Is cycling really a ‘slow mode’?

This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 84.

As a cycle campaigner I fully realise that walking has many benefits, and that the two modes have much in common. They are both cheap for the user, healthy, good for the environment, impose few ‘external’ costs on others, and don’t require expensive infrastructure.

but… I do object to cycling being classed as a slow mode in an urban environment.

It isn’t that cycling is fast, although even for an asthmatic 60-year-old, speeds of 20 km/h (12.5 mph) can be maintained in free flow, but that the ‘reliability’ is far better than supposedly ‘fast’ modes such as bus or car.

I continue to read ‘transport assessments’ as part of planning applications that assume that cyclists won’t cycle more than 5 km (about 3 miles), and hence are not considered in the ‘modal split’ for trips over that distance. Yet the County’s own figures show that 8 000 cycle trips cross the ‘border’ between the City and the necklace villages each day, and many of those trips will be well over even 8 km (5 miles).

I’m sure that this is because developers look at ‘average’ journey times and hence their models assume people will travel by the mode with the fastest ‘average’ time, and probably also exclude the ‘end’ effects.

Now I’m lucky in that if I’m ten minutes late, I don’t miss a train, or lose half an hour’s pay, but I do have appointments that must not be missed, and go to meetings that cost money if they don’t start on time. For such trips, and for others with more rigid lifestyles, we need to allow a ‘contingency’ time for our travel.

To model trip choices properly such ‘contingency’ time clearly needs to be included, but I doubt if it often is.

For cycling, I need to allow for the weather, especially the wind, but I can predict this shortly before my trip, so even with trips of 6 miles I reckon to arrive within plus or minus three minutes.

Can you say this for trips by bus or car? No. Even a crash or roadworks on a previous day on a different route may add five minutes to a normal journey time. As I cycle past the queues each day on my trip into town, I’ve given up trying to find a rational explanation for the day-to-day variability of the queues. I know it will be worse on wet days, at the start of school term or approaching Christmas, but between two apparently similar days queues on Shelford Road can vary in length by 60 vehicles.

For buses it is even worse: should a bus be late it will pick up more passengers offering ten pound notes and requiring change. Before you know it the driver will have spent an additional 5 minutes just collecting fares!

So what does this mean?

If you need to arrive on time you probably only need to leave average journey time plus three minutes for a trip by walk on foot or bike. For a car, especially at peak times, you need an extra ten to fifteen minutes, and by bus I wouldn’t like to quote a figure.

And if you are some transport economist or modeller, why do you think nobody would cycle to the rail station from the proposed NIAB development when the Cycle Journey Planner suggests it would take under 20 minutes? Who would allow that little time by car, let alone bus?

A better metric for use in such models might be the door-to-door journey time that is not exceeded more than once in fifty trips (the 98th percentile).

I first noticed this effect some 40 years ago in a more rigid Civil Service environment. Colleagues who came long distances (usually by car) nearly always arrived early, as to be more that 15 minutes late on any day was considered unacceptable. Yet those who cycled and walked could be regularly 5 minutes late, and were rarely carpeted for lateness.

So if you need to catch a train, get to the doctor’s or an important meeting, or even just get to work on time, get ‘on yer bike’, having enjoyed that extra ten minutes in bed.

Jim Chisholm