A collaborative, multi-disciplinary and multi-institution project initiated by Dr Robin Lovelace, Asst. Prof. Transport Data Science at the University of Leeds, the Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT) is revolutionising strategic cycle planning in England and Wales and beyond.
The Propensity to Cycle Tool was developed by team from the Universities of Leeds, Cambridge, Westminster and LSHTM with funding from Department for Transport (DfT) in the UK and the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC).
By modelling routes taken by cyclists currently, and under scenarios of changing matching policy objectives, the project was able to tackle structural problems in strategic cycle network planning on a national scale. The PCT involved building new concepts, methods and an open access web application for evidence-based transport planning, freely available on the website www.pct.bike. This tool is used to map and quantify cycling potential at national, city, and street scales, to create joined-up networks to benefit millions of people through improved air quality and physical activity.
A uniquely innovative aspect of the PCT is its provision of travel data at high levels of resolution, down to street level. The project is underpinned by research modelling origin-destination data across large geographic regions using novel ‘Big Data’ sources. Dr Lovelace and colleagues at Leeds created the computational architecture and software that enabled the tool to be scaled-up, which led to a follow-on DfT contract to undertake national deployment of the new computational methods for transport planning underlying the PCT’s codebase. These were peer-reviewed and published in the open source stplanr software package, enabling access and use by researchers and decision-makers worldwide. stplanr is now in the top fifteen per cent global downloads of 16,000 R Project for Statistical Computing packages, with more than 100k downloads.
The team also developed additional methods for processing geographic data representing transport routes. A new algorithm called overline was developed to efficiently convert transport routes into a route network layer, reinforcing the PCT’s relevance to policy because it enabled the production of scalable map layers visualising current and potential future cycling levels on roads. Key to the design of the PCT was flexibility, allowing for modifications to calculate safe routes to school for England. Being an open-access transport model, it can be used by multiple stakeholders. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was adapted in collaboration with CycleStreets to prioritise new pop-up cycleways on roads with the highest propensities for cycling, by reallocating space on wide roads or pavements to create new cycleways.
The PCT presents users with four scenarios, including ‘Go Dutch’ to explore futures in which cycling becomes as popular in the UK as it is in The Netherlands, and ‘Ebikes’ to explore the potential impacts electric cycles can have on cycling uptake. The cost-effectiveness of investment depends not only on the number of additional trips cycled, but on wider impacts such as those on health and CO2 emissions. The tool reports on each scenario at area, desire line, route level and route networks, building the strategic case for change.
As a consequence of how the PCT was envisaged, developed, and implemented, it has become the main government-endorsed tool for strategic cycle network planning across England. Used by campaign groups and national, regional and local government involved in cycling planning, investment and advocacy, it has led to the construction of joined-up regional cycle networks in towns and cities, and informed the majority of UK local authority applications to the £250m government COVID-19 Emergency Active Travel Fund. At least 58 of 79 local authority and private sector transport planning consultancies have used it in developing cycling investment plans. Planners across Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand are now using it as well.
The national charity CyclingUK used the PCT to develop ‘tube-style’ cycle network maps similar to those on the London Underground, to create visions of cycling futures in its national campaign to encourage cycling advocacy groups. This work enabled informed discourse between council officers, consultants, and lobby groups with clear outcomes. A map produced by campaigners in Bristol helped convince their council to commit £35m for investment in cycling over five years.
In response to the climate emergency, health concerns, and air pollution, the UK has made a commitment by 2025 to double the use of cycling. Before the PCT was developed however, transport planners, policy-makers and other stakeholders lacked the integrated evidence on transport pathways, topography and user demographics needed to optimise development of ‘whole bicycling network’ approaches and inform investment in cycling infrastructure.
Since 2017, the PCT has been used by more than 35,000 transport planners, consultants, advocates, and members of the public, directly influencing design and construction of cost-effective cycle networks worth more than £500m. The Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) Officer (2018-2019) and Cycling and Walking Officer for Dorset County Council (2019-present) is on record as having said, “In my judgement, the PCT has saved tens of millions of pounds in consultancy fees for public bodies, ensuring that hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in active travel is spent effectively.”
Dr. Robin Lovelace