oakes-Ash: Given the ‘virtuous cycle’ of positive impacts, it is no wonder that commuter
cycling has in recent years moved to heart of urban agendas the world over. Today, many planners
and pundits are celebrating a new era of an old transport mode: the bicycle.

Research that explores differences between those that ride to work and those that don’t will help to shape future travel behaviour, believes Laurence Oakes-Ash
In the twentieth century, planning for the city was about planning for the car. In recent years, however, the true impact of this approach has become only too apparent. From a changing global climate to the obesity epidemic, an over-reliance on the private automobile is driving many of the greatest challenges of our time. With rapidly rising urban populations, these problems are set to intensify – that is unless radical changes are made.

At the same time, the case for non-motorised modes of transport like cycling and walking grows ever stronger. By reducing our dependence on cars while incorporating greater levels of physical activity in city life, active transport modes like walking and especially cycling have paved the way not only to wholesome environments and healthy populations, but also vibrant and sustainable economies.

Understanding travel behaviour

Given this ‘virtuous cycle’ of positive impacts, it is no wonder that commuter cycling has in recent years moved to heart of urban agendas the world over. Today, many planners and pundits are celebrating a new era of an old transport mode: the bicycle.

But just how popular is cycling as an everyday mode of transport? And among which sectors of the population and in which areas is cycling most popular? Answering these questions is a crucial first step to facilitating behaviour change. Cycling accessibility and uptake is shaped by the interplay of multiple factors, both social and infrastructure-based. Other significant factors include variation within a specific geographic area and differences in physical ability. This has prompted some planners to identify present and potential future cycling populations according to specific typologies.

Transport planning should adopt measures that improve access to cycling across the entire range of present and potential cycling populations. Better insights are needed into cycling habits in urban and suburban areas. This is especially important when looking to open up cycling to those who could, but do not yet, use the bike as an everyday mode of transport, a cornerstone of the Department for Transport’s Walking and Cycling Investment Strategy.

Initial work by researchers such as Geller (2007) and Mekuria (2012) reveals the diverse array of cyclist typologies and their associated network preferences. While this work helps us begin to more fully understand the behaviours of cyclists, there is still work to be done. When combined with targeted analytics, open data can help.

As the first step towards painting a ‘geo-demographic’ portrait of commuter cycling behaviours, Dr Paul Hewson, Senior Data Scientist for City Science, ‘furnessed’ travel-to-work data from the 2011 census at the Middle Layer Super Output Area (MSOA) and Output Area (OA) levels. This allowed him to produce an estimate of both distance travelled (as the crow flies) and transport mode for each of the Output Areas in England. Hewson fused this data with the 2011 Area Classification for Output Areas (OACs) to estimate the number of commuter trips and distance travelled by each OAC type. He was then able to work out overall travel-to-work levels for each area classification.

Developing pen portraits

Each of the 2011 OACs, which were developed by researchers at University College London, is assigned a so-called pen portrait label such as “Students around campus” and “Aspiring techies”. This helps illustrate the characteristics of these areas in terms of their demographic structure, household composition, housing type, socio-economic characteristics and employment patterns. However, the Office of National Statistics stressed that within each OAC there will be a degree of variability in the characteristics.

By applying the OAC pen portraits, the initial analysis found that the proportion of residents cycling to work was greatest for the following OACs: (1) “Students around campus,”; (2) “Aspirational techies,”; (3) “Endeavouring ethnic mix,”; and (4) “Aspiring and affluent”. Out of these OACs, “Aspirational techies” and “Aspiring and affluent” both demonstrate a high prevalence of workers within the information, communication, and financial industries, suggesting a strong link between commuter cycling and these particular sectors.

These rough-and-ready findings are consistent with a number of other studies and reports, which highlight the positive role of cycle-friendly urban environments in attracting and retaining skilled professionals and members of the emerging creative class. This group is an increasingly significant social and economic force in the post-industrial cities of North America, Japan, Australia and many European countries. In addition, active commuting has also been repeatedly linked to reduced job turnover, lower rates of absenteeism, and improved productivity among the workforce, as well as less immediately tangible benefits such as improvements in creative problem-solving and innovation.

Suburban and rural riders

Identifying who is cycling to work and where is only part of the picture. Just as important for transport planning is identifying who isn’t. After these four OACs, the analysis suggests that the modal share for commuter cycling quickly tails off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest proportion of residents who cycle to work can be found in rural and suburban OACs, ranging from “Rural tenants” and “Ageing rural dwellers” to “Suburban achievers” and “Semi-detached suburbia”. Among these suburban OACs, one might have assumed that cycling is not practical due to long average commutes. Strikingly, however, the analysis shows that cycling accounts in these OACs for a very low proportion (below 5%) of commuting journeys of less than 3km, which for most individuals is an eminently ‘cyclable’ distance. This suggests that interventions to improve commuter cycling accessibility in these suburban areas could see considerable returns on investment.

When it comes to investing in cycling infrastructure, not all cities are created equal. Some race ahead while others lag behind. Given the considerable potential benefits to cities and those that live within them, there is much to be gained by developing cost-effective solutions that turn potential cycling populations into ones that exist in reality. Towards this end, identifying the full range of cycling behaviours within and across municipal boundaries, and targeting interventions accordingly, is a crucial first step for city leaders.

Laurence Oakes-Ash is CEO at City Science.

He will be discussing Dr Paul Hewson’s commuter cycling data analysis results at Healthy Streets. For more details on City Science analytics and services for Sustainable Transport, and related work in connection with LCWIPs, see http://www.cityscience.com/services/sustainable-transport

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