Save Yourselves

Cycling Has Never Been More Popular – Now Could Be the Time to Revolutionise Travel

Transport is now the UK's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. But a new-found enthusiasm for cycling during lockdown could transform how we get around.
09 July 2020, 8:30am
two men cycling
Photo: VICE

In his more than 30 years at Brixton Cycles, Lincoln Romain has never seen anything like it.

"In a busy summer, we might sell out of some bike sizes, but not all the sizes," he says, slightly incredulously. He and his colleagues, who run the south London bike shop as a workers' co-operative, would usually expect a spike in demand "around June, July, August". But this year, "we were having that in March. It's just exploded." It's not just sales that have kept them busy, either. "We've had loads more bikes in for repair," says Lincoln. "Bikes that have been in the garden forever, and now they're little hotels for spiders, that sort of thing."

Talk to anyone in the cycling industry and you'll hear a similar story. Halfords, which sells around a quarter of the bikes bought in the UK each year, saw a huge spike in demand during lockdown. At the opposite end of the scale, Evil, a high-end brand – whose carbon-fibre, full-suspension mountain bikes start at £5,000 a pop – have had their best spring ever. Meanwhile, Bike Radar, the UK's largest cycling magazine site, has seen its traffic double compared to the same time last year. "You can pretty much pin the increase in demand to the day lockdown started," says George Scott, the editor-in-chief.

Not only has there been an unprecedented uptick in interest, cycling seems to have broadened its audience, too. With the roads emptier than ever, gyms closed and team sports ruled out for a long time, people far-removed from the lycra-clad, middle-aged, white, male cliché have been discovering – or rediscovering – the simple joys of riding a bike, in record numbers.

"Our demographic is pretty diverse anyway," says Lincoln of Brixton Cycles, but it’s become noticeably more so in recent months. At Halfords, women's models are now outselling men's, and Bike Radar's most-read articles have been those aimed not at existing cyclists, but at people trying the sport for the first time. "We could see very quickly that [the spike] was driven by beginner content – people looking at how to set handlebar height, how to set saddle height [or] how to pump up a tyre," says Scott. In keeping with the sales trend seen at Halfords, their most successful article was a new entrants' guide to women's bike sizes.

This COVID-driven cycling boom is obviously good news for those working in the British bike industry, but more importantly, it's great news for the environment and the health of the country as a whole. Transport recently passed power generation as the single largest cause of carbon emissions in the UK, meaning we need large-scale reductions across the sector if we're to meet our Paris commitments. Cycling advocates have long pointed out that people who ride bikes instead of driving tend to be fitter, but there are wider health benefits too. Encouraging more Brits to ride bikes is an obvious solution to the issue of air pollution, which, shockingly, kills nearly as many people as smoking each year.

The pandemic has made the health benefits of cycling more apparent than ever. Why risk infection by cramming yourself onto a commuter train, bus or tube when you could stay safely isolated on your bike? There’s evidence that, among those who’ve recently taken up cycling recreationally, there’s an appetite for change. In a recent survey by Active Traveller magazine, 22 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to commute by bike or walk to work in future because of coronavirus.

For pro-cycling campaigners, this represents a huge opportunity. "It definitely feels like we’re at a pivotal point," says George Scott. While bike use has grown steadily in the UK over the past 30-odd years, he argues that it's still primarily seen "as a sport, rather than as transport". The broadening of the biking demographic during lockdown, however, represents something of a tipping point.

Adam Tranter, who serves as the Bicycle Mayor of Coventry (an independent and voluntary position), as well as running a bike-focused media agency, agrees. He recently oversaw the launch of #BikeIsBest, a nationwide advertising campaign aimed at expanding not just the number of people who cycle, but the kinds of people who cycle regularly.

"The people who cycle in the UK at the moment are the fit and the brave, doing it mostly for sport," he explains, whereas this new campaign, funded by over 50 different bike brands in a rare cross-industry effort, focuses instead "on promoting cycling for normal people, doing normal things".

"In the Netherlands," Tranter says, "they have two words for people on bikes. They have 'wheel-runners', which is what we would call a 'cyclist' here – people in lycra, with a helmet, who go quite fast. Then they have 'fietsers', which essentially means 'taking a bike and using it to get somewhere because it's quicker than walking'." The aim of #BikeIsBest, Tranter explains, is to stop people from seeing bike users as "cyclists", and instead view them just as "people on bikes".

The lockdown cycling boom, Adam and other campaigners hope, has helped accelerate this cultural shift. But if the UK truly wants to wean itself away from the most polluting forms of transport, changing the perception of cycling is only half the battle. "The massive thing is infrastructure," says George Scott. "If people don't feel safe, they won't try it."

No one appreciates this more than Will Norman, London’s first full-time walking and cycling commissioner. Appointed by Mayor Sadiq Khan, who made improving London’s air quality a key part of his election platform, he’s spent much of the past four years working to expand the capital’s network of protected cycle lanes. Will points out that, in a post-COVID world, his job of making streets safer, and persuading more Londoners to ride bikes, isn’t just desirable, it’s essential.

"Even with the recent reductions in social distancing [from two metres to "one metre plus"] public transport has a lot less capacity, and people are nervous about going back on it," he says. "But the last thing we want are all those journeys switching to cars, London grinding to a halt and a toxic air crisis. So we've got no real choice other than to rapidly repurpose our streets to make it safe for people to cycle."

Improving the UK’s cycling infrastructure isn’t just about air quality or keeping journey times down. “Where I am, near Coventry, 33 percent of people don't own or have access to a car,” says Adam Tranter, "so it almost becomes a social justice issue. We’re going to be at something like 25 to 30 percent of public transport capacity. How are we expecting them to get about?"

In some cities, including London, Bristol and Leicester, local councils have moved rapidly to address the issue. Transport for London is working with boroughs to invest £55 million into transforming the capital's roads – installing traffic calming measures to make streets quieter, putting new cycle lanes in place and making huge swathes of central London car free. “What usually takes years and months is being done within days and weeks,” Will Norman explains. “It’s incredibly exciting, though not without its challenges.”

On a national level, however, things have apparently been moving at a more pedestrian pace. At the beginning of May, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced £2 billion of investment in cycling and walking, with £250 million set aside for creating emergency infrastructure during the pandemic.

Yet campaigners have pointed out that this was repackaged investment rather than new money, and Adam Tranter said there have been delays in getting it where it’s needed. At the end of June, nearly two months after Shapps' announcement, he told me: "Coventry City Council are frustrated, because they have plans ready to go but they haven't got the funding yet."

Like Will Norman, Tranter credits the fact that the UK government is "making the right noises" on cycling. Boris Johnson took Andrew Gilligan, the "cycling czar" he appointed while London Mayor, with him when he moved into Downing Street, and Tranter says, "On the face of it, there is quite powerful language from the government, which indicates political will coming straight from Number 10." But as with so many of the Prime Minister’s promises, the government has been slow to follow up rhetoric with action. "From an infrastructure point of view, I think [the moment] could be slipping away and slipping out of reach," says Adam Tranter.

There has never been a better time – or more enthusiasm – for the cycling revolution that the UK needs than right now. As Will Norman puts it, "If there is a small silver lining on this very dark cloud, then I hope [it’s that the pandemic] will accelerate the shift to cleaner, greener forms of transport." But with lockdown loosening and people returning to the streets, the national government needs to get its act together – and fast.

"What we do in the coming weeks can set the tone for a generation ahead," says Adam Tranter. "The signs are promising, but the proof is in the pudding."

@Tris_Kennedy