20 things I learned from our big city cycling conference in Sheffield

Conference delegates gear up for a cycle tour of Sheffield

After all the hard work that we put into it (along with conference organisers, Waterfront and key partners CTC and Sustrans) I couldn’t have been happier with the way our big city cycling conference in Sheffield went. More than 80 delegates (a good cross section of local transport authority and cycling organisations) turned out for a day of overview, good practice and the plotting of next steps to get cycling from its low base, in many of our urban areas, to nearer to its full potential.

Philip Darnton’s valedictory presentation from Cycling England was the stand out for me but overall I think we pitched it just about right in terms of high quality presentations on context and good practice from London, Leicester, Merseyside and Sheffield. Even the late cancellation by the Minister Norman Baker didn’t feel to me like it took the wind out of the sails of the event.

Having the event in the magnificently restored Victorian exoticism of the ballroom of the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield was an added bonus. As was the add-on fringe event – a cycle tour through Sheffield for a well earned pint at the end of the day.

Anyway, here are the twenty things I learnt.

The biggest being…

  • The loss of Cycling England (abolished the day after our conference) is tragically short sighted. The big asks from the conference were strengthening of the evidence base / better networking of practitioners / more civic leadership / training and professional support for practitioners and a good webhub for the best available guidance and evidence base. All of which Cycling England were doing – and for a relative pittance. Cycling is too small an issue for the DfT and for many local authorities to justify having high ranking in-house expertise – so how do we fill the gap left by Cycling England’s demise?

But there was also room in my brain for…

On the big picture…

  • In many Northern European countries there is an iron political and professional consensus that cycling is mainstream transport – not yet in Britain – so working with the willing is the way to go for now
  • You can’t turn around low levels of cycling overnight or through a single initiative – it takes a consistent level of spend, support and leadership over a period of time. As has been the case in many Northern European cities and now London. It’s about consistency, continuity and building consensus
  • If cycling is not convenient then people won’t do it
  • We need to make cycling a club that people want to join

    Cycling is about cultural change – changing lifestyles and overcoming the obstacles for those who are willing to contemplate it. It’s also about normalising cycling as an activity in places where at present it’s the domain of a small hardcore of ‘warriors from the future’. It’s about making it a club that people want to join.

  • Civic leadership (at senior political and officer level) is vital – otherwise cycling will always be marginalised. How you convert civic leaders to the cycling cause is another question
  • Build it and they won’t necessarily come – isolated ‘pointillist’ initiatives won’t necessarily increase cycling. Considering all the individual aspects / obstacles in the cycling journey chain is important…
  • …as is marketing and telling people about what you’ve done and what’s available. Celebrate what you’ve done. Tell them again.
  • Getting more women cycling is proving to be a particular challenge. Which relates in turn to traffic speed reduction being key – it’s not about cycling per se, it’s about streets we want to live in
  • The LSTF is a big opportunity to edge cycling more into the transport mainstream. We have a pro-cycling local transport minister
  • The move to shift public health into the local authority realm – but with ringfenced budgets and indicators – is an opportunity

For the city regions…

  • There isn’t a set menu of solutions PTEs can just adopt. However there could be an a la carte menu – where, if the pros and cons of every dish were clearly set out, PTEs could make intelligent and informed choices depending on their wallet.
  • Bikeability prepares the next generation of cyclists

    There is a degree of consensus that Bikeability should be a compulsory starter on the menu – on the grounds that if you don’t get ‘em young then you struggle later on.

  • There’s lots and lots of good, innovative, imaginative and interesting stuff going on in promoting cycling in the big urban areas outside London.  But well short of the critical mass of spending and priority necessary to do a London-style step change in cycling levels and culture. 
  • Cycling is still nowhere near fulfilling its potential in our cities. Indicative of this is that people didn’t quite stop and stare mouths gaping open when about 20 of us cycled through the city centre after the conference – but it wasn’t far off. If cycling was more commonplace that just wouldn’t happen.
  • The cycling lobby is too fixated on the sustainable travel towns / cycle demonstration towns and hasn’t really yet got its head round / under the skin of what to do about large sprawling conurbations 
  • Shortage of cash can promote innovation and imagination in cycling interventions
  • As transport authorities we should remember how effective combining a corridor approach to bus priority, cycling and walking improvements – and associated social marketing – can be 
  • London may have more money but the attitudinal / infrastructure barriers are similar. London’s approach of build / support / promote could also be taken up in the conurbations

And finally…

  • Electric bikes make you look good when going up steep hills in Sheffield!

The presentations from the big city cycling conference can be downloaded here.

The Sustrans report on cycling in the city regions that we launched on the day is available for download here. It looks at the best and most effective ways of achieving a major uplift in cycling in the city regions.

Jonathan Bray

One thought on “20 things I learned from our big city cycling conference in Sheffield

  1. It was good to see that public transport operators were recognising the way that cycling can connect the bus stops and stations with the places people are actually travelling between and deliver this as a less costly facility than car parking and connecting bus services to everywhere at anytime.

    I saw the problems of getting the conventional planning wrong at Preston on my way to & from Sheffield – 470 car park spaces (doubling the parking capacity) costing around £11m were not filling up, and a 60% cut in the annual ticket price did not appear to be attracting the business but there was a healthy growth in the use of the cycle racks which had I think also doubled in capacity but with less promotional effort. Given that cycling gets you through the convoluted roads and peak time congestion in the centre of Preston, and most key areas are within a 10-15 minute bike ride (including a pleasant short cut through a park) the potential for cycle-rail commuting is a more attractive option for many passengers.

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