In case you missed it, the government have declared we are entering a 'golden age' for cycling. Modal shifts are being forced upon us by the social distancing needed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and one form of transport fits the bill better than anything else: the bike. But, as things stand, this golden age is dead in the water before it starts. Here's why.

Want to get people cycling like they do in Copenhagen or Amsterdam? Where it is normal, and not some kooky lifestyle choice requiring tight shiny clothes and nerves of steel?

This means bike lanes: proper, segregated bike lanes. This will be hard - the space for cycling needs to come from somewhere, and that somewhere means less road space for cars. I fear the government will fudge this, and fail this. There will be more 'shared-space' paths that will only create conflict between pedestrians and cyclists. These are poor for cyclists - they are slower and generally less direct. And they are terrible for pedestrians, because no one enjoys a cyclist flying past them (or their dog, or their kids) at close quarters on a footpath. The only winner from shared-space paths is the car driver.

We've all seen the huge (and very welcome) increases in runners, walkers and cyclists over the past few weeks, especially family groups riding on the road. This is because those people feel safe on the roads for the first time in a generation. Once cars return in significant numbers, and once the population returns to a 'me first / get out of my way' mindset and culture, those numbers of cyclists - especially women and families - will disappear overnight.

The current, rather conflicted, guidance (stay at home, unless you have to work, and don't use public transport) presents a massive opportunity. But unless fairly radical steps are taken immediately then people will default to their cars (and understandably so) if that is the most convenient mode.

This means that unless steps are actively taken to make car driving less convenient then the opportunity will be lost. This should include closing streets to cars completely, or converting lanes of streets to protected cycle lanes, and using both these methods to create new one-way / orbital routes for cars around towns, while allowing bikes to use the most direct routes through the urban centre. Unless the bike is considered faster, easier or less hassle, it won't be used.

Of course, the other massive incentive for getting people out of cars and onto bikes is the health and economic benefits for the overall population. There would be a very significant benefit to the NHS, not just from the improved health from regular exercise for those who cycle, but also to the population as a whole due to decreased pollution. And, by extension, to the planet. Sounds good, right?

The reality of cycling in the UK is that for most people it is a difficult, off-putting option. The roads feel dangerous, the UK is a reasonably hilly place, the weather is poor. The media takes every opportunity to demonise cyclists. The road network and infrastructure prioritises cars. Shopping has shifted away from local high streets to out of town superstores that rewards weekly, high volume buying. Fitness levels are low and obesity is high. Good bikes are expensive, and cheap, badly set-up bikes are heavy and tend to fail regularly. Workplaces don't have bike parking, or shower facilities. Commuting distances are long. You may as well ask the average person in the UK to cycle to the moon as to swap from car to bike.

However, there is one solution to all of this, and it is here now: E-Bikes.

Electric bikes will be the game-changer for the UK. All barriers (real or perceived) relating to fitness can be overcome. Regular clothes can be worn. Cargo can be carried, plus laptops, work equipment etc. Ask anyone who has tried an e-bike and you'll be hit with the full beams of the converted. But - and it's a big but - e-bikes are still very expensive. This is an impossible ask for the average worker at the moment: no one is likely to be spending over £1000 on an electric bike when they are worried about their jobs and income.

So - as well as prioritising immediate changes (and long-term structural change) the government needs to get workers in the UK onto e-bikes.

So here's what we should do:

  1. Abolish tax on sales of e-bikes to reduce the barrier to purchase. Of course, increased purchasing also has the small side benefit of helping to kick-start the economy.
  2. Create tax incentives for those who ride to work (either on an e-bike or regular bike), so that choosing the most responsible mode of travel becomes a financially rewarding choice. This would need to go further than the current cycle-to-work scheme, where the cost of the bike is reduced but still potentially substantial.
  3. In the same way the government has offered to financially guarantee the bounce-back loans for small businesses, an interest-free loan scheme should be introduced to help workers facilitate the purchase of a bike or e-bike. This loan could be offered either directly or via your employer (in the same way some employers offer season ticket loans for rail travel).
  4. Ideally, the tax incentives and interest-free loan would interact in such a way that the 'real' cost to the worker was minimal - so that if, for example, the cost to repay the loan was £25 per month, the worker received a similar amount in tax benefits, making the purchase as cost-neutral as possible.

We are facing a tremendous opportunity. COVID-19 has forced massive temporary changes in the way we live upon us. But it has also offered us a generational chance to make real, life-long changes to the way we live and work, and to the type of country and environment we want to live, work and travel in.

But it won't be easy. We are facing an environment and culture that for decades has not just prioritised the car but has actively suppressed many other modes of transport in its place. It will take concerted effort to change this. It may inconvenience some people. It will be resisted.

But if we are serious about making the nation, and the world, a happier, healthier, greener, more efficient place, the time and opportunity is now.

The question is, how serious are we?

May 19, 2020 — Neil Wyatt