UK cycling infrastructure needs to support age-friendly cities, finds study

Cycling could play a significant role in promoting health and wellbeing among the older population, but the UK is lagging behind other European countries and urgently needs to rethink its infrastructure to support age mobility.

This is one of the findings of a three-year study, which set out to investigate how older people in the UK experience cycling and how this affects independence, health and wellbeing. It notes that the share of all cycle journeys undertaken by people in the UK over the age of 60 is just 1 per cent, compared to 23% in the Netherlands, 15% in Denmark, and 9% in Germany.

Led by Oxford Brookes University, the cycle BOOM study involved 240 participants across Oxford, Bristol, Reading and Cardiff. Participants fell into three categories: non-cyclists (reluctant riders), current cyclists (resilient riders), and a group of older cyclists (re-engaged riders) who wished to re-engage with cycling after a break. A cycling and wellbeing trial was devised for new or returning cycle users to understand and measure how engagement in cycling in the built environment affects wellbeing.

While the results showed the potential of cycling to improve physical and mental health in the older population, participants reported that a number of factors, including poor and unsupportive infrastructure, as well as fear of injury from other traffic, had a negative impact on their cycling experience, and may deter them from taking part in the activity as often as they otherwise might.

Research leader Dr Tim Jones, a reader at the School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University, said: “Our research has demonstrated that older people who currently cycle, or who have tried cycling, recognise the positive benefits it can make to their health and wellbeing. However, they find infrastructure in the UK generally unsupportive of their needs, and the small minority that do cycle, who we classify as ‘resilient riders’ use various coping strategies to deal with declining capabilities and road danger.

Such tactics include timing their rides to avoid peak periods, riding away from motor traffic, adapting cycles, and even riding on the pavement.

“While the issues highlighted are relevant to all cyclists, they are more acutely felt in an ageing cohort, as capabilities change and previously easy activities become more difficult,” added Dr Jones. “The way our towns and cities are designed, as well as cycle technology, needs to consider the diverging capabilities of different users, if cycling is to be embedded in the lives of an increasingly older population.”

The report sets out a series of recommendations that present a foundation on which to develop an age-friendly cycling agenda.

Firstly, says the report, outdoor space needs to offer a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience, which is more than simply about getting from A to B but also offers opportunities for people to dwell and interact with the outdoors. Specific measures include: implementing low-speed zones in urban and rural areas; improving the quality of design so that it is clear where cyclists are ‘meant to be’; and designing outdoor space and cycle parking to support a range of cycle types.

There is also a need, says the report, to recognise the full potential of cycling as a mobility tool for older people, and better integrate it with other methods of travel so that the boundaries of cycling can be extended. Specific measures include: designing a strategy to reduce motorised traffic levels in the centre of towns to allow cycling to flourish; and providing designated secure cycle parking at public transport hubs, with charging points for e-bikes, step-free access and adequate width and space for non-standard bikes. The cycle industry, too, should be encouraged to design for lifetime cycling mobility through, for example, offering a broader range of cycles to suit older riders.

Housing is another area that can play a part in encouraging cycling among older generations, says the report. Proposals include siting new housing for older people in flatter areas, or providing sufficient width for lateral movement where there are gentle gradients. Linking cycle tracks to key local amenities and green space is another suggestion to encourage more cycling.

Dr Jones commented: “Our study reinforces the need for cities to plough ahead and create a dedicated infrastructure for cycling along major roads, implement slower speed zones, and support the growing market of electric bikes.”

He added that the infrastructure would also promote healthy living among the young: “Interventions targeted at promoting older cycling will not only support healthy ageing but it will also support younger cycling, and help address the pressing issue of low levels of fitness and growing levels of obesity among the nation’s younger population.”

Such alignment is not always the case, as a recent briefing from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) identified. In its POSTnote, ‘Creating age-friendly cities’, it highlights how tactile paving is helpful for blind and visually impaired people, but not older people with limited mobility.

There is also a tension between responding to the needs of the current older population and designing cities that promote healthy ageing across the lifespan, says the briefing; it gives the example of lifts and escalators, which may improve access for people with limited mobility, while the use of stairs would provide health benefits for others.