WE ARE highly social animals. Consequently, when travelling by bike, the desire to be social will have an impact not only on the routes we choose but also on whether we get the bike out of the shed in the first place. If we want to encourage cycling for all people, we need to design the social into our cycling infrastructure.

For example, during a Bikeability Level 3 course in Eynsham this summer we covered ‘Route to School’ training with five teenagers. We took them on two possible routes, neither ideal, and both requiring a good understanding of on-road riding.

Reviewing the routes at the end, their position was unanimous; they preferred the route that included a section of closed road because they could ride side by side and chat. They preferred this to the A40 bike path because the traffic noise on the A40 meant they wouldn’t be able to hear each other.

I have a niece who is another case in point, happily cycling during primary school but flatly refusing to travel by bike when she moved up to secondary school. As her friends walk to school along the pavement chatting, she would miss out if she cycled.

Cycling for her would be a lonely affair, helmeted, single file, vigilant and aware – very different from a relaxed gaggle of sociable friends, catching up on news and gossip, or making plans to meet up.

Of course, the experts at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (check them out online) have already got this covered. A quick search of the cycling blogs finds that As Easy as Riding a Bike has convincingly set out how our ability to be sociable when cycling is controlled by the environment.

For cycling, the environment means the infrastructure, the traffic levels, the signage and the gradients! Because if you are out of breath you can’t talk however good the cycle routes.

The blogger Faster Pedestrian sets out a chatting index of cycling infrastructure – if you can ride side by side and talk it probably means the infrastructure is good. If you can’t it is likely that you don’t have enough space to ride (London Cycling Design Standards use the Dutch 1.5m minimum width for a cycle lane), the surface is uneven, there is too much traffic noise, or you don’t know where to go, or when the cycle path will end. If you are stressed, squeezed, uncertain and maybe lost, chatting is the last thing on your mind.

The example of the Marston Ferry cycle track in Oxford backs up these arguments. The track is used by hundreds of secondary school children cycling to school because the space enables them to do so in a sociable way. Evidence from our cycling neighbours in Europe also indicates that good infrastructure leads to a more relaxed and sociable journey.

You might argue that other aspects should be prioritised – surely safe cycling is more important than social cycling? However, if a cycling project fails because people cannot be social and therefore do not choose to cycle for that journey, then all the other costly interventions are a waste of money.

Other forms of transport have factored in the ability to be social. Buses, trains and trams are all designed so that it is possible to chat to our friends and family whilst travelling. So if we are serious about cycling, we need to ensure that it is a social mode of transport.