Of all the things that the United Kingdom is famous for, being bike-friendly isn’t one of them. Unlike neighbouring nations on the Scandinavian Peninsula and European continent - like Denmark, France, and Germany - there aren’t many cities in the UK praised for being great for cycling. One of the most comprehensive rankings of bicycle-friendly cities around the world, the Copenhagenize Index, hasn’t listed a city in the United Kingdom in almost a decade (it was London in 2011).
But that doesn’t mean that the UK is inhospitable to cycling. It’s a country whose people have had a relationship with the bicycle throughout its history. What we now consider the modern bicycle - rear-wheel-drive using a chain and two similarly-sized wheels - was invented by an Englishman in England.
The late 19th century and early 20th century were boom times for cycling throughout the nation, both as an industry and a mode of transport. Then, with the rise of the automobile and public transit systems, biking’s popularity dropped. And yet, cycling in the UK has come back in a big way.
The 2010s have seen a massive upswing in biking, both for commuting and fitness, throughout the country. And with government-supported programs, both national and local levels, many cities have worked hard to become more bike-friendly and more citizens have started cycling to get around every year.
So here are TK uniquely bike-friendly cities in the United Kingdom and what any cyclist should know, from local rules and laws to the necessary bike gear and accessories, when they’re pedaling through.
In 2017, the leaders of the Welsh capital announced an ambitious 10 year plan to invest in city infrastructure and programs encouraging people to bike and become one of the leading cities for cycling in the UK with half of the city’s residents biking by 2021. So far, it looks like they’re succeeding.
In a recent survey of UK cyclists, Cardiff was scored as the top city for cycling. And it’s easy to see why. Cardiff is not only home to NextBike, one of the most extensive bike share programs in the world, but, along with its current mix of bike lanes and paths, the city is developing 5 different potential cycle superhighways, called “cycleways”, and is already in the midst of setting up 3 temporary “pop-up cycleways”.
Alongside the stunning Cardiff Bay Trail, which runs around the entire bay and features important markers highlighting Cardiff history, the city’s biking routes are becoming second to none.
A Tip for Cycling in Cardiff: Ride a mountain bike. While the city itself is pretty flat with miles of paved bike lanes, the area just to the north of Cardiff is filled with a variety of different trails for more rugged and off-road experiences that can easily be reached by bike or public transit from the city.
Essential Biking Gear for the UK: Brakes, reflectors, lights, and a helmet. British law stipulates that all bicycles have two functioning braking systems (either two handbrakes or one handbrake and pedal brakes), as well as at least one red rear reflector and four amber pedal reflectors. If you’re planning on riding at night, you’ll also need a white light for the front of your bike and a red light for the back. Although there’s no legal requirement for cyclists to wear helmets, it’s always a good idea to do so.
You can’t cover cycling cities in the United Kingdom and NOT mention London. It’s the capital and largest city in the country. It’s also, depending on who you talk to, either a cyclist’s nightmare or a paradise. The reality is probably in between and usually not that bad. The city is constantly adding new bike lanes and paths, while riders can bring their bikes on the Underground during certain times (although foldable bikes are allowed all the time).
Like any major metropolitan city, there’s lots of traffic and the big challenge is riding around safely but most riders get used to biking in the city after a while with experience. Interestingly enough, riders who use the city’s world famous public bike scheme, Santander Cycles (more commonly known as “Boris Bikes” after former mayor Boris Johnson), which is still going strong after more than a decade, are statistically much less likely to be involved in an accident and drivers give them more space.
Advice for Biking in London: Obey all the traffic laws...and get a camera. Cycling in London is almost defined by an adversarial relationship between cyclists and drivers. A big part of that conflict is fuelled by bikers who pick and choose which traffic laws to obey, like going on a red light or merging without signalling, so following all the traffic laws for bike, including using hand signals can go a long way in preventing any issues. That being said, many London cyclists have found that buying and attaching a visible camera to record video while they ride to be a great way to prevent accidents and arguments with drivers.
Useful Biking Accessories for the UK: A waterproof bag. The United Kingdom famously has a lot of precipitation. Its average yearly rainfall is 885 mm (33.7 in) and it experiences 133 days of rain per year, which is about 2.5 days per week. That means having a waterproof bag -- either to keep in your biking backpack or the biking bag itself -- is a must. There are two features that should be part of any waterproof bag: water-resistant material and a roll-top closure for creating a watertight seal.
With an estimated third of all residents (33%) biking at least three times a week and half of all residents doing it at least once a week, cycling is more than just a mode of transport in the university city of Cambridge -- it’s a way of life. And it has been for generations. It makes sense when you think about the naturally flat area, thousands of university students that descend every year, and age-old sections of campuses that no car can drive through.
Add the nearly 80 miles of bike paths, massive bike storage garage at the train station, and even sections of road in which cyclists have the right of way over cars, and it’s no wonder that Cambridge is considered by many to be THE cycling city of the United Kingdom.
What to Know for Cycling in Cambridge: Research your route. Unlike other cities in the UK, Cambridge has had a decades-long head start on creating infrastructure for cyclists. That means there’s a plethora of different bike routes, options, and experiments for cyclists. So it helps to know all that’s available and possible for you before you start pedalling.
Recommended Biking Accessories for the United Kingdom: A biking backpack. An essential for anyone whose bike is their primary form of transport anywhere in the world, but especially in the UK. Unlike an ordinary backpack or book bag, biking backpacks are meant for cycling. That means riders can securely and comfortably wear them with the weight evenly distributed.
Although it hasn't been known for bike-friendliness in years past, the largest city in Scotland has been making its way up the list of cycling UK cities for a while now and started to get noticed for its cycling community. Without a doubt, it offers one of the most eclectic range of biking experiences.
The city has invested in infrastructure and programs, resulting in over 300 km of different kinds of bike lanes with more routes and cycleway projects planned for the years to come, as well as an average of 100 bike racks added to the city every year since 2007. There’s even a public bike sharing scheme of approximately 500 bikes and more than 60 locations managed by Nextbike. But probably the biggest boon to biking in Glasgow came with the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which required the city to build Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, Scotland’s first indoor arena for biking racing.
The 250 meter track is made of Siberian timber and can host official race events with up to 2000 spectators. The arena is also open to the public, who can ride it, as well as the connected outdoor training circuit. The 2014 Games also required the building of the nearby Cathkin Braes Mountain Bike Trails, which became fully open to the public after the games ended.
Biking in Glasgow Tip: Join a cycling hub. Whether you’re new to biking or an experienced veteran, finding a group of like-minded enthusiasts to share and learn from can be a fulfilling experience. Cycling hubs are bike-focused community centres often connected with non-profits that connect bikers, offer classes, lessons on bike repair and maintenance, and even assistance with bike sharing programs. They’re usually volunteer organizations with a physical location. In Glasglow, there’s the Drumchapel Cycling Hub, Glasgow South Community Hub, Alexandra Park Bike Hub, Glasgow West Community Hub, and Lambhill Bike Hub.