1An introduction
to cycling
in the UK

The UK’s roads have more cyclists on them than ever before. Hitting the tarmac on two non-motorised wheels has become a national interest and hobby. Not only that, but more individuals are using bikes to travel to and from work, rather than relying on a car or public transport.

In addition to being great for your physical and mental health, as well as the environment, the success of British riders in the London Olympics and recent Tour de France competitions is also responsible for encouraging millions of people to get on their bikes. As the British cycling team dominates in competitions around the world, more inspired people are taking up the sport.

As such, the Highway Code – with the objective of promoting road safety – is as important as ever. Citing cyclists as among the most vulnerable road users (along with pedestrians, motorcyclists and horse riders), it’s a must-read for everyone. But it can be a bit overwhelming – so, in this guide, we’ll explore the key advice and mandatory rules for cyclists on the roads in the United Kingdom.

a. Statistics: the rising popularity of cycling

Before that, though, it’s worth asking – just how popular has cycling become? Whether you measure it by the bikes sold or the number of cyclists on Britain’s roads, the industry is booming. Here are some statistics to prove it:

  • More than two million people across the country now cycle at least once a week, an all-time high, according to British Cycling
  • In London, the number of daily average journeys made by bike in 2014 rose to 0.65 million, a leap of 71% from 2004
  • 42% of people (around 25 million) own a bicycle
  • Sales of UK manufactured bikes rose by 69% in 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics

b. The importance of encouraging cycling

However, there are barriers to cycling. The main one is the perception that our roads are too dangerous to cycle on. High volumes of traffic and the fast speeds of cars puts loads of people off. Whilst they might be capable of cycling and have a desire to do so, they avoid it because of worries over road safety.

Agree strongly / agree that it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads

Agree strongly / agree that it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads

Source: Department of Transport, British Social Attitudes Survey, 2013
Table: Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

The effects of this fear starts young. A 2015 survey from Brake of 1,301 11-17 year olds in secondary education and colleges found that 'almost half’ (47%) said parental worries were preventing them from starting cycling or cycling more.'

Worries over safety are partly why the Highway Code is so important. With standard rules and guidelines for all road users to follow, it provides some sense of relief because everyone should stick to agreed-upon procedures when taking to the roads. Although different road users have varying rules targeted at their safety, knowing what you can expect from others is beneficial for everyone. In other words, everyone is on the same page when using the Highway Code.

The benefits of cycling

But what happens when someone doesn’t stick to the rules? Well, if you break the Highway Code, you’re not automatically breaking the law. Some of the rules are legal obligations, some are not. Legal requirements are identified by the rules which state ‘MUST/MUST NOT’ and breaking them could result in a fine, penalty points, disqualification from driving or prison. Breaking other advisory rules (SHOULD/SHOULD NOT, DO/DO NOT) can also be illegal if it’s considered to meet some other offence (e.g. dangerous driving).

But safety isn’t the only thing preventing more people cycling. Cost can be a factor too. As such, incentives have been cropping up to support cyclists financially. For example, the government’s Cycle to Work Scheme is a tax-efficient programme that allows employers to buy and hire out bikes to their staff for a regular payment. It attracted an impressive 183,423 employees in 2014 – up 11.6% from the previous year.

There’s also a push to give more tax breaks for those who cycle to work. Expect such incentives to become commonplace, as the demand increases.

And the more people who start cycling, the more need there is for safe and convenient spots for individuals to store their bikes – at home, at work and in public places. In terms of workplace cycling parking, an employer will not pay tax or National Insurance Contributions on the cost of providing parking equipment. It’s clear the government is pushing for the barriers to cycling to be eliminated.

For commercial projects too, there is motivation to include bike storage provisions. Compliant cyclist facilities are a part of the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), as well as Code for Sustainable Homes. BREEAM evaluate the procurement, design, construction and operation of a development against targets that are based on performance benchmarks, in order to achieve things like increased efficiency, improved well-being of users and reduced operational costs.

Having suitable cycle storage facilities will contribute to these factors, as well as to receiving your overall BREEAM rating. For example, it’s easy to see that having a secure place to lock up bikes could improve the satisfaction of a worker who previously had to squeeze onto a busy commuter tube.

The more support, encouragement and guidance provided for cyclists, the more the industry will boom.

c. Explained: the conflict between different road users

Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page. For one reason or another, cyclists seem to irritate other road users – particularly drivers, which is strange since nine out of ten cyclists also drive cars. It seems when we’re behind the wheel, cyclists become an obstacle.

In some ways, it’s logical. As this BBC article argues, cyclists are annoying because they break the moral order of the road. Everyone has felt annoyed when someone on a bike comes along and does things drivers aren’t allowed to, such as overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

But we must appreciate mode of transport is intertwined not only with personal choice, but circumstance. Home location, work location, economic status, physical health, childcare arrangements and so on are all influential factors. To avoid road rage, the most useful thing you can do is put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re annoyed at and understand their course of action. For example, cyclists often stay further out in the road to prevent cars speeding past on dangerous stretches of road.

In fact, most conflicts between road users happen because someone has misread the situation and reacted in an irrational way. But it’s not just drivers at risk of this – cyclists can also be reckless. At signalised junctions, for example, some are more inclined to act upon their perception of traffic and safety, rather than wait for the lights.

Just as drivers must respect those on bikes, cyclists are responsible for acknowledging and obeying the various laws, signals and demonstrating lane discipline, as well as avoiding pavements. They’ve also got to ensure their bike is fit for the road, but more on than later.