Yes, it does, says Sam Margolis from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets
If you live in London, or in any other major centre in the UK, you may well have seen the adverts promoting free cycling training offered by local authorities. In the absence of high-quality cycling infrastructure, many councils have pushed cycle training schemes as a relatively low-budget method of boosting safer and more cycling.
In 2009/10, the total funding for cycle training in London alone was over £3m. It is seen as a useful tool not only to build skills and techniques for riding a bike, but to generate greater cycling levels amongst participants.
But to most people, an obvious question remains: are these schemes actually effective at getting more people riding? Some new
research (which CTC supported) from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in the East End, suggests that cycle training does meet this principle aspiration - at least in the short term after training takes place.
In a unique evaluation, a detailed ‘before' and ‘after' study of 471 participants entering the Borough's adult cycle training programme between March 2010 and April 2011 was carried out. Each trainee received up to 4 hours of free Bikeability cycle training and those without bikes were able to borrow them for the duration. Information about participants' cycling levels, physical activity rates, bike ownership and a number of other factors was gathered through self-administered questionnaires given to trainees before entering the programme - the ‘before' part of the evaluation process. Further surveys, covering the same questions, were distributed to trainees 3 months and 1 year after their first training session. Whilst all 471 trainees completed baseline surveys, 28% (130 participants) completed a 3 month follow up form, whilst just 25 ‘1 year' follow up surveys were collated, limiting the significance of any longer term findings.
The results, in particular in the ‘short term' after training, were hugely encouraging: just under half of those trainees completing a 3 month follow up survey (46%) reported cycling more frequently after training than beforehand. Indeed, prior to completing a
form, the average number of days in a week on which participants had cycled for at least 30 minutes almost doubled after the training (from 1 day per week to almost 2 days per week). Cycle to work levels amongst trainees, on average, exactly doubled, whilst trainees were found to ride for a substantially longer duration on the days that they did ride.
Arguably, however, the most important finding was that these statistically significant jumps in cycling frequency seemed to add to overall physical activity levels amongst trainees, rather than take away from other forms of exercise. The amount of physical activity in a week undertaken by trainees post-training increased by almost the same amount as the increase in each week's cycling. In other words, the extra cycling seemed to add to whatever other forms of physical activity trainees previously took part in, with potentially significant health benefits as a result. Most excitingly, trainees who had never previously ridden bikes reported encouraging levels of cycling 3 months after the end of their training (on average, cycling for at least 30 minutes for 1.5 days per week).
The study also managed to prove - through both an assessment of qualitative responses within feedback forms, and a dedicated focus group piece of research - that the increases in cycling and physical activity levels observed were at least partially a result of the training received.
Free cycle training appears to have been as important as other factors, such as new cycle routes, in encouraging trainees to cycle post-training. Funders of cycle training will also be encouraged by the positive benefit:cost ratio of 1.5:1 that was obtained
for the scheme using the well-established ‘HEAT' tool produced by the World Health Organisation. Indeed, as this tool only
considers the mortality reduction benefits of a cycling or walking project, then the ‘true' benefit:cost ratio when including other factors (such as reduced congestion and other health improvements for individuals), would be likely to be far higher.
These findings should give huge encouragement to other local authorities as they come under increasing pressure to justify
spending on discretionary schemes such as cycle training. Further research is required to back up the more limited additional findings attained through this study, which indicated (with the caveat of a low number of responses) that changes in cycling levels are also maintained 1 year after the cycle training takes place (i.e., into the longer, not just short term). Additional studies to test the reliability of the self-reported changes are also necessary.
Further, it is clear that cycle training can be seen as a useful strategy in developing skills, techniques and confidence that makes it more likely that those trainees willing to engage in such a programme will cycle more after their sessions. But such training must be viewed as a supportive tool to other strategies - especially infrastructure measures - that will generate the substantial upturn in cycling levels amongst a broader spectrum of the UK population that successive local and national governments have championed.
However, this is perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of adult cycle training to date and one of the only ones to employ a robust ‘before' and ‘after' evaluation methodology. The results provide one of the first detailed pieces of evidence to suggest
that Bikeability for adults can help achieve the now defunct Cycling England's mantra of ‘more cycling, more safely, more often'.
The detailed results can be obtained by contacting the author: Sam.Margolis@towerhamlets.gov.uk
For CTC's cycle training pages, see www.ctc.org.uk/cycletraining