|Click for the original copy|
The central claim is that there has been an increase of 37% of "employed people cycling to work everyday by residents of the City of Cambridge" between 2001 and 2011. There is also a claim that there are "now more people walking and cycling to work than people using buses, cars, taxis, or motorbikes combined", that the worst performing ward of Cambridge is Cherry Hinton with a "Percentage of residents cycling to work" of 23.3% while the best performing is Newnham with 40.6%. They also pointed out that "the rates of bicycle use may be under-representative of the actual bicycle use", suggesting that both the high rate of student cycling and multi-modal commutes both meant that these figures were underestimates. The reader is to assume that the actual cycling rate in the city is somewhat higher than these already high figures, based on nothing but a suggestion.
|Cambridge and surroundings by bicycle. Darkest blue are|
areas with between 20 and 30% of commutes by bike. Light
green in 5% - 10 %. The light brown colour found beyond the
boundary of the city indicates that just 0% - 5% of commutes
in those places are by bicycle. Cambridge is very obviously
an island in this view.
I believe the figures are based on British Government 2011 census stats published a few days ago. These were summarised quite nice with an interactive map overlay on the Guardian website. Cambridge achieved the highest figure for cycling with 18.1% of people saying that cycling is the main way that they commute to work.
It is important to note the source of these figures. They come not from traffic counts or observations of actual behaviour of commuters but from a survey question which asked about "the main way people commute to work". Any such survey is open to Response Bias - a tendency for people to give the answer that they think the questioner wants to hear. Such surveys are also quite open to people's own interpretations of how they think they travel. i.e. "Cyclists" are likely to say that they cycle even if they do so only two days a week on average. There are many causes of error in survey results, and while with care we can compare one survey with another taken at the same place on the same date of a different year, any comparison with different dates, different places or with the result of an analysis of behaviour measured in a different manner is at the very least to make some dangerous assumptions.
The press release combined "walking and cycling" as that made the figures sound more exciting than they actually were by adding the 9.6% of people who self-reported as walking to work to the 18.1% who said that they cycle. Note also that the 3% of people who said they used the train to get to work, 0.2% who said they used a coach and 0.1% who say they use light rail have been excluded from the comparison group of "buses, cars, taxis and motorbikes". That's how it was made possible to claim that cycling and walking combined were "more popular in Cambridge than the internal combustion engine."
|Cambridge and surroundings by car. Darkest blue are areas|
of between 60 and 75% of commutes by car. The lightest
green indicates 15% - 30% by car. A different scale had to be
be used compared with that for bikes because there is far more
driving than cycling in this area. Cambridge is an almost
invisible island in this view.
However, we must note that when we look at the raw stats on the Guardian site show that many places all the way across the UK, including just on the edge of Cambridge achieve a figure of between 45% and 60% of commutes by car without excluding anyone. The most extreme have between 60% and 75% by car, with one of these appearing just a few miles from Cambridge, and that's without anyone having to cook the books to make the numbers appear higher. Cycling remains a minority pursuit across the UK.
This press release was not the first example of exaggeration that I'd seen based on the same survey results. In fact, it took only a couple of days after their publication for the cycle of exaggeration to begin. A Cambridge politician excluded some of the groups used in the original report in order to report that "nearly 32% of those who travel to work in Cambridge get there by bicycle". This is presumably the reason for the peculiarly precise language used in the press release ("the number of employed people cycling to work everyday by residents of the City of Cambridge"). The more people we remove from the comparison, the more meaningless it becomes because each time we remove people we remove information. If we were to continue the process of removing groups of people who do not cycle, then we would end up reporting merely that 100% of cyclists ride bikes, which of course is a meaningless statement.
Now I have to note that it's rather self-serving for a politician to say this. Politicians have a long history of claiming to be working for cycling while in reality they spend far too little on cycling infrastructure. This is certainly true within Cambridge.
The press release goes on to say that "Much of this increase can be attributed to the hard work of councillors and officers at Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council, for which we thank them." and that "Cambridge has grown with virtually no additional motorcar traffic because of the money spent on cycling." when in fact, the investment in Cycling within Cambridge has for a very long time been a tiny fraction of that spent to benefit motorists. Indeed, it's not many years ago that the Cambridge Cycling Campaign itself pointed out that the expenditure on "cycleways, footpaths and safe routes to school combined" was just 0.6% of the local transport budget. When I wrote an introduction to an article printed in their newsletter I pointed out that local expenditure amounted to just "£1.45 per person per year".
|The long running saga of, and|
inadequate solution in Gilbert Road
is another example of Cambridge
Cycling Campaign acquiescence.
This is not the first time that false statements have been made about Cambridge. In the 1990s, one of the councils in Cambridge published a leaflet which described Cambridge as "the second best city in the world in which to cycle after Amsterdam" (or words along those lines). That wasn't true then, and this isn't true now.
Why exaggerate ?
Of course, Cambridge is far from the only place to exaggerate its achievements. Many other places do the same. I've pointed out some of Copenhagen's repeated exaggerations but also found Amsterdam exaggerating the truth. Portland made a similar claim to 1990s Cambridge when they said they were "only second to Amsterdam". Popular lists of "top cycling cities" regularly present figures which have no basis in fact, which are collected by sufficiently different means that they cannot be compared with one another, or the simply miss out many Dutch cities and this is often done in order to hype one place over another.
Of course it takes some effort to find good figures. I've found it difficult to get to the bottom even of many figures published here in the Netherlands. Emails which I've sent asking for the source of figures which apparently contradict each other have gone unanswered.
Is anyone actually interested in facts any more ? Is this exaggeration simply a reflection of people liking to be told that where-ever it is that they happen to live is good ? Does anyone want to actually learn from what works elsewhere, or are we all too busy claiming to be number one ?
Exaggeration considered harmful
|A 20 km radius around Assen - the distance within which|
it is normal for secondary school age students to cycle into
the city to school. Green spots show where school friends
of our children lived and from where they cycled to get to
school. The red line shows the route of a school triathlon
ridden by unaccompanied 12 year olds who had come to
school by bike and who afterwards rode back home.
Nothing out the ordinary in this country, but in the UK ?
If all sets of figures have been "cooked" to some degree then we have absolutely no basis for comparison at all. If figures which are accurate from one place can only be compared with "cooked" figures from another then it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to work out what works.
When figures are exaggerated, no new information is being created. All that happens is that the truth is swamped beneath piles of meaningless press releases. Hiding the facts does not help cyclists, and cycling campaigners do not help their own constituency by boosting their own cities purely for the sake of an impressive press release.
For cycling to grow we need to look at the best practice from all around the world, not encourage people to accept the low standards of what they already have. For progress, we have to continue to be critical. Even in the world's genuine top cycling city, campaigners are rightly not satisfied with what they are given if it doesn't result in an ever improving standard.
Far too much emphasis on "cycling cities"
|The same 20 km radius around Cambridge showing how|
even adult commuter cycling drops rapidly to below 5%.
The red line shows the route that a 14 year old boy in a village
could not take to get to school. Seemingly no-one thought it
reasonable to suggest that he cycled. I've cycled there myself
in the past and I wouldn't have suggested it either. Whatever
the quoted statistics say, there is an enormous difference in the
ease of cycling between Cambridge and Assen.
The idea of "cycling cities" is itself harmful. There is no reason why we should only consider cities, nor why we should expect that people will only cycle in cities, nor why we should be so interested in counting only how much cycling there is in cities, nor how high the figures can be made to look for a subset of cyclists in a small area.
That is not how it works in the Netherlands. We don't have cycling cities, but cities, towns and villages in a cycling country. Cycling doesn't drop off at the boundaries of cities but is normal all the way out into the countryside and through all the villages until you reach the next city, where it's also normal. It's normal for secondary school children to commute relatively long distances through the countryside to reach the nearest city where their school is. It's normal for elderly people to go on rides together just because it's a pleasant thing to do. To make these things possible requires a lot more than boastful exaggeration. It requires reliably consistent quality of cycling infrastructure and investment of enough money to do a decent job of a comprehensive cycling network which goes everywhere - this ensuring a sufficient degree of subjective safety that cycling is accessible to everyone.
Now I could finish by quoting some spectacularly high figures for cycling in this area, but I won't. If I did, would you believe them ? I hope you would not without taking a close look first. Suffice to say that there is considerably more cycling here by a far wider demographic than exists anywhere in the UK, including in Cambridge. That's covered by the usual unspectacular figure quoted for the whole of the Netherlands: 27% of journeys in the whole country are made by bike, that's for all the people and all their journeys for all reasons.
Update: Two years later, more exaggeration
In November 2015, the Cambridge Evening News reported that "there has been a massive 88 per cent increase in cyclists" in an article which was picked up by other sources which point out that "Cambridge already has record cycling participation levels with 20% of trips made by bike". i.e. after the supposed near doubling of cycling in Cambridge, the actual modal share remains at the same figure as I've been quoting for many years.
Exaggeration doesn't help now, it didn't help four years ago and it didn't help twenty years ago. What is required in Cambridge is a go everywhere grid of genuinely improved infrastructure, not piecemeal developments combined with many words.
The picture above of Cambridge as an island may seem to fly in the face of frequently made claims that Cambridgeshire as a whole has a higher percentage of trips by bike than other counties. However, note that a quarter of the population of Cambridgeshire lives in Cambridge. The bubble in the city therefore makes the whole county appear to have a higher modal share for cycling than is actually the case outside the city of Cambridge itself.
It should also be pointed out that the claim made in the press release that cycling has risen by 37% between 2001 and 2011 is itself dubious and difficult to support based on previous claims from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. The current figure from the census is 18.1%. However, Cambridge Cycling Campaign has claimed higher rates many times in the past. For example in an article on the 2001 census published in 2003, "In Cambridge in 2001, 25.91% of workers between the ages of 16 and 74 travelled to work by bicycle" (a remarkably "precise" figure !). Another page says that "According to the 2001 census 28% of all commuting trips within Cambridge are by bike". The 28% figure was also attributed to the RAC in 2005, while a 2007 article claimed just 25% "according to 2001 census data". None of these previously claimed figures for the rate of cycling to work in Cambridge is low enough to support the claim that there has been a 37% increase. Cycling campaign groups have often made attempts to show to cycling is "booming" in the UK, but the consistently fly in the face of the evidence,
|Do British people get the politicians that|
they deserve ? Excerpt from "Watching
the English" by Kate Fox.
I direct much the same sentiment towards the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. They're a good bunch of people who I again largely know personally. However their aspirations remain far too low for what is possible in their city and they are too easily led by the local politicians. The Campaign has now been in existence for seventeen years. That's the same period of time as it took for the whole of the Netherlands to get from Stop de Kindermoord to a very good standard of infrastructure. Cambridge has not made the same transformation over the same period of time.
"Second to Amsterdam" is a remarkably lazy claim which demonstrates the lack of knowledge of those who would claim it. Amsterdam may be ahead of places outside of this country but it's certainly not "the best" place in the Netherlands. For a start, rates of school cycling are lower in Amsterdam than in other Dutch cities.
There's a Dutch saying "Meten is weten". Translated into English this means "Measuring is knowing". The principle is sound: unless you have reliable measurements, you don't really know anything.