Why coronavirus could turn Britain into a cycling nation

Within the next few weeks, millions of us are going to face a choice which

Within the next few weeks, 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 the foreseeable future, 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. 

It is a worrying discrepancy given what is coming down the tracks.  Writing on Twitter last week, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman estimated that, once lockdown was lifted, up to eight million journeys a day in the nation’s capital would need to be made by means other than public transport. “If just a fraction switch to cars, London will grind to a halt, choking our economic recovery,” he said.

It is a threat which appears – belatedly – to have registered with the Government. Boris Johnson himself rang regional leaders last Friday telling them to encourage their constituents to commute on foot or by bike to help avoid a dramatic increase in car use once lockdown restrictions were partially lifted. Transport secretary Grant Shapps has promised to expand on the Government’s ‘active travel’ [walking and cycling] strategy soon. But time is of the essence.

‘This is about helping people through the crisis’

“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, has long been an advocate for changing the way in which we travel. 

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.”

Boardman clearly believes this is potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, although he is careful not to use that word. For the moment, it is all about beating the virus.

“This is about what we can do right now to help people not driving, and there’s a lot,” he insists. “A third of households in Greater Manchester don’t have access to a car. They need to be able to travel safely whilst following distancing guidelines. We have a very small window to provide  safe space for them. If we do, it will help those that need to travel in the current situation and through recovery. 

“So that’s what we’re doing. Months from now, when distancing measures aren’t needed, we can ask ‘do you want us to keep this?’ And if people like the way they’ve been moving around, they’ll say yes. I think they’re going to say ‘Yes, I prefer this.’ But that is for later, this is about helping people through the crisis.”

‘Many people are rediscovering cycling during lockdown’

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.

There was some resistance at first. Many – even those who work in the industry and have a vested interest – were of the opinion that going out on a bike while the NHS was under such severe pressure was reckless at best. The anti-Lycra lobby came out in force after pictures of thousands of weekend warriors in Richmond Park went viral back in March. More recently, some villages in Yorkshire expressed concern that cyclists out on their once-daily exercise might be helping to spread the virus.

But generally the naysayers have gone quiet and with British Cycling successfully lobbying the Department for Health to include cycling in its list of recommended daily activities, numbers have gone through the roof. 

Transport analysts at Vivacity Labs say that on Sunday April 5 in Peterborough and Nottingham, cycling traffic rose above 300 percent of average Sunday levels recorded in the weeks before strict social distancing rules were enforced. On the same day, cycling levels in London’s Westminster and in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole on the south coast of England reached beyond 250 percent of levels recorded earlier in the year. 

It’s the same story north of the border with Cycling Scotland saying the average number of people cycling per day has more than doubled in many places. 

Shapps told Sky News last week that applications for the Government’s cycle-to-work scheme had increased by “hundreds of per cent” since lockdown was imposed.

In a short space of time, bicycles have become a vital tool both for frontline workers getting about towns and cities (NHS staff can currently hire London’s Santander cycle scheme bikes for free, as well as gain free membership to British Cycling) and for families, too. Figures from Sport England suggest that 22% of those who are cycling are doing so with children. It has helped, of course, that the weather has been unusually glorious for most of the past six weeks. 

“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.”

‘Space is the one thing we all really need now’

They may have to. Transport chiefs estimate that enforcing social-distancing rules on public transport will mean just 15-20 per cent of a train’s capacity will be used as lockdown as eased. There are going to be more people battling for space on our roads than ever. Yet according to research carried out by UCL, two thirds of pavements in London are not currently wide enough for social distancing (as shown in this map, an extract of which is pictured below). That is a figure likely to be consistent in towns and cities across the country. Something has to give.

Map of street width in London

The automotive industry is clearly hoping we all jump back in our cars. According to consumer research carried out by Auto Trader last month, 48 per cent of UK public transport users said they would be “less likely to use public transport once the lockdown ends”. And over 56 per cent of those polled were of the opinion that “owning a vehicle would be more rather than less important” in the future. For those living in a city centre, and therefore typically more dependent on public transport, that figure increased to 64 per cent.

But they should not have to. 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. 

Dame Sarah Storey, Paralympic athlete and Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region, believes it is incumbent on all of us to question how we travel over the next few months and how we want our society to look.

“Moving around in a single-person vehicle is the most inefficient use of space, and space is the one thing we all really need now,” she says. “You start to question the need for such a large use of space for one person in what is a metal box. And although that will protect you from the virus because you’re in your own environment, that is too much space per person.” Storey adds that while some trips are practical or even essential by car, many – particularly within cities – are not. 

“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.” Data below shows how dependent we have been on car journeys.

The trouble, historically, has been that towns and cities in Britain have not been optimised for pedestrians or cyclists. Too much traffic, too dangerous. During lockdown, the tables have started to turn. In a poll of 4,778 British Cycling members last month 75 per cent said their experience of cycling on the roads had improved in the last seven weeks.

“The question in Britain has never been whether people want to cycle, but whether they feel safe enough to do it,” Boardman says. “With road traffic now down to 1950s levels and people avoiding public transport, cycling now looks and feels like a viable option for those making essential journeys. As a result, after just weeks, we’re seeing lots of normal people in normal clothes, travelling by bike.

“And that’s the bit that scares the hell out of me. What happens next could be transformative or we could just as easily, go back to how it was before. The next few weeks will tell.”

Change must happen ‘in matter of weeks’

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. Perhaps the cultural differences are just too large. Either way if it is to happen changes need to happen fast. Storey concedes we have “a matter of weeks before the next phase [of lockdown] is implemented”. 

She admits that there is only a certain amount which can be achieved in that timeframe, referring to ‘frugal innovations’ which could be swiftly implemented to make safe space for active travel – from simple things like increasing the width of pavements, or potentially extending them into the road so that people feel safe to stay two metres apart as traffic increases, to removing parking from outside shops, to getting more parked cars off the pavements because now they’re actively stopping people from staying two metres apart.

She and her team have interactive maps which residents in the Sheffield region can comment on “so that we can find out where there are too many cars parked on the pavement, or blocking dropped kerbs, or in a position that makes social distancing difficult”.

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.

‘Do nothing, and we choose cars by default’

Other major cities are already showing the way. Milan recently announced one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating 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? 

Some towns and local councils have already taken action. Liverpool has opened the Queensway (Birkenhead) Tunnel to cyclists travelling between The Wirral and Liverpool, for instance. Edinburgh and Glasgow have opened temporary lanes, Brighton has closed Madeira Drive to cars, Cardiff has imposed reduced speed limits and a reduction in parking spaces. 

But we need to think bigger and bolder. Can we?

“This is the biggest global sociological change most of us have ever experienced,” Boardman concludes. “It’s going to leave a legacy. Depending on the choices we make in the next few days and weeks, some of those changes can be for the better. But if that’s to happen, decisions need to be made right now.

“We have a very distinct choice regarding what we do to help people travel safely during this crisis. If we enable driving, it will help people stay isolated now but is bad for the future. If we give people the space to walk and ride now, it will help them stay isolated and be good for our future. Do nothing, and we choose cars by default.”

Could coronavirus turn Britain into a nation of cyclists? Share your view in the comments section below.