Commentary: People love walking and cycling. So why aren’t more ditching their cars?

LONDON: British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced £2 billion (US$2.7 billion) to create thousands of miles of protected bike lanes and pedestrian space.

There are many good reasons to encourage walking and cycling – active travel, as it is called. The pandemic necessitates social distancing on public transport, which means buses and trains have to ferry fewer passengers per journey.



Cycling and walking are healthier alternatives and in the longer term, both have a part to play in cutting carbon emissions from the transport system, as well as improving urban air quality.

Cities across the UK are promoting active travel in response to the pandemic. Manchester has committed £5 million to enable socially distanced cycling and walking on new routes.

Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London, has reallocated road space to pedestrians and cyclists to increase walking five-fold and cycling ten-fold.

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A ten-fold increase in cycling would take the present 2.5 per cent share of journeys made by bicycle in London to the level seen in Copenhagen, which is currently at 28 per cent.

The Danish capital has had excellent cycling infrastructure for some time and a longstanding cycling culture.

But 32 per cent of trips in Copenhagen are by car, which is only a little less than Londons 35 per cent. Aside from cycling, the other big difference is public transport use, which accounts for 19 per cent of journeys in Copenhagen versus 36 per cent in London.

People walking in the street of Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo: Unsplash/Ethan Hu)

This all indicates that we can get people off buses and onto bikes, which are cheaper, healthier, better for the environment, and no slower on congested urban streets.

But it is much harder to get people out of their cars, even in Copenhagen where everyone has experience of safe cycling.


People like cars because they can carry more than one passenger easily and they offer plenty of space for the stuff we need to lug around.

There are some trips that are just a bit too long for a bike ride, or that require you to appear well dressed and clean when you arrive.

Many people like cars because driving them feels good. Just look at the enormous choice in models, including the current fashion for gas-guzzling SUVs.

Most cars are parked 95 per cent of the time. If their owners are only using them sparingly, perhaps sharing vehicles and journeys would be a more efficient option than strictly private use.

Cars sit in a traffic jam along the Embankment during the morning rush hour in central London, Britain, August 29, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File Photo)

The fact that so many people are willing to pay a lot of money for something they only use 5 per cent of the time highlights the value people place on personal mobility.

The fundamental attraction of the car is the easy access it allows to people and places and opportunities and choices – at least when roads are not too congested and when its possible to park at both ends of the journey.

For access to all this in the time available for travel during the busy day, the car is the most efficient mode of travel for moderate distances.


If you live in a village without a car, and with few or non-existent bus services, your opportunities and choices of work, shops and services are limited. Buy a car and the possibilities expand substantially.

Although there are many ideas for replacing cars outside cities, such as e-bikes for long distances, their total impact isnt likely to add up to much.

But in cities, roads are often congested and parking is limited. Its certainly possible to replace cars here. Car use in London was at its peak in the early 1990s, when it accounted for 50 per cent of journeys.

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