The percentage of people commuting by bike has fallen in most English cities

Ding ding. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

So, a few days back, in the last one of these thingamybobs, we crunched the numbers to find out which English and Welsh* cities were home to the most cycling commuters.

Most of the results surprised precisely no one. Cambridge is way out ahead, Oxford slightly behind, and people are vastly more likely to cycle in flat southern cities than in hilly northern ones. Perhaps the most striking finding was that the east Yorkshire city of Hull was the fourth most pedal-happy city in the country, behind only the two ancient university towns and York.

These figures, though, were a snapshot of how things stood at the time of the 2011 census: they don't tell us anything about whether more people were cycling than before.

Helpfully, though, we can use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to do that too.

Some caveats before we get to the charts. The data we're using here comes from the census, so the most recent available is five years old now, and the numbers will have changed since. What's more, we only have two data points (2001 and 2011), so what we're looking at here is pretty rough and ready.

That dispensed with, here's the league table:

Percentage change in proportion of residents who cycle to work, 2001-11.

London's cycling revolution is visible in all its splendour. But the trend clearly goes far beyond the capital, and the proportion of people cycling is up over 20 per cent in three of the big regional cities (Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds), and up by smaller numbers in two more (Manchester and Liverpool).

Elsewhere, all those hipsters who've been priced out of Hackney and moved to Brighton seem to have taken their bikes with them. The university towns have also seen increases, as have all three of the Welsh cities in our index (Cardiff, Swansea, Newport).

That's the good news. Here's the bad. There are 59 cities listed here. Only 18 of them have seen increases in the percentage of commuters cycling. In 22 cities, the percentage is down by over 10 per cent; in eight, it's down by over 20.

At the very bottom of the league table lie the unexpectedly bike-friendly Hull and its near neighbour Grimsby, where numbers have all but collapsed.

So that's great.

There's a danger of overstating this. In most of the bigger cities, the proportion of cycling is up, so there's a fair change that it's up nationwide too.

More importantly, in the vast, vast majority of cases, we're talking about changes in already tiny numbers here. If 1.5 per cent of a city's cyclists residents cycled to work in 2001, and that had dropped to 1.1 per cent a decade late, that'd show here as a drop of over 25 per cent.

All the same, it's clear. For all metropolitan liberals like us bang on about it, cycling remains a minority activity in Britain's cities.

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*Sorry, Scotland and Northern Ireland: we don't currently have the data for you guys. Nothing personal.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.