Make cycling part of the new normal

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Logo: Bike Week
(Adrian Wills/Cycling UK)
(Adrian Wills/Cycling UK)

Every year, Cycling UK, the national cycling charity, organises a week-long celebration of all things bike. This time round, like so many other parts of our lives, Bike Week has had to adapt to the reality of life under lockdown. The usual programme of group rides, conferences and meet-ups has been cancelled, and instead the event, which runs from June 6 to 14, has gone virtual.

But amid all the negative effects of the coronavirus crisis on the health and finances of the nation, with friends and families being cut off from one another, workplaces shutting down and events being cancelled, there is one undoubted positive. All of us have had to reassess our daily routines, and what is truly important. We have had to think about how we travel, and whether our journeys are essential. Many of us have enjoyed the emptiness of the roads as we took our daily permitted exercise. Key workers have been encouraged to avoid public transport and walk or cycle where possible to maintain social distancing. As travel restrictions gradually ease, we have a choice: do we go back to the old ways, or do we seize the opportunity to make some positive changes?

Uber Jump bikes waiting for their riders on the annual Parliamentary Bike Ride outside Prince Philip House in 2019.  (Sam Jones/Cycling UK)
Uber Jump bikes waiting for their riders on the annual Parliamentary Bike Ride outside Prince Philip House in 2019. (Sam Jones/Cycling UK)

The key theme of Bike Week 2020 is health and wellbeing. This was partly inspired by the vital contribution of the health and social care workers who have helped to keep us healthy during the crisis (and to whom Cycling UK extended a free membership offer to help them travel to work), but also in recognition of the real difference cycling can make to the health of the nation. These effects go beyond the obvious benefits of taking exercise rather than sitting in a car or on a bus. There is the improvement in air quality caused by taking vehicles off the roads: in big cities such as London, two-thirds of car journeys are short enough (under 5km) to be replaced by a 20-minute bike ride. Additionally, a Dutch study comparing overall health risks from cycling to those from driving (including accident risk, exposure to pollution and the benefits of cardiovascular activity) found that the benefits of swapping from driving to cycling for short journeys outweighed the risks nine-fold.

Then there is the effect on mental wellbeing. Physical activity such as cycling is a way to relax and destress the mind. Hospital staff working long and harrowing shifts have told Cycling UK how they find it a vital way to “switch off” and allow separation between home and work life. “When I am cycling my mind is empty of everything except the road in front of me,” said one doctor.

A poll carried out by YouGov on behalf of Cycling UK found that more than one in three people agreed that they would be prepared to rethink the way they travel when returning to work after lockdown, in order to use their cars less. But if people are to choose active travel such as cycling, they need to feel safe and encouraged to do so. As the charity’s head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore, says: “The reduction in vehicle traffic and increase in cycling during lockdown has allowed a glimpse of a different, more active future, and it would be a great shame to turn our backs on this and return to business as usual. We know that cycling is a great way to reduce car use and ease pressure on public transport, and we know that, now more than ever, people are prepared to rethink the way they travel. However, they need infrastructure and investment to support them in making this change, or we risk losing what could be a golden opportunity.”

Cycling through the ages at the launch of Bike Week 2019 in London (Anthony Upton)
Cycling through the ages at the launch of Bike Week 2019 in London (Anthony Upton)

While, objectively, cycling is extremely safe, with fatalities per mile travelled similar to those for pedestrians, safety fears are a very real barrier to many potential cyclists. Cycling UK is therefore calling on both national governments and local authorities to commit to infrastructure that will encourage people to choose active travel. The organisation encouraged its members to write to their local councils to ask for temporary space for pedestrians and cyclists to be made available on streets during the coronavirus lockdown, and has highlighted areas in major cities where relatively short lengths of cycle lane could encourage large numbers of people onto their bikes.

Logo: Cycling UK

Bike Week 2020 aims to capitalise on the extra attention that cycling has enjoyed in the past few months – with positive coverage even in media that have often published negative portrayals of cycling and cyclists in the past. The organisers are asking people to share their cycling experiences on social media, with the hashtag #7daysofcycling reflecting a different theme each day. Prizes are on offer for those sharing photos and videos of their rides or other bike-related activities. There are also family activities to download, online webinars and workshops on everything from council infrastructure to yoga for cyclists, a Q&A with Dragon’s Den star (and cycling investor) Piers Linney, and much more. Cycling UK hopes that Bike Week can return to its usual, real-world self in 2021, and that one lasting impact of this year’s pandemic can be a positive one: helping the charity to achieve its long-term aim of getting one million more people on their bikes.

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