13: Ten myths about cycling

  1. Cycling, like walking, only caters for short journeys
    In any equivalent time spent walking, cycling gives access to over 15 times the area, that is the number of potential destinations that can be reached. Currently, 40% of all journeys are less than 2 miles long and two thirds less than 5 miles (a distance within which about three-quarters of cyclists’ journeys are made— that is about half an hour’s cycle ride and taking the bike on the train can often be a convenient option for some of the longer journeys.
  2. Cycling can mainly only meet fit young people’s travel needs.
    Most people can cycle but are discouraged from doing so by the perceived danger: in the Netherlands, 1 in 4 of the journeys of women pensioners is made by cycle! In any case, no one is arguing that everyone should make all their journeys by cycle.
  3. Cycling is often unsuitable because of rain or cold.
    The risk of rain on a typical journey of 10 minutes is only about 1 in 100. And the exercise entailed in cycling raises body and skin temperature so that cyclists feel cold only on those very rare occasions when the temperature is very low.
  4. Cycling is not a realistic means of travel because of the effort involved in riding up hills.
    Most of Cambridge is flat, nearly all bikes have gears, and hills don’t only go up! In any case, cyclists are not glued to their saddle — they can dismount and push their bikes on those rare occasions when it is too tiring. In practice, this rarely happens.
  5. Cycling entails so much physical effort that a shower is needed at the end of the journey.
    This is a common view of those who don’t cycle. It is not the experience of those who do cycle. Even where showers are available, few feel the need to have one.
  6. Cycling damages health owing to having to breathe polluted air from vehicle exhausts.
    This is a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: doctors strongly recommend regular exercise, and cycling is one of the best ways as it can be tied into the daily routine. Studies have shown that adults who do so are as fit as those ten years younger. It has been shown too that, as far as pollution is concerned, vehicle occupants are at significantly greater risk: in contrast to cyclists, they have to inhale fumes from the vehicle exhausts just in front of them at traffic lights.
  7. Cycling is slower than public transport.
    The National Travel Survey shows that, on a door-to-door comparison over the same route, most journeys in urban areas can be made more quickly by cycle than public transport. In fact, cycling has generally proved faster than the car on timed journeys in urban areas.
  8. Cycling is not as cost-effective an investment of public as public transport.
    Nonsense! In fact, 10,000 metres (10 kilometres) of safe cycle routes can be built at the same cost as that required for just 1 metre of London’s Jubilee Line extension!
  9. Cycling is dangerous.
    It is drivers who are ‘dangerous’: over 80% of cyclists are killed as a result of being hit by a car or lorry. In any case, when cycling, only one fatality occurs on average every 30 million kms, and one serious injury every 1.7 million kms. With the creation of more cycle networks, that low risk will be reduced. On the other hand, my BMA study showed the risk of not cycling to be far higher owing to lack of regular exercise leading to death from heart disease (annual deaths from heart disease 130 thousand, that is about 1000 times the number of cycle fatalities).
  10. Cycling entails wearing a safety helmet to avoid risk of head injury.
    Of cyclists’ serious head injuries, 85% result from collision with a vehicle: cycle helmets cannot be designed to afford sufficient protection in these circumstances. Few Dutch or Danish cyclists wear one, but their injury rate is far lower than in the UK because far more cycle routes are provided and drivers there are more careful as there are more cyclists on the streets.

This Musing was drawn from the keynote paper Cycling at the top of the policy agenda given at the ‘Making Cycling Viable’ Symposium, Wellington, New Zealand, 14-15 July 2000.

1 thought on “13: Ten myths about cycling

  1. When it come to the helmet debate I think I tick a lot of boxes, I’m a dual national, New Zealand/Netherlands but I live in the U.K. where I had a head injury while riding my bike.

    I was raised in New Zealand, and like many children cycled to school in my case from the age of seven. Continued to cycle to high school and university and to my place of work. I used to cycle across the same road where Aaron Oaten was hit and severely brain damaged and whose mother Rebecca went on a crusade for a mandatory helmet law.
    I have also lived and worked in the Netherlands where a traditional Dutch bike was my main mode of transport.
    After moving to London and I didn’t cycle for over a decade. But on returning to cycling I felt “10 years younger”.
    While riding home at night I was hit by a car. So severely that I ‘woke up’ in the ambulance 40 minutes later. My face now has 8 titanium plates, I wasn’t wearing a helmet but have no brain damage. This puzzled me and made me think as to how hard you need to actually be hit in order to get a brain injury.
    Since I had no memory of the accident therefore no mental trauma I continued to cycle, ironically because I had a foot injury I couldn’t walk far so I cycled even more.
    I joined the CTC (Cycle Touring Club) and go for rides whenever possible.

    Several months ago I rode around Europe with a friend on a 3 week tour of the Netherlands Germany Belgium and France, 1400 kms in total.

    On holiday to New Zealand turned out to be a disappointment. In the quadrangle of my old high school where there had once been enough racks for a thousand bicycles was now a car park. I learned that after the helmet law had came in my sisters and Dutch aunt immediately gave up cycling.

    According to an online book the the modal share for bicycles in my city was 13.2% and for schoolchildren in another but similarly flat city was 77%, now all gone.

    It was websites such as yours that reinforced my instincts on the matter of helmets.

    By the way I live in Neasden, I would love to meet up with you.


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