This post may contain affiliate links, which help to keep Discerning Cyclist rolling. Learn more.
Cycling is increasingly being recognized as one of the most sustainable ways to commute, not only for the health benefits it provides but also for the reduced strain on the environment that comes with it.
The United Kingdom is swiftly becoming a cycling-friendly nation, thanks to government investment in bicycle infrastructure across the country, as well as community projects. These are both playing their part in getting people onto two wheels.
Within the UK, there’s still a significant disparity in cycling, and some cities are considerably more bike-friendly than others. In this article, we’ll look at the top 10 best cities for cycling in the UK, examining their commitment to cycling and efforts to make it safer, as well as their ridership and overall contribution to cycling culture.
Discerning Cyclist is on YouTube
Is the UK Bicycle-Friendly?
The UK might not have always been the most assuring of countries to cycle in, especially compared to some of its European neighbors, but it’s certainly made efforts to make itself bicycle-friendly.
In the Second Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, the government pledged to invest £2 billion in ‘active travel’ over five years. This is part of the ambitious target of ensuring that over 50% of all journeys in towns and cities in the UK are made on foot or by bike by 2030 and are the ‘default choice’ for shorter and longer journeys by 2040.
The government has also pledged to make cycling and walking safer, ensuring all roads are designed with cyclists and pedestrians in mind, not just cars.
They’ve also promised to continue to promote cycle training, such as the ‘proficiency’ tests offered in schools at an early age, as well as funding for local authorities to improve safety on busy roads.
These investments are crucial to ensure bicycle friendliness. While bicycle-related fatalities were down 17% and pedal traffic grew 62% between 2004 and 2021, the number of serious injuries has risen 27%. Bicycle safety must be kept as a priority.
But, one wonders if it is. These initial pledges have been significantly slashed, raising concerns about whether the aims that have been outlined have since been disregarded.
Cycling is on the Rise in the UK
According to the data released by the Department for Transport, the number of people cycling is at an all-time high, reaching its highest point since pre-millennium. However, cycling still accounted for only 3% of all trips taken in 2020.
Since 2002, the average number of miles cycled has increased from 39 miles per person to a record high of 88 miles per person in 2020.
In fact, in 2021, there were 4.2 billion miles cycled in the UK, and the number of people cycling more than once a week has risen, but only by 1% in over six years in England. In Scotland, on the other hand, cycling for pleasure or fitness has increased 3% between 2019 and 2021.
Cycling UK, the national cycling charity, confirms the rise of popularity in cycling across the nation. In particular, there is an increase in women and children who cycle as a means of transport, which is a positive sign that cycling in the UK is becoming more accessible and inclusive to all.
Best Cycling Cities in the UK (Top 10)
Whilst the UK has had a varying degree of success when it comes to promoting cycling, there are plenty of cities specifically that are doing a great job.
Here are the top 10 best cycling cities in the UK.
Bristol is known for being cycle-friendly, and it’s not hard to see why. The progressive, young city has excellent infrastructure in place for bikes, such as the Bristol-Bath Railway Path, a 13-mile cycleway between the two cities.
In 2015, the city council also approved the Bristol Cycling Strategy, which sets out to make Bristol a place where cycling is a part of daily life for most Bristolians. Since then, there’s been significant increases in the number of cycle ways available, many of which give bikes priority.
Part of the city’s charm is its strong community of cyclists. The city has several cycling groups and organisations, both for social and for practical purposes. The Bristol Cycling Campaign, for example, dedicates itself to cyclists’ needs, advocating for them when it comes to local planning.
Bristol also has an interesting bike hire system, where from the main train stations you can rent a folding Brompton in order to navigate the relatively flat city. This is great for those considering folding bikes as a means of commuting.
Manchester has made great strides in its cycling culture in recent years. The city council has established a set of ambitious goals, which include increasing the number of daily cycle journeys from 5% to 10% and reducing the proportion of car journeys from 58% to 50%.
Manchester’s cycling infrastructure is just as impressive, from the award winning Oxford Road cycleway to the vast number of city and outer-city routes. Between November 2019 and 2020, nearly 10% of people cycled at least once a week, which is actually about the English average. However, these numbers are expected to increase significantly, as Manchester has the infrastructure in place to support an explosion in cycling.
Following the unfortunate withdrawal of Mobike, the city’s previous bike hire scheme, Manchester has since rolled out the ‘pay-as-you-ride’ Bee active bikes. It has proved to be popular, but unfortunately, it’s still plagued by vandalism and theft. Manchester strives to be one of the most bicycle friendly cities, yes, but there seem to be a few people that are abusing it for the others.
With over 100 kilometres of separated cycle lanes, over 700 Santander Cycle hire stations, and a growing network of quietways, London is taking bicycles seriously.
The introduction of the Cycle Superhighway network has improved the capital’s cycling infrastructure, making travelling by bike smoother and safer than ever before. Whilst only 7 of the initial 12 highways that were pledged have materialised, it’s still a welcome initiative.
Cycling initiatives are plenty in London, and most people would say that it’s definitely a safer place to cycle than it was 10 years ago. Santander cycles recorded a record number of users borrowing their bikes in February 2022, but these statistics pale in contrast to those of Amsterdam, Oslo or Copenhagen, where biking culture is more prominent.
Unfortunately, London’s cycling infrastructure is still far from perfect. Cyclists continue to face a dangerous combination of cars, buses and taxis on the road. Safety is still a principal concern stopping Londoners from getting onto the bikes. This is changing, fortunately, but slowly.
Though not as well known outside of the UK as some cities on this list, York is regarded as a bikeable city. In fact, it was ranked as one of the most bike-friendly in the whole of the UK.
The city has developed a 57-kilometre circular cycle route, the York Outer Ring Road. This well designated cycle path makes it easier for cyclists to get around and experience the city’s numerous historic landmarks. This route is just one of the 1,400 established routes in the city, and from old railway routes to riverside paths, there’s something for everyone..
Compared to many other cities in the UK, cyclists generally report feeling safer cycling both in and around the city centre, and this is thanks not only to the infrastructure but the bike-friendly attitude that exists here. It’s these reasons that make York a contender for one of the best UK cities for cycling.
Cambridge is known worldwide as a cycling haven, and with a cycling rate that surpasses 50% of city commutes, miles above the national average, it’s no wonder. The city’s long standing tradition of cycling might even date back to Victorian times.
In December 2017, Cambridge was named by Cycling Weekly magazine as Britain’s best cycling city. Since the early 1970s, the city’s local council has implemented measures to enlarge the cycling infrastructure, building new segregated cycleways and cycling bridges. Cycling is a dominant mode of transport in the city, and there’s a number of car-free areas, allowing riders to feel safer.
With regular events organised, such as those with the Cambridge Festival of Cycling, bikes have been normalised and are used more like they are in parts of Europe, as the default. It’s this attitude which serves as an example to the rest of the UK.
Newcastle is an underrated cycling city in the UK. With over 150 km of cycle paths, it’s a great place to be for a cyclist.
Unlike York, Newcastle is a city that’s having to adapt. The local government has pledged an investment of over £19 million (from local and National funds) to make cycling and walking more safe and user-friendly.
Whilst there’s been investment in the cycling infrastructure of the city centre, the best of cycling in Newcastle actually takes place on its outer routes. With spectacular views and rolling green hills, Newcastle has some fantastic bike friendly excursions available for those looking to get out of the city on two wheels on the weekend.
Edinburgh has maintained its place amongst the UK’s greatest cycling cities thanks to its advanced bike-to-work plans and commitment to investing in cycling infrastructure. Every day, 16,000 return bicycle trips are made by people in the city.
The City of Edinburgh Council’s Spaces for People Programme, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, promoted safe walking and cycling. This is part of the almost £6 million pounds spent between 2019-2021 on improving the cycle network. Now, it’s rated as the friendliest bike-friendly city in Scotland, and the second friendliest cycling city in the UK, just after Bristol.
In Edinburgh, 4% of the total road network are bike lanes, making it proportionally one of the highest in the whole of the UK. With 311 KM of cycle lanes available to its residents and visitors, it’s no wonder that people are getting out on their bikes, despite the weather.
Cardiff is an exemplar of sustainable urban transport, with bike racks lining up across the heart of the city, bike-repair centres, and exciting cycling events for all ages.
Whilst many cities are making big promises, the city is doing well when it comes to its commuting targets, with events like Cardiff Pedal power going a long way to making cycling a norm. It’s these efforts that make it a serious contender for the UKs friendliest bicycle city.
The council also aims to propel Cardiff into the future by encouraging cycling. With various campaigns and investment, it’s clearly been successful. And they’re not the only ones getting people on their bikes in Cardiff. Cycle Training Wales is an excellent non-profit offering not just bicycle training, but maintenance and bike ‘doctoring’ services as well.
With its large green parks and gradual gradients, it’s easy to explore by bike. There’s also some lovely scenic routes, such as the circuit around the Bay, taking you out of the city and along the water.
In Oxford, almost 20% of commuters choose to travel by bike, making it one of the UK’s top cycling cities by usership. It may come as somewhat of a surprise then, that there is a noticeable lack in cycle paths in the city.
Unlike in other cities on this list, cyclists in Oxford are using existing infrastructure for cycling, sharing the space with cars and other road users. In fact, in terms of its infrastructure, it still has some extremely dangerous junctions and intersections that are intimidating to even the most seasoned cyclist.
Despite these limitations, there are current plans to install hundreds more parking spaces for bikes, both on public and private land, via the ‘Park That Bike‘ scheme. The council also has plans to expand on a cycle network throughout the city, making it easier for people to use their bikes as a mode of transport.
The city is home to a robust cycling community, with groups like Oxford Cycle Workshop leading the way in community engagement, training, and most importantly – bike repairs.
In Oxford, it seems that the city is on the verge of becoming very bike-friendly. It’s got all the ingredients, but it just needs a little bit more time.
The green, seaside city doesn’t have to do much to encourage its residents to get onto two wheels, they do it anyway.
Brighton’s Greenway is a continuous cycle path that runs for almost six miles along the seafront, providing residents and visitors with an opportunity to separate themselves from traffic. In fact, there are incredible coastal rides for cyclists here, even if not all of them are specifically tailored for bikes. As always, you make do with what you have.
There’s also the infamous London to Brighton cycle race, a 200-mile route that takes place in August every year. It’s said to be one of the most popular bike races in the UK, and attracts more than 30,000 competitors each time. And of course, no one in Brighton can forget the annual Naked Bike Ride, but we probably shouldn’t go into too much detail about that here.
Whilst the touristic centre itself is probably best travelled by foot, the city does have fantastic links to both the University of Brighton and Sussex University campuses both in and out of the city.
Most Improved Cycling City: Milton Keynes
Whilst it isn’t yet one of our top picks for bicycle friendly cities in the UK, Milton Keynes deserves an honourable mention.
The city underwent significant development in the past couple of decades, with work done on improving the city’s cycling infrastructure. These construction plans were made with cycle use in mind and are part of their ambitious goals for a sustainable, micromobile future.
One of the investments made has been in a super secure bike parking system. These new ‘diamond standard’ parking spots are free to use, and are already proving to be a significant deterrent against theft.
But this isn’t the only way that Milton Keynes is developing its bicycle culture. It’s also actively encouraging and promoting cycling through community participation. The annual Milton Keynes Cycle Carnival is one such way that cyclists of all ages can be brought together for fun and festivities.
The UK’s commitment to cycling has aided the establishment of some promising cycling cities. Through a commitment to infrastructure, education and community engagement, more cities can become like their European neighbours; green, bicycle-friendly, and liveable.