Using a Bike for Short Journeys – Part 1

SafetyBicycleConvenience. That’s the key.

It’s convenience, or rather the lack of it, that explains why someone who regularly does a 60 mile ride at the weekend, or commutes 15 miles each way to work all week, will choose to jump in the car to pop into town. Sounds absurd on the face it, surely a journey of 1 or 2 miles is easier than slogging your way over the Cotswolds? And of course it is, if you ignore all the phaffing around that goes with it.

This from the most recent research into using a bike in the UK, Understanding Walking and Cycling

“It is often assumed that short trips could easily be made by bicycle or on foot (e.g., DfT, 2011 pg 5), and the statistics suggest that there are many short trips that could be converted. According to the National Travel Survey (2010) 36.1% of trips under 2 miles and 53.0% of journeys under 5 miles are undertaken by car, with walking accounting for 23.4% of all trips and cycling only 1.5% of all journeys.”

It’s not just distance that differentiates short local journeys from long fast clubruns; one is all about the ride while the other is about the purpose. More than about 5 miles and the time spent on the bike begins to dominate, less than 5 miles, or about half an hour, and it’ll be what you do when you get there that counts. You’re no more likely to clip clop into a restaurant in a pair of budgie smugglers and a shirt colourfully advertising a bank in foreign climes than you are to turn up at the start of a club run in a suit and tie. For a town like Witney it’s a mere 10 minutes from the outskirts to the centre – hardly worth getting changed for.

There are exceptions at either end of the cycling community. I have friends who virtually live in lycra and go everywhere by bike, and equally I occasionally nod to old guys in woollen blazers and brogues riding miles from anywhere, but valued members as they are of that risible 1.5% of journeys undertaken by bike, they’re the bookends of a missing bell-curve that could and should be mass cycling in the UK.

More from Understanding Walking and Cycling

“For instance in Sweden and Finland 9% of all trips are by bicycle, in Germany 10%, in Denmark 18% and in the Netherlands 26% (Pucher and Buehler, 2010). The research reported here suggests that assuming trips (in the UK) could be undertaken by bike or on foot just because they are short is a rather simplistic approach that fails to fully understand the nature of the problem.”

When I go to the Netherlands and look at the people riding bikes there, just focussing on the people and their bikes rather than the environment they’re riding them in, I see the occasional helmeted roadie on a carbon framed racer, the rarer off-roader on a fully suspended MTB, but obscuring these are masses of people riding relatively heavy machines wearing nothing you’d find between the covers of Cycling Plus.

When it rains I see umbrellas. I’ve tried using an umbrella and it’s not easy in a forward leaning position. Sit upright though and controlling the bike one handed isn’t a problem. In fact everything seems to just work on an upright. Sure you can splash out on a Brompton jacket with darts in the back giving enough room to stretch into an aero position, but that kind of negates having a whole wardrobe to choose from when going out.

Has the technology revolution in bike design made the short journey any easier? Does a 20% weight saving give any significant advantage on a 10 minute journey? Is the electronic derailleur mech going to make my trip to the cinema any better?

Seems to me everything that makes using a bike for short journeys more comfortable and convenient was sorted out before the outbreak of the Great War. Hub gears, mudguards, chain guards, skirt guards, comfortable steel frames, the wicker basket. While since then every technological advance to make going further, faster easier has made the short journey more uncomfortable and inconvenient.

The people using bikes in the Netherlands that give cycling a legitimate voice aren’t ‘keen cyclists’ or ‘cycle enthusiasts’, they do it because it’s been organised in such a way that it’s convenient. As our mega-fit mile-eater we started out with demonstrates, promoting ‘cycling’ doesn’t make using a bike convenient and is doing little to resolve the short journey conumdrum in the UK.

I’m glad to say it’s not a secret here. Not everyone’s conforming to what is ‘normal for the UK’. Our arty bike stands at the back of the Woolgate have a steady stream of snappily dressed bike users coming and going with their shopping. Mostly women. Even more in Oxford ignore the advice of cycling experts and are discovering for themselves what works, or just carrying on a tradition that hasn’t died out yet. They’re the ones doing most to promote the bike’s supremacy for the short journey.

I read the other day that the classic dutch bike is based on the british roadster. Oh Raleigh. Where did it all go wrong?

[UaBfSJ Part 2]

4 thoughts on “Using a Bike for Short Journeys – Part 1

  1. georgie

    Out of all my bikes, my upright heavy hybrid is by FAR my favourite to ride. It’s predictable when negotiating potholes & parked cars, it’s the comfiest position to ride in & I can easily make eye contact with motorists & pedestrians.
    Lots of people at first think it’s a vintage old thing, but it’s 5 years old.
    My commute is 10 hilly miles in the wet Pennies. My hybrid is about 5 minutes slower than my roadie bike.
    I try to cycle for short journeys, but my main issue with journeys into town is a serious lack of safe places to park my bike. One major supermarket has put the bike racks at the most secluded part of the carpark, nowhere near the doors and by some derelict buildings and unused side-streets. I would never dream of leaving my bike somewhere like that.

    1. Kevin Hickman Post author

      Convenience in the environment is probably going to be part 3.

      Bike parking was the first thing our local BUG focussed on with the council. Not only are we getting parking where we want/need it, we’re also getting to know our transport planners and planning officers better which helps when moving onto the more difficult stuff. If it’s not highway or council owned land though, like your supermarket, it is more difficult and time consuming to resolve, but not impossible. That’s what I keep telling myself anyway!

  2. Martyn

    For me the limiting factors in using the bike for short journeys are those things I must attach to my bike and myself at either end…lights, helmet and lock. To commute my 6.5 miles to work I will cheerfully add the necessary time to remove my lights & lock my bike securely, it’s part of the routine and I know I will have somewhere to store them. But on a quick trip to the shops/cinema/bank etc a significant percentage of that travel time is needed to make the bike safe & secure so that it’s still there when I come out. Then I must remove my helmet and carry that too.

    By comparison the ability to jump in the car, dump it in the nearest available space (even if it takes an extra 5 minutes to find it) and then blip the locks with a touch of the key is awfully tempting.

    1. Kevin Hickman Post author

      You’ve just outlined part 2 🙂

      The motor industry have made using a car as convenient as possible. I think I heard there’s now a car out there that will unlock itself and start the engine as the owner approaches it. They might still be marketed based on notions of speed and freedom, but what locks people into their everyday use is the convenience.


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