Photo Credit: Tejvan Pettinger

In the U.K, bicycle use peaked in 1952 and has been in permanent decline since. We are outflanked by our European neighbours when it comes to levels of cycling, yet the British and the bike are not natural antagonists. Certain media outlets and politicians may help to drive such attitudes from drivers, but this largely stems from being forced to share the same road. The U.K lacks the infrastructure and legislation for cycling to be a safe mode of transport. The immediate uptake of cyclists on the empty roads throughout lockdown made this clear, boosted by up to 70% in some places, and with bike sales rising by 60% in April. Even before Covid, 75% of residents living in 12 urban areas wished for more space made available on their high streets for people socialising, cycling and walking.

Between the end of the Second World War and the first oil crisis in 1973, both the Netherlands and the U.K were experiencing high numbers of traffic fatalities, particularly involving children. In the Netherlands, widespread public anger and political action led to the vast and speedy increase in cycle infrastructure programmes, restrictions on car use, land development and investments in public transport. Over a quarter of all trips are now made by bicycle in the Netherlands, rising to over 60% in certain cities, compared to just 2% in the UK. According to UNICEF, children in the Netherlands are the happiest in the world. One of the causes can be linked to their independence, mobility, and freedom to play without fear of traffic accidents. 

In the U.K, transport is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the UK. Private vehicle use, especially cars, make up the bulk of this. With public transport operating at less than full capacity, roads are beginning to become clogged up with cars. Even prior to Covid-19, a respiratory virus worsened by air pollution, more than 20,000 extra deaths a year in the UK were attributed to nitrogen dioxide emissions. Increasing the number of people on bikes and reducing road traffic will help to tackle this, as well as other underlying health conditions like obesity – Johnson’s latest endeavour. 

In England, around 60% of 1-2 mile trips are made by car and almost half of commutes are less than three miles. Increasing the numbers of people able to walk or cycle would free up road space enormously for taxis and those who cannot, as well as for outdoor café seating. In fact, 30% of retired people, and 46% of people in certain socio-economic groups do not have access to a car, many of whom are key workers. Promoting alternatives is therefore vital. Boosting investment into cycling infrastructure could create 103,000 jobs in the immediate term, one antidote to soaring unemployment in the wake of Covid-19.

During this window of opportunity, countries and cities are looking towards the Netherlands as a model. According to Marco te Brömmelstroet, who teaches urban planning and mobility at Amsterdam University “cities are now in the stage where the Netherlands was in the 1970s, breaking with decades of car-centric thinking and starting to experiment with solutions that give cycling more and safer space on the roads”. Coronavirus can act as a catalyst, but change also depends on the willingness of policymakers, and their priorities before the crisis. In Paris, Barcelona and Berlin, expanding bike lanes were on the drawing board prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 allowed them to take off faster and with less opposition. Meanwhile Antwerp, despite ranking highly as a cycling city, has resumed the mission of its right wing mayor to expand its already polluted highway surrounding the city, including the introduction of a 25-lane interchange. 

In the U.K, supposedly new investments of £2 billion funding for cycling and walking over five years, with £250 million fast-tracked for pop-up bike lanes, had actually been brought forward from previous policies announced in February. Local authorities have been able to bid for emergency travel fund to develop infrastructure, and an updated Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy will be launched by Johnson in the summer, including an inspectorate to ensure councils meet higher standards for infrastructure. Doctors can now also prescribe cycling, and cycle and walking infrastructure will have its own budget, like roads. The Department for Transport said the money would be allocated to towns and cities with “well-developed plans for cycling and walking networks, such as those set out in Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans”. 

Whilst these policies are helpful and very much welcome for councils already enthusiastic about creating cycle and walking space, other authorities are ‘dragging their heels’. An ad-hoc approach to green mobility risks exacerbating inequalities across the country, and two months after Johnson’s announcement, some of the schemes are at risk. Several Conservative politicians have been campaigning against emergency active travel plans, and in six councils funded cycle routes have been cancelled. Investment needs to reach other places where there have not been announced plans; cities and towns, but also in rural areas where there is increased risk of cuts to bus services.

Across England councils are facing black holes in their annual budgets after bearing the costs of the coronavirus crisis. The government gave local authorities £3.5 billion in emergency funding, but the Local Government Association has calculated that coronavirus has cost local authorities £10.9 billion, leaving a shortfall of £7.4 billion. It is a risk that this critical juncture will pass without transforming temporary cycling measures into something more permanent. City councils such as Liverpool and Sheffield have said that financial challenges have not changed their goal to be carbon neutral in 10 years, but other local authorities may feel reluctant to commit to improvements with the prospects of cuts on the horizon. 

Asides from this, the £2bn investment is forecast to only reach a third of the way to the government’s own modest target of doubling the percentage of cycle trips people take – from 2% of all journeys in 2015 to 4% by 2025. Reports suggest that £7 billion is required for this. In 2013, the Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) called to increase cycling to 10% by 2025, and to 25% by 2050, and in 2010, the Chief Medical Officer for England called for an eight-fold increase in cycling to address the public health consequences of low physical activity levels. In this light, Boris Johnson’s aim to double cycling by 2025 does not go far enough.

Whilst offering refresher courses for Adults and the £50 bike repair voucher is a good start, the Bicycle Association has urged the government to go further in introducing a £250 grant for anyone buying an e-bike – similar to subsidies for electric cars. The national e-bike support programme sounds promising, but details still await as to what that will entail.

£27 billion for roads, the highest ever spend, dwarfs the £2 billion set aside for cycling and walking infrastructure. This is out of tune with the public, where a recent poll by Opinium suggests that whilst 40% of people want investment in local bus services and 37% want investment in cycling infrastructure, fewer than 14% want investment in more or bigger roads. If the government truly wants to build back greener, road building plans ought to be scrapped with the funds directed into climate initiatives. The government recently committed for 50% of new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, and for all sales by 2040, but modelling shows that the U.K would still need to reduce private vehicle use (car mileage) by 60% in order to meet the already weak net zero target of 2050. Even if 100% of new sales were electric by 2030 (which is being campaigned for), there would have to be a 10-20% reduction in mileage. Clearly there needs to be a rapid decarbonisation of transport, and whilst electric vehicles play a role, they still require emissions for production, rely on electricity and are difficult to dispose of sustainably. Increasing road capacity will only increase numbers of vehicles on our roads, the exact opposite of what needs to happen. 

It is not only better investment, but legislation too which is required. Brömmelstroet argues that reaching the levels of cycling seen in Dutch cities requires both long-term policies and vehicle speed limits as low as 15kph — lower than cities may be prepared to go. In the Netherlands, the country’s strict liability laws have helped create its culture of cycling, protecting pedestrians from cyclists, and cyclists from motor vehicles. 

Decarbonising the country and transforming it into a nation that embraces cycling needs a committed and long-term approach from the government. The normalisation of bikes as a mode of transport, not just a hobby, is a shift which is entirely feasible in the U.K, but reimagining the future of mobility requires more ambitious policies and investment than that which has been put forward so far. Although new proposals are a step forward, only rapid, and far-reaching changes are necessary to tackle climate change. To return to pre-Covid levels of car usage, or worse presiding over an increase, would be devastating.