Utility cycling and long distance cycling

Originally written in 2010

Utility cycling encompasses any cycling not done primarily for fitness, recreation such as cycle touring, or sport such as cycle racing, but simply as a means of transport. It is the most common type of cycling in the world.

 Satisfying Way to Travel

I have cycled from Leicestershire to London numerous times. There is something satisfying about biking a route which you have a strong preconception of, but of which you have little or know concept of the reality e.g. from a cyclist's point of view, travelling slow enough to take everything in. I have always previously travelled the route by car, train, or bus, and therefore paid little attention to places situated along the way. Biking gives you a sense of the places and the geography. I can now visualise the landscape of the areas which I cycled. I have discovered those places on a personal level, they exist in my consciousness and I am reminded how easy it is to 'get into the countryside' and just how small England is.

Before I went cycling touring for the first time, I judged whether to make a journey to visit somewhere by how expensive it was to get there (I have been frustratedly reminded of this fact talking to people planning their summer holidays with the main reason for taking flights instead of overland transport being the cheap price of flying). I am surprised that I didn't venture out more by bike especially considering the price of train tickets. A couple of days ride from my home in Leicestershire at a good pace, I can cover 150 miles.

With the prospect of staying in the UK for a while, that gives me quite an area to see. The weather this summer has been great (so far); perfect for exploring some of England. I had never cycled from my home to London before and as I am planning to study there I am co fnsidering the general logistics of moving to the city (and how to get out into the countryside when I need to).

The traffic, in particular private cars, in Central London has decreased whereas the amount of cyclists has most certainly increased. It is not that difficult to pedal out of London and there are many ways to exit on small routes and cycle paths. I found this out when I cycled from the West Greater London near the M25 to Southwark, in Central London.

More Routes for Cyclists

I cycled on quiet residential roads, along a canal tow path and on cycle paths beside the Thames until I was in right in the centre when I had to take bigger roads. There are many painted cycle routes which are at least there a reminder to motorists to be aware of cyclists, even if they don't provide any protection. I was talking to a guy from the Netherlands in Mongolia who mentioned that people in the Netherlands don't just use bikes for getting around in the cities, but also for utility journeys over longer distances.

Last week I went to an interview for the design degree I applied for. The lecturer I met said (in jest) that they should get rid of the motorways and replace them with cycle lanes. This may be going a bit far, but when Tom, Mark and I cycled in the Netherlands, we often used the long distance cycle routes and some of these followed parallel to the main trunk roads or to the rail tracks (this was also the case in Switzerland).

I think it makes sense to offer cycle paths alongside trunks roads and railways which are built to provide the path of least resistance route to their destinations. This may encourage more people to use bikes for long distance utility journeys and tempt people off the roads when they are sitting in traffic jams. Last week I was able to get a lift back home from London with my dad as he was on the way back from working on the South Coast. He was delayed because of jams on the M25 over 5 junctions. I finally met him in Redbourne, and we took the M1 which was also stop-start traffic.

Reducing Traffic Jams

The amount of people stuck in traffic jams was sheer lunacy and defied logic. It is a complete waste of time and money and is not an unusual occurrence. The bike is a real alternative to the car for certain journeys. Certainly the bike is better for inner city journeys and the government is responding to this. Boris Johnson's cycle superhighways are a start towards further helping people to transition to getting on their bikes for commuting.

Could cycling be a feasible alternative for some motorised business journeys? Of course there are cycle couriers, but what other applications are there for bikes for business journeys? Perhaps long distance light-weight freight journeys? A quick check on Wikipedia revealed:

In cities, the bicycle courier is often a familiar feature, and freight bicycles are capable of competing with trucks and vans particularly where many small deliveries are required, especially in congested areas. Velotaxis can also provide a public transport service like buses and taxicabs."

Utility cycling is believed to have several social and economic benefits. Policies that encourage utility cycling have been proposed and implemented for reasons including: improved public health, individual health and employers' profits a reduction in traffic congestion and air pollution, improvements in road-traffic safety, improved quality of life, improved mobility and social inclusiveness, and benefits to child development.

UK to Catch Up With Netherlands

It is clear that in this area England is somewhat behind countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, but change is in the air. The infrastructure in Central London is not conducive to making space for designated cycle routes with narrow roads designed for the horse and cart (See the BBC documentary presented by Andrew Marr - England from Above).

The ideal environment is a motorised-vehicle free city-centre. This has many benefits such as health improvements, noise reduction, and overall road safety increases. When I was in Amsterdam many of the city centre areas were pedestrianised. People used bikes or the tram system to get around. It looked like high street businesses were also benefiting because there was room for many more people who were not just constrained to the pavements.

In richer countries, where people can have the choice of a mixture of transport types, a complex interplay of other factors influences the level of bicycle use. Factors affecting cycling levels may include: town planning (including quality of infrastructure: cyclist "friendly" vs. cyclist "hostile"), trip-end facilities (particularly secure parking), retail policy, marketing the public image of cycling, integration with other transport modes, cycle training, terrain (hilly vs. flat), and climate. In developed countries cycling has to compete with, and work with, alternative transport modes such as private cars, public transport and walking.


To conclude, there is certainly a way to go to get more people on bikes in the city centre of London (and other English cities), in order to catch up with cities like Amsterdam. However, I think that it has to be the most logical solution to gradually pedestrianise certain areas of the city centre, spend more improving public transport and separate public transport lanes from cycle lanes where possible.

Easy, direct and safe commuting routes from Greater London to the centre are a hugely positive step. Using bikes for longer distance utility journeys may be somewhat wishful thinking in a world where people often seem to desperate to get to their destinations before they have left. However, I will certainly be considering using my bike when I have got the time. It is excellent for fitness, cheaper than using the trains, it turns the journey into a mini-adventure and it's a great way of seeing some of this small but wonderful country.

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