Cycling levels fall 5% in England as post-pandemic decline continues

Cycling might be up from before Covid, but only just

A cyclist in London
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cycling rates in England have continued to fall since their high during the Covid pandemic, with the statistics labelled as a "wake up call for the government" by Cycling UK.

Data published on Thursday by the Department for Transport showed that cycling has fallen 5.2% in the year to June 2023 compared to the previous year, and was jsut  0.6% on pre-pandemic levels. This is despite the pandemic prompting assurances of a "cycling revolution" in 2020 from then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile, motor traffic levels increased by 2.3% over the period June 2022 to June 2023, showing that people are returning to driving.

“These statistics should be wake up call for the government," Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK's head of campaigns, said in a statement on Thursday. "It has already been told in crystal clear terms by the National Audit Office that it can’t meet its own targets without substantially increasing investment in active travel.  

Earlier this year, a report by the National Audit Office into active travel in England said that "it is unlikely that DfT’s [Department for Transport] objectives for increased active travel by 2025 will be achieved".

In March, the government announced plans to cut its investment in cycling and walking infrastructure.

Today Dollimore said: “Multiple government polices recognise the carbon reduction, public health, air pollution and economic benefits which flow from more people cycling and walking, particularly for short journeys. It’s therefore imperative that the government reflects on these figures, and urgently reverses the cuts in the Autumn Statement.” 

The exact size of the cut was unclear from the government’s March announcement but umbrella organisation The Walking and Cycling Alliance, which includes British Cycling, Sustrans and Cycling UK among others, estimated it amounted to a cut of around two thirds.

Following the government's announcement, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Cycling and Walking estimated the government would now spend  £330m on projects for walking and cycling between 2021 and 2025, down from £710m announced in the last government spending review for the period.

In June, a campaign group launched a legal challenge against the UK government, following the plans to slash active travel funding. 

According to the Guardian, lawyers instructed by Transport Action Network (TAN) wrote to the Department for Transport (DfT), requesting a judicial review of the cuts, claiming that they go against “legally binding” targets to reduce air pollution. 

Chris Todd, TAN’s director, said the active travel cuts have the potential to become “the Jenga block that makes climate, air quality, levelling up and health plans all come tumbling down".

In July, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used an interview with the Sunday Telegraph to lay out his opposition to low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which he portrayed as "anti-motorist". LTNs, schemes that seek to promote walking and cycling by stopping motor vehicles from using certain local streets as cut-throughs, rose in popularity during the pandemic.

“The vast majority of people in the country use their cars to get around and are dependent on their cars," he wrote. "When I’m lucky enough to get home to North Yorkshire, it’s more representative of how most of the country is living, where cars are important.

“I just want to make sure people know that I’m on their side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them.”

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.