Years of government efforts to promote cycling have had almost no impact on a sceptical population who largely view bikes as either children's toys or the preserve of Lycra-clad hobbyists, a university study has found.
The coalition has pledged more than £500m over five years on pro-cycling efforts. But the research indicates these reach only the small proportion of people already interested in cycling, leaving others unmoved.
The study, which investigates in depth why people in four towns or cities around England cycle – or, in the main, don't cycle – is still being completed. The academics behind them will gather in Leicester this weekend to present their preliminary findings, which make depressing reading for anyone hopeful the UK could one day have a Dutch-style mass cycling culture.
"Many people barely recognise the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange," Dave Horton, of Lancaster University, wrote in an interim assessment of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study.
"For them, cycling is a bit embarrassing, they fail to see its purpose, and have no interest in integrating it into their lives, certainly on a regular basis."
The three-year project, which also involved Oxford Brookes and Leeds universities, used questionnaires sent to a large numbers of households as well as more in-depth studies about the everyday transport decisions made by dozens of families, during which researchers spent three months each in Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester.
A key finding was that the small numbers of people who do try cycling tend to be intimidated by overwhelmingly car-oriented urban layouts.
Even to experienced riders these often resemble "a dangerous obstacle course", Horton said. "The minority of people who cycle in English cities tend to do so despite, not because of, existing conditions. Some people try cycling, but are quickly put off."
Many see cycling as, at best, something reserved for country weekends rather than everyday travel. The few who do ride in cities tend to be keen enthusiasts, thus reinforcing the niche image."Regrettably, we did not find this mass of people on the threshold of change, who only needed a little push to start cycling as a daily means of getting around,," said Griet Scheldeman, also of Lancaster University. "The hardy, Lycra-clad cyclists confirm that cycling is a very skilled practice, from which most people immediately distance themselves. So far, cycling promotion still reaches mainly that smallish part of the population that does not really need that much convincing."
Another cycling study will report its interim findings this weekend. Cycling Cultures, involving academics at the University of East London (UEL), took the parallel approach of investigating what happens in four areas with relatively high levels of cycling: Bristol, Cambridge, Hull and Hackney in east London.
While it identified positive initiatives such as office bike pools it also found many concerns, for example cyclists' complaints of harassment by drivers.
While some towns and cities, notably London, have seen increases in cyclist numbers over recent years the overall figure for the national percentage of journeys made by bike has remained at about 2%. The equivalent for the Netherlands is more than 25%.
The Lancaster study concludes that even training the young to ride safely achieves little while road conditions remain so unfriendly. The only way to bring in mass cycling, the researchers argue, would be a series of ambitious, hugely costly – and seemingly unlikely – measures to reshape towns and cities. Chief among these would be to build well-made, continuous, segregated cycle routes on all major urban roads and encourage people out of cars by restricting traffic speeds and parking. Another reform would be a European-style "strict liability" law in which the automatic assumption of responsibility would rest with the less vulnerable road user.
It was vital, Horton said, that cycling advocates got behind the idea of segregated lanes: "The cycling world has in the past been divided over the best way of growing cycling. But if we want to achieve high levels of cycling across our cities, this has to change.
"Perhaps above all, and probably most controversially, our research has made it very clear to us that in order to create a mass cycling culture in English cities we need to segregate cycling from motorised traffic along main roads. Combined with a range of other measures, very high quality segregated cycle routes could push English city cycling from its currently marginal status towards a mass phenomenon."
The cycle campaign group CTC said it agreed that many roads were "thoroughly off-putting" for cyclists but that a mass programme of high-quality bike lanes – which some estimates put at £800,000 per kilometre – remained unlikely given the cycling lobby's lack of political clout.
"This new research certainly opens up some really interesting debates about how to redesign our roads and streets to get more people cycling," said Roger Geffen, CTC's campaigns manager. "But the even bigger question is how to mobilise the political will to make this cycle-friendly future a reality."
The transport minister, Norman Baker, said the government was committed to encouraging more people to cycle though Bikeability and the £560m sustainable transport fund. "Like another Norman before me I am keen to see more people get on their bikes," he said.
The Guardian's bike blog book, Cyclebabble: Bloggers on Biking, is out now