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Cold wheels: are cycling commuters abandoning their bikes in winter?

Every city is looking to get more people cycling and walking. That’s “active travel” in the jargon. There are many benefits to getting us out of our cars and onto bikes: cutting congestion, reducing pollution and improving health, fitness and even productivity. It’s also much cheaper to provide the infrastructure for a cyclist compared to a car driver.

But, critics argue, cycling is a fair-weather activity. Sure, people cycle in the summer, but what’s the point if they all jump back in their cars in the winter?

Is it true?

Cycling counters

Manchester might not have a pile of cycle super-highways like London, but it does have the Oxford Road route, which I use for my daily commute. The bike counters tell us how many cyclists have passed in each direction on any given day.

When I came through just before 8am on February 7th – the temperature was showing as a nippy -4 degrees Celcius. Over 170 cyclists had already passed ahead of me. That’s not a lot down on warmer days.

Going home in the evenings is a similar story. In the warm autumn days – when the students were back in town – between 1,800 and 2,000 cyclists had typically headed out of the city along that route by the time I got there. At the moment that’s down to around 1,400-1,500.

That’s a drop of around 25-30% – significant, but hardly the cyclist-free paths that sceptics were predicting for mid-winter. Well over two thirds of the summer cyclists are still there in sub-zero temperatures.

Made to Move

Chris Boardman’s Made to Move strategy for Greater Manchester was released just before Christmas. The desire is clearly there for a big cycle route expansion. Mayor Andy Burnham is positive that the funding can be found too.

The evidence from Manchester's Oxford Road scheme so far is that the strategy is right. Good cycle facilities will succeed in getting people on their bikes not just in the summer but all year round. As Greater Manchester has been revealed as the most congested British city outside London, that’s good news for pollution, health, congestion and productivity.

Iain Roberts

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