Our children have just gone back to school, and we are back into the swing of the cycle commute – our kids rarely go anywhere if it isn't on two wheels. We live in a town where everything we need is within a 20-minute bike ride. Not everyone is so lucky, but the pandemic has had ministers musing over whether they could be.
“The concept of a '20-minute neighbourhood', where people have everything they need – schools, shops, recreation and work – within a 20-minute walk is gaining traction across government,“ says Mark Kemp, chair of the transport board and at the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT).
As ADEPT noted in July, the climate emergency and COVID-19 have presented us with a “golden opportunity“ to push active travel. “All of us, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, have suddenly found out what it is like to have streets where you can breathe clean air, hear the birds singing at noon, and walk or ride in safety,“ said Boris Johnson recently, as he committed £2bn to a cycling and walking “revolution“.
The money will be used to create thousands of miles of protected bike lanes and low-traffic neighbourhoods. There are £50 bike repair vouchers, which were snapped up so quickly that payments to repair shops are taking twice as long as promised.
“Without intervention, people will slip back to old behaviours“
During lockdown, millions have caught the cycling bug. Local authorities are making it easier and safer to cycle – and should be supported to make this permanent. Sustrans has an interactive map showing new protected cycle lanes, wider footways and reduced speed limits.
A number of councils have introduced school street closures – during drop-off and pick-up times, streets are open to pedestrians and people on bikes but closed to cars. Edinburgh Napier University recently found that, in almost all cases, the total number of motor vehicles reduced across school street closures and neighbouring streets.
Department for Transport statistics show a 100% increase in weekday cycling between March and July. This is the first promising data for a government that, in 2017, set a target to “double cycling activity by 2025“, but found things going backwards. Miles ridden per person per year have increased, but the number of trips has dropped from 18 in 2002 to 17 in 2018.
As Ryan Georgiades, managing director at cycle insurance firm Yellow Jersey, wrote in an open letter to the prime minister: “This is about turning people from fairweather do-it-in-lockdown-when-there-are-no-cars-or-commuting cyclists to the cycling-everyday sort.“ This means moving millions of journeys from four wheels to two. In urban areas, more than 40% of journeys are less than two miles. In London, just 5% of these urban trips are completed by bike.
A new national programme to help people buy e-bikes could be crucial. “E-bikes increase the appeal of cycling to groups who are less likely to cycle – women, older groups, those who live more than three miles from work, people from non-white ethnic backgrounds, car owners or those who are inactive,“ said Frauke Behrendt of the University of Brighton, principal investigator in the smart e-bikes project.
Physical inactivity costs the NHS £1bn annually. All those extra walkers and cyclists would also save £567m every year thanks to improved air quality, and the risk of workers developing depression would be reduced. “The opportunity is huge, but it is also time limited – without intervention, people will likely slip back to old behaviours,“ the government said. With schools reopening, a sense of normality has returned – but change is in the (fresh) air.
David Burrows is a researcher and freelance writer.