Paul Salveson reports on a gentle cycling revolution gathering speed
Anyone involved in public transport, whether as an operator, planner or policy-maker, will be extremely worried at the moment. After spending several weeks of being told not to use trains or buses, the likelihood of people returning to public transport in the volumes we were used to, for a long time to come, seems small. Various studies have been done reflecting people’s current attitudes and likelihood to use trains or buses, but the reality is that nobody really knows what is going to happen, until it does. But it doesn’t look good. It isn’t just that we’ve got out of the habit of using trains or buses (I haven’t been on either for over two months now), people will also be scared of using public transport because of continuing fears of infection.
The winners will be the car, home-working and – the bicycle. As far as transport goes, the bicycle revolution is the one heartening thing to emerge from all this. It has become a cliché to talk of people getting the old bike out of the shed, giving it a bit of oil and pottering around the streets, or further afield. Bike shops have done a roaring trade and I’ve heard of several local cycle shops being virtually cleared out. The good weather has helped.
But will that bike just go back into the shed in a few weeks’ time? Some might, but others will stay in operation. Why so confident? Two things really. Getting into cycling involves two big leaps – physical and mental. Riding a bike for the first few days can be uncomfortable, but it steadily gets better. Your bum will stop aching after a while. At the same time, starting to ride a bike needs confidence, which you only get through practice. If you were starting from fresh, or after a long gap of not cycling, it will take a few weeks of regular cycling (depending I suppose on age and general fitness) to have the confidence and physical well-being to cycle around towns and cities.
But it isn’t just an individual thing – you need to have the right infrastructure in place to really encourage the growth of cycling. In the UK, London is way ahead, but Greater Manchester is starting to do the right things. Many other local authorities, as well as the Welsh and Scottish governments, are reassessing the potential for cycling.
There’s a whole package of measures that are needed, including reduced road space for cars, dedicated cycle lanes, cycle priority, car-free streets and wider spaces, as well as places where you can safely leave your bike. There needs to be a concerted effort to change car drivers’ thinking as well.
There needs to be the resources to make a difference: such as teams of people in local government working with employers, schools, colleges and universities to promote cycling. The unions should have a role in this too, at workplace and strategic level, looking at ways to encourage cycle to work schemes and better cycle facilities at work. Workplaces should have safe places to leave a bike, whether you are employed there or are just visiting. The same goes for shops, cinemas and other places where people congregate.
Rail stations should be developed as cycling hubs, not just with space to leave your bike, but to have it serviced, buy accessories or rent a bike. New development – housing, industrial or commercial – should put cycling infrastructure to the forefront, instead of ignoring it in favour of the car.
And let’s not be sniffy about the electric bike – or, to be more accurate, ‘power-assisted’ bikes: you still have to pedal. I had the perspicacity to buy one in early February and it really has changed my life. There should be battery charging points in workplaces and railway stations, as well as hire facilities at stations. ‘Cycle snobbery’ is something that needs challenging. The idea that you have to be kitted out in figure-hugging lycra with a bike costing thousands puts people off. You need a helmet and you need to be visible. But that’s all.
Cycling is one of those retail sectors that lends itself well to alternative forms of ownership. Many cycle shops are already run as co-operatives. It isn’t difficult to set up a new business selling, hiring and repairing bikes, perhaps linked to other retail activities. At Auchterarder, Scotland, there’s a lovely bike shop, gallery and cafe but I’m sure there are lots more.
Three months ago much of this would have been dismissed as pie-in-the-sky. Now it’s starting to happen, with government money to back it up. Labour should be keeping them to their word but being more imaginative in developing local, regional and national strategies.