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cycling through pandemic

Cycling through a pandemic

15 Jun 2020 | Bruce Whyte

The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread impacts on almost every aspect of our lives – including our work, social lives and leisure activities. How and where we travel has altered dramatically and recently there has been debate about whether certain changes in how we travel will persist as lockdown is gradually eased.

What has changed?

There is a perception that more people are walking and cycling, cycle sales are reportedly booming and there are suggestions that at least some people are willing to use their car less and walk and cycle more to maintain cleaner air.  Given the well-known and multiple co-benefits of increased levels of walking and cycling including improved physical fitness and mental health, lower morbidity, reduced weight gain, greater social interactions, cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions, we are interested in how people can be encouraged and supported to sustain this.

To understand what has been going on during lockdown we have been working with the Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC) and Glasgow City Council to assess changes in levels of walking and cycling in Glasgow which we described an earlier blog for the UBDC.

In this blog, we describe an extension to this research, looking at changes in levels of cycling across Scotland in recent months (particularly since lockdown) using data held by Cycling Scotland. We also wanted to find out if there were differing trends on different types of route. For example, comparing routes which were predominantly used for commuting, with routes used more for leisure purposes.

What did we do?

We accessed daily cycling counts from 59 cycling counter sites across Scotland via Cycling Scotland’s Active Travel Open Data portal. The dataset forms part of a National Monitoring Framework and currently includes sites in 17 of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas. 

To distinguish between different types of route, we designed a formula to distinguish predominantly commuting routes from predominantly leisure routes; those that didn’t fit either of these criteria were designated as mixed (or in between). (* Further details on this at the end of the blog).  

After the removal of sites where monitors had malfunctioned or where there was missing data, we analysed cycle trends on 22 commuting routes, 15 leisure routes and 12 mixed routes.  As examples, the Tay Road Bridge, the Fenwick Road (A77), Granton Road in Forres and four inner city sites in Glasgow were designated commuting routes, while Mugdock Wood near Milngavie, Cunningham Way in Shetland, Largs Promenade and Victoria Parade in Dunoon were designated leisure routes.

What did we find?

The impact of lockdown which commenced on Monday 23rd March, was immediate but transitory: between 22nd and 25th March cycle counts dropped by 21% on commuting routes, by 59% on leisure routes and by 36% on mixed routes. Nevertheless, the long-term trend was upwards on all three types of route. Cycle volumes on leisure routes had actually begun to rise in mid-March and continued to rise through April and May also. 

To illustrate these trends we have taken Monday 2nd March, three weeks before lockdown, as a baseline and measured the percentage change in daily cycle counts from then to the end of May (Figure 1). The graph illustrates that cycle volumes by the end of May were approximately ten times higher on leisure routes compared to the beginning of March, almost 2.4 times higher on commuting routes and 1.3 times higher on mixed routes.

Figure 1 - a graph showing the percentage change in daily cycle counts from baseline date in March to the end of May.One major caveat should be mentioned at this point: we would expect cycling numbers to go up at the end of winter as the weather improves and we have had a record-breaking warm and dry spring.  Even allowing for an overall rising trend, the weather impacts are clear with the two major dips in cycling in late April and mid-May coinciding with wetter and windier conditions. 

It is notable though that the biggest increase in cycling is on leisure routes and it seems likely that this is at least partly due to more people exercising on these routes in lockdown. At the same time, the lower rates of increase on commuting and mixed routes may be due to increased leisure cycling being partially balanced by reduced commuting, given the large proportion of people not travelling to their place of work during lockdown. 

We have looked at the same period last year (beginning of March – end of May 2019), and while cycling increased on a fluctuating trend it did not do so to nearly the same extent: cycling rose by 18% on commuting routes, by 56% on mixed routes and by 97% on leisure routes. It should be noted though that we had far fewer monitoring sites to use in 2019 (21 vs 49 in 2020) and weather patterns again look to have been important.

Figure 2, beneath, illustrates the percentage increase in cyclists on a selection of the leisure routes this year before and during lockdown. 

Figure 2 - graph showing percentage increase in cyclists on a selection of the leisure routes this year before and during lockdown. One final caveat to note is that if the baseline for the 2019 data is taken as March 23rd (lockdown), then the increases since then – although still notable – have been considerably lower.  Using this baseline, cycle volumes were approximately 2.3 times higher on leisure routes by the end of May, two times higher on commuting routes and had doubled on mixed routes.

What does this mean?

To understand these trends better, we need to do further analysis controlling for weather impacts and over a longer time period. Nevertheless, these trends are very positive. 

The value of this monitoring data, which has only recently become available, is being demonstrated at this time when we are trying to understand how people are travelling and how this is changing.  Looking forward, a comprehensive network of cycle and pedestrian monitoring sites in urban and rural areas across Scotland will be vital to assess our success in encouraging people to shift away from the car to healthier, more sustainable and less polluting methods of travel.

There is evidence from a recent Cycling Scotland survey that more young people have started to cycle during lockdown. A quarter of people said that having more dedicated cycle paths would be the most likely change to encourage them to cycle once lockdown is lifted.

Current investment in temporary infrastructure measures to allow social distancing while walking and cycling is welcome and necessary. However, if we want to see real and lasting increases in levels of cycling, with all the health and environmental benefits that would accrue from that, we need continued increased investment in active travel in order to create safe cycling networks within and between cities and towns in Scotland.

Forthcoming related blog

In a parallel analysis, Lisa Garnham has been analysing walking trends during lockdown using pedestrian count data also held on the Cycling Scotland’s Active Travel Open Data portal, which will be the focus of a forthcoming GCPH blog.


We are very grateful to Natalie Cozzolino for helping with access to the data and answering our data queries. My thanks to Lisa Garnham for helpful comments on this analysis.

* A route was identified as a commuting route if cycle volumes dropped by at least 10% over a weekend compared to the weekly average for that site. If cycling rose by at least 10% compared to the weekly average on either Saturday or Sunday, the route was defined as a leisure route.  Routes which met neither criteria were defined as mixed (or in between). Criteria were applied to weekly data from 2019 and are intended to represent the pre-pandemic use of each route, which may have changed during lockdown.  It is worth noting also that these are broad categorisations based on limited statistical information; it is likely that there are always a proportion of leisure cyclists on the commuting routes and vice versa (the former is even more likely during lockdown).   

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