How the wheels came off British cycling revolution

Less leisure time a reason for dwindling bike use since the Covid lockdown highs of 2020

Pelotons of cyclists were a common sight during the height of the first UK lockdown in 2020. Getty
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When Covid first struck, Britain’s roads were transformed by dinging bells, garish Lycra, and whooshing wheels as people got on their bikes in droves.

Such was cycling’s 2020 resurgence, UK government data showed that cycling trips per person were up by 26 per cent on 2019’s level – from 16 to 20.

The trend was heralded as a great cycling revolution: two-wheelers were moving out of shops with Pogacar-esque speed.

As a result, retailer Halfords in June reported a 54 per cent increase in bike sales and a 72 per cent increase in full-year profits.

The latest government data punctures this brave new dawn and shows cycling levels in 2021 are now, on average, similar to those seen in the baseline week in March 2020.

That there would be some fall-off in the numbers cycling is to be expected, but a return to the status quo is disappointing.

Less leisure time catalyst for plunge

Cyclescheme chairman Adrian Warren told The National that much of the drop can be apportioned to a reduction in leisure time since restrictions were eased.

“In 2020 there was a 75 per cent increase in leisure rides,” he said.

“That’s probably the area that took the impact as we returned to a more normal way of life: commuting to work, working away from home, dropping the kids off at school, etc. These all reduce the time that we have to cycle.”

Mr Warren acknowledged that the national picture was disappointing yet highlighted some local bright spots, many of them in London.

“[The London boroughs of} Lambeth and Camden I know have had significant growth and are maintaining it,” he said.

Outside of the capital he namechecked the cycling cities of Bristol in the south-west and Manchester in the north-west, and said Sheffield in the north-east was “hot on their heels”.

At the moment ... with places where you cycle, there isn't safe bike parking when you get there.”
Adrian Warren, chairman, Cyclescheme

The success of these areas he assigned to the targeted and substantial investment in their “active transport” infrastructure.

This does not just mean lots of cycle lanes and pedestrian-only zones, it means engineering active transport such as cycling into a locality's DNA.

He gave the example of security.

“You don't want to have the concern that if you drive somewhere and park your car, that when you get back to your car it might not be there,” he said.

“At the moment this is very much the case with places where you cycle, there isn't safe bike parking when you get there.”

He credited the UK government’s “Gear Change” walking and cycling plan for starting to tackle these issues.

The £2 billion ($2.7 billion)package of measures UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last year was the largest amount of funding ever committed to increasing cycling and walking in this country, according to the Department for Transport.

£250 million of the £2 billion was allocated in 2020-2021 to schemes including the Active Travel Fund and the “Fix Your Bike” voucher scheme.

This year, £438 million is being provided to enable local authorities in England to boost active travel in their areas.

Return to regular pro-cycling messaging needed

Alongside increased funding there must be a better public messaging campaign, Mr Warren said.

“I think a lot of the messages that were coming out from government were quite explicit during the pandemic,” he said.

“Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps [Transport Secretary] stood on the lectern telling people to ride their bike more to help alleviate the pressure on public transport. And certainly we haven't had that type of message recently.”

Mr Warren believes there is an easy way to revive the approach, and a very apt one in the year of Cop26.

“With four million car journeys a day of which 58 per cent are under five miles [eight kilometres], the government can continue to highlight the message of how cycling and active travel can massively alleviate the pressure we've got on our climate," he said.

“About 25 per cent of CO2 emissions in the UK come from transport, so taking to two wheels for the car journeys that are under five miles would have a significant impact.”

This messaging has to be clear and it has to be consistent, Mr Warren said.

Those doubting the approach only need look at the current UK fuel shortage to see how government and media discourse can influence human behaviour. Words have created the shortage by instigating panic buying. Fuel itself is in plentiful supply.

Positive messaging also applies to the procurement of cycling equipment, which does not come cheap when of suitable quality, yet pales into insignificance when compared with the costs of a car.

“For between £500 to £1,500 you are going to get a reliable bike, “ Mr Warren said.

“It's lightweight and it's going to be supportive of you cycling it numerous times and on longer journeys.

“And when you then put that into context of the price of the car, it’s not that much money at all.”

Employers should refocus on in-work benefits

The cost of cycling reduces further if equipment is bought through a government-backed initiative like Cyclescheme, where people can purchase bikes at a discount through a registered employer.

Mr Warren believes the record high number of vacancies in the UK economy mean employers have been focused on recruitment and have taken their eyes off the wheel when it comes to in-work benefits – such as cycling – compared with last year.

Cyclescheme is working to re-engage them.

“We are doing a lot of engagement and communication with all of the employees that are signed up to encourage them to promote the scheme to their employees," Mr Warren said.

“Almost every employer has a cycle-to-work scheme. The HR teams and internal communication teams just need to see it as a priority within their workforce.”

Updated: October 05, 2021, 10:09 PM