What connects Southampton (‘the Marseille of Hampshire’) and Bristol (‘the Sheffield of the West Country’)? Well apart from maritime histories, the former footballer Rickie Lambert, and the Wessex Main Line, apparently the fact that they are the two best cities for cycling in the UK.
That is, according to a new study that dropped into my inbox today, which analysed air quality, bike thefts, cycling accidents, the number of well-maintained bike trails, the amount of bike shops, and the average temperature to create some kind of comparative table.
A study of this ilk drops into my inbox most days. The winning city is invariably different. But according to the data produced by bike insurance company ProtectMyBike, Southampton tops the chart, with Bristol following close behind.
There are many confusing things about this particular table, from the slightly too-rounded numbers of bike shops and bike thefts, but the most confusing thing is the two places at the top of the table.
There is one more thing that connects Southampton and Bristol, however: me. Sadly for the survey, I don’t have wholly positive opinions about cycling in either of them, neither the former, the place I was born or grew up in, or the latter, where I have spent most of my adult life.
Neither are a cycling paradise, it must be said. In both Southampton and Bristol, you have to be a pretty confident cyclist to face the roads, which more often than not you will find yourself cycling on – despite the survey’s record of bike paths.
For the last two Christmases I’ve cycled home to Southampton from Bristol. I do so because I enjoy it – much of the journey is a delight. The worst bit of the whole trip has always been the part where I have to cycle through Southampton itself.
Nothing typifies the UK’s confused approach to cycling infrastructure than the appearance then disappearance of a cycle lane on The Avenue in Southampton, as first it was thought necessary during Covid, and then superfluous post-pandemic. It would be good if bike infrastructure was just taken seriously, all the time.
It’s a similar case in Bristol, where some temporary cycle lanes have remained half-baked, or have been taken away altogether. There are some truly great bike paths here, like the Bristol & Bath Railway Path, which feels pretty unique, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
Southampton, in particular, feels like a city made for drivers rather than one heading for an active travel city; this is despite it being an awful lot flatter than Bristol, which at least feels like it’s going in the right direction sometimes, if you squint.
Apparently Southampton ranked well for air quality, with low levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution, a relatively high annual temperature (11.1°C), and a gentle terrain, but with all these considered, I have never found it a good place to cycle.
As for Bristol, the chair of Bristol Cycling said just last month that the “culture war narrative” is making cycling more dangerous, as a survey showed that four in five cyclists had experienced driver aggression in the city.
The Bristol Cycling survey, which got over 1,000 responses within the UK city, showed that 81 per cent of cyclists have experienced issues ranging from inattentive drivers passing too close, to ‘extreme verbal and physical aggression’. Meanwhile, 45 per cent said they were very concerned about road safety and collisions. It also has the most damaged roads in England, according to research by insurance company Compare the Market.
This isn’t the first PR survey to crown somewhere the best place to cycle in the UK, the last time ProtectMyBike sent an email out, Brighton was top, so it all feels very arbitrary.
All of this isn’t to say either Bristol or Southampton are bad places to cycle. Bristol, in particular, is where I’ve really fallen in love with life on two wheels. Most of that is because of the communities that cycling provides, along with being so close to some amazing country lanes to get out onto, however. Bristol is close to the Mendips, the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley, even the Quantocks. Southampton, similarly, benefits from being so close to the New Forest and the Meon Valley. This would make sense, but the survey does not take this into account.
Perhaps Southampton and Bristol are the best cities to cycle in in the UK because everywhere else is bad. And, your best bet, is to get outside of the city and explore the
real cycling meccas of the UK – away from bright lights and half-arsed bike lanes. I could understand that.