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Could UK be a Cycling Nation?

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

With more people using bicycles for transport in lockdown, campaigners want to ensure we do not revert back to cars.

In the very near future, millions of us are going to face a choice which could have far-reaching consequences for this country.  With lockdown set to be eased, but with social distancing likely to remain in place for quite a while, we are going to have to decide how we get about. 

Do we take public transport, knowing the risks involved in terms of spreading Covid-19? Rely on our cars? Do we use alternative means of transport and if so, which ones? Or could coronavirus be the trigger to turn Britain into a cycling nation? 

No one is saying we are going to be like the Dutch or the Danes overnight. At the moment, both statistically and culturally, we are light years behind our European neighbours. In the Netherlands a whopping 26 percent of all journeys are made by bike. In Denmark the figure is close to 20 percent. In Britain, pre-lockdown anyway, fewer than two percent of journeys were made by bike, accounting for just over one percent of total distance travelled. 

“I genuinely think we’re at a crossroads and I don’t know which way we’ll go.” The words belong to Chris Boardman, the 1992 Olympic champion, who now acts as a policy advisor for British Cycling as well as being Greater Manchester's first ever Cycling and Walking Commissioner.


Boardman points to cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen which have similar climates to the UK but where cycling is a way of life, wrapped up in the national identity. 

The trouble, he says, is that most people were not prepared to listen before. Now they are. “It’s been remarkable to watch actually,” Boardman says. “We changed a global culture in a couple of weeks when there was motivation to do so [in beating Covid-19]. Everyone has temporarily joined the same club.”

The reason Boardman and other active travel campaigners are hopeful is because of the huge growth cycling has enjoyed during lockdown; the shift in attitudes.

"Many people are rediscovering cycling during lockdown, for exercise or essential journeys,” Cycling Scotland chief executive Keith Irving says. "I hope people continue to cycle when we emerge from this crisis and carry on benefiting from the massive positive impact cycling has on our physical and mental health.”

The reality is more than a third of trips in the UK are under two miles, and more than 60 percent less than five miles. There is plenty of scope, particularly in urban areas, for more one-person trips to be made by bike or on foot. 

You always get people who say ‘I couldn’t do this. Because I live here and I work there. And there’s equipment to carry’. But you’re actually one of a minority. Most people could walk or cycle the journeys that they currently drive. We have millions of journeys across the UK every year of less than 500m in a vehicle. And millions more of less than a kilometre or two kilometres are made in a vehicle.

The trouble, historically, has been that towns and cities in Britain have not been optimised for pedestrians or cyclists. Too much traffic, too dangerous.

The environmental impact is also a factor. The benefits to us as a nation from making such changes would be incalculable. It has escaped nobody’s notice that Mother Earth has enjoyed global lockdown. Social media footage of animals roaming in urban areas have been a feature of lockdown, while CO2 emissions in China were temporarily down 25 percent earlier this year after their lockdown. Our towns and cities are experiencing their freshest air in decades

That reduction in emissions would have been unthinkable weeks ago, and equally so would the idea of Britain becoming a ‘cycling’ nation. Can we become one? It’s a big ask, requiring a radical shift in mindset - potentially more radical than we’d care to admit.

But real change requires real investment. Boardman’s team have spent the last two years preparing a vision for Greater Manchester’s 2040 Transport Strategy, including an 1800-mile network of cycleways and pathways. The blueprint is there. “Anything that happens in Greater Manchester is almost certainly going to be applicable to anywhere in the UK and possibly the world,” he says.

Other major cities are already showing the way. Milan recently announced one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes re-allocating street space from cars to cycling and walking in response to the coronavirus crisis. Paris announced last month that it was creating temporary and permanent cycle lanes to the tune of €300 million with certain sections to be ready by the end of this month.

Will the UK follow suit? We all know it should. Government needs to invest now. We know Boris is a cyclist. He needs to provide the infrastructure and the corresponding incentives to make Britain a nation of cyclists.

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