Cycling is a great way to get around. It’s fun, healthy, good for the planet and cheaper than driving. But unfortunately it can be risky. In 2013 109 cyclists were killed and 3,143 seriously injured in Britain. This is part of the reason why the UK lags behind many other countries for cycling levels: just 2% of journeys and 1% of miles in Britain are travelled by bike.
Brake campaigns for safer streets and routes for active and sustainable travel, including traffic free cycle routes and 20mph limits in communities through our GO 20 campaign, to encourage uptake and protect people on bikes. Until we achieve this, the ultimate responsibility for protecting cyclists and pedestrians on our roads lies with drivers, who are operating a fast moving machine that can cause a lot of damage. But there are steps cyclists can take to help reduce the risks they face. Read our advice for cyclists on taking the safest approach to getting about by bike.
It’s an excellent form of exercise. Incorporating physical exercise, such as cycling, into everyday life can be as effective for weight loss as a supervised exercise programme. Regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease and obesity, and increases life expectancy. High blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes and depression are also less frequent among people who exercise regularly. Cycling to work, school or the shops is a great way to stay fit and in shape and feel good.
Modern bikes are lightweight and affordable (especially compared to running a car). They can also be fitted with panniers and baskets that can carry a surprising amount.
While the British weather can sometimes be intimidating to first-time cyclists, what looks like a drizzly and cold day from within a car can be refreshing on two wheels. You don’t have to get hot and sweaty, just ride at your own pace.
It’s environmentally friendly
Our society’s over-reliance on cars has major consequences for the environment and our health. 22% of UK carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions come from road transport. It’s estimated that up to 24,000 premature deaths per year in the UK are linked to air pollution. Plus noise and fumes from traffic impact on our ability to enjoy our local communities and countryside. And unless we act now, the amount of traffic on our roads is set to increase. By 2035, the amount of traffic travelling in congested conditions is predicted to double. Replacing some of our car journeys with cycling would make a big difference to this.
You can get hold of a durable, road-worthy bicycle relatively cheaply. Maintaining a bike is of course much cheaper than running a car. It’s estimated that the average family could save £642 a year by swapping a car-based school run for walking or cycling. Commuters who drive or pay for a season pass for public transport could make significant savings by swapping to a cycle commute.
Meanwhile, driving is becoming increasingly expensive. Nearly 800,000 car-owning households spend at least 31% of their disposable income on a motor vehicle, while the charity Sustrans estimates nearly half of households in England struggle with the cost of car ownership.
If you aren’t a confident cyclist, or don’t have much experience on a bike, it’s a good idea to consider cycle training. There are cycle trainers across the UK offering training for children and adults – see the CTC’s database of cycling instructors. Some schools will run cycle training courses for children, funded by the local authority, through schemes such as Bikeability. If you have children who want to cycle, speak to the school to see if they offer training. If they don’t, you could contact the local authority and ask them to support schools to provide training.
Wear a helmet
Brake strongly advises cyclists of all ages and levels of experience to wear a helmet. Of course, a helmet won’t offer you complete protection, and sadly helmets don’t prevent crashes happening in the first place – hence Brake campaigns for safer streets and safer driving. However, wearing a good quality, well-fitted cycle helmet does help to protect your brain in some types of crashes or if you fall off your bike and hit your head. Research shows that wearing one reduces your chances of suffering fatal or serious brain injuries in a crash. If you wear a helmet, always make sure you fit it according to the instructions and ensure it isn’t damaged.
Prepare your bike
It’s worthwhile learning the basics of bicycle maintenance if you want to begin cycling. This basic maintenance guide from the BBC is a good starting point. Whether your bike is new, second hand, or it’s been sat in your garage gathering dust, give it a thorough check before you start using it. Familiarising yourself with the mechanics will come in handy if you run into a problem while out cycling. For more in depth information on keeping your bike in good shape, see Bicycling’s maintenance guide.
Remember, it is illegal to cycle at night without lights, so if you are making a bicycle journey in the dark, or there is any chance you might be caught out as the sun goes down, test your lights before setting off. You must have a white light at the front, a red light at the back, red reflectors at the back and amber reflectors on the pedals.
Commuting by bike and cycling for work
Cycling to work is good for your health, the environment, and for your pocket, and it’s a great way to get the blood moving and wake the body up first thing in the morning. We recommend you use safe, off-road or segregated cycle paths for as much of your journey as you can, however we know this isn’t always possible. CTC has a comprehensive map of cycle routes in the UK. If your commute is too far to cycle the whole way, you could take the train and cycle the journey to and from the station. See National Rail Enquiries’ information on taking bicycles on the rail network.
You could also check if your employer is signed up for the government’s cycle to work initiative, which allows you to purchase a new bike tax-free and pay monthly straight from your salary. If they aren’t, direct the relevant member of staff to details of benefits to employers of the initiative, and encourage them to sign up.
Using bicycles at work is becoming increasingly common in some professions. Couriers, police and paramedics are among workers who may cycle for work. If you are required to cycle as part of your job, ensure your employer has a robust safe cycling policy covering: training; clothing; lighting; risk assessment of routes; pre-ride inspections; punctures; storage; theft; and insurance. If they don’t have a policy, talk to your manager.
Cycling to school
With the right guidance, and safe conditions, most secondary school children will be capable of cycling independently. (Younger children shouldn’t cycle without supervision unless there are off-road facilities.) However, heavy or fast moving traffic, lack of cycling facilities or unsuitable terrain for cycling often makes cycling to school unsafe or impractical.
Many UK schools will draw up a travel plan in partnership with their local authority to enable and encourage active, sustainable and safe travel to school. This includes identifying and working to address any barriers to children walking or cycling safely, including lack of cycling facilities. If you have concerns about your child (or you) being able to cycle safely to school, it’s a good idea to raise these with the school and local authority, and ask if this is to be addressed as part of the school travel plan.
Schools may also offer free cycle training to students through schemes such as Bikeability. Contact the school to see if they offer training, and to enrol your child if it is offered.
Cycling in your area
Do you automatically reach for the car keys when you need to go to the shops? How about when visiting friends or going to the cinema or gym? If destinations like this are within a couple of miles of where you live, consider hopping on a bike instead. Commuting or doing the school run by bike may not be practical for everybody, but most of us will have other opportunities to cycle. Cycling around your local area is a fun and easy way to stretch your legs, get some fresh air and enjoy your community or countryside. 40% of UK journeys of less than two miles are made by car. Many of these could be made by bicycle in less than 20 minutes, helping to reduce traffic volumes, pollution and danger, while allowing you to get fit and save money on petrol and parking.
If your local area doesn’t have suitable cycling facilities, use our community campaign guide on campaigning change for improved active and sustainable travel infrastructure in your area.
We advise sticking to safe, off-road or segregated cycle paths as much as possible. However there may be times, especially on longer routes, where you will have to cycle on roads with other vehicles. If you are cycling on the road, be sure to stick to the following advice:
- Choose the safest routes: where you do have to cycle on roads,quieter roads with less traffic, lower (preferably 20mph) speed limits and fewer parked cars and other hazards, are likely to be far safer. You should also consider junctions that are likely to be risky, like busy roundabouts, and either avoid these entirely or walk your bike across them on pavements, crossings or underpasses.
- Stay vigilant: Look out for any potential hazards or obstructions ahead such as bumps, pot holes and parked vehicles, and give yourself plenty of time to manoeuvre around them safely. Regularly look behind and to the sides so you are aware of what is happening on the road around you. When cycling past parked cars, leave extra space and watch out for doors being opened.
- Road position: You should allow at least a metre between you and the kerb. Position yourself even further out from the kerb when on a road where it’s unsafe for a driver to pass you. Giving yourself plenty of distance from the kerb will also help you avoid cycling over drains, debris and other hazards found in or near the gutter.
- Never pass on the inside: Never attempt to undertake a lorry or bus on the inside, especially at a junction, even if there is a cycle lane. Because of blind spots on large vehicles, the driver may not be able to see you if you pass on their left. It’s better to hold back and wait behind the vehicle. If you must overtake, do it on the right and allow plenty of space to pass safely, and beware of oncoming traffic.
- Signal clearly: When changing lanes, turning, or any other similar manoeuvre, signal your intent clearly and well in advance so other road users know what you are going to do.
- Use your lights: If you’re cycling in darkness hours or poor visibility you have to have front and rear lights by law. We recommend you carry small spare lights in case the main lights stop working.
Cycling with your kids is a great way to stay fit and enjoy some quality time together, while teaching them important road safety lessons. Brake recommends that children under 10 don’t cycle on roads. Many roads are unsafe for children, particularly fast and bendy rural roads and busy town roads without separate space for cyclists.
Some communities now have great cycling facilities, including separate paths for cyclists, which can be a great way for children to start enjoying the benefits of cycling while safe from traffic. Safe places to cycle (and have stress-free fun as a family) include off-road cycle trails, parks and many forests and country parks with specially created mountain biking areas and paths. In cities, velodromes often have indoor and outdoor facilities that are open to children of a certain age. Check your local council website for details of facilities in your area, or CTC’s map of cycle routes to find safe, off-road cycle paths.
You can also help your child gain experience through cycle training arranged through their school or the local authority. Even if it's not safe for them to cycle on local roads, this is helpful for them starting to gain experience, and great if you are planning a cycling holiday.
If your child cycles on roads, help them plan the safest possible routes making use of traffic-free paths and quiet, slow roads, and teach them the importance of following the advice above. Tell them to get off and walk their bike on the pavement if they have to negotiate any busy junctions.
There is a huge range of products on the market designed to transport children by bike, from front and rear-mounted child seats, to trailers, tag-alongs and tow bars. Which is the best for you depends on a number of factors:
- your own experience and fitness;
- number of children;
- size and age of children;
- the type of route and surface;
- traffic levels and danger; and
- distance you are planning to ride.
If you can, try before you buy. Most cycle shops stock a variety of bikes and child-seat accessories that you can test out with your children.
Be aware that child carriers increase the size of your bike, alter the balance, and can make manoeuvring more challenging. Child seats on bikes aren’t safety seats with crash protection, and uncovered seats offer no protection from the elements either - a child who is not pedalling can get very cold or sunburnt so ensure they are well wrapped up or have suncream on, depending on the weather.
Trailers place your child at the level of vehicles’ wheels and exhaust fumes, and therefore Brake does not recommend they are used on roads, although they can be great on off-road, well surfaced cycle trails.
Page updated June 2015