As we enter the post-pandemic world, Molli Tyldesley explores the government’s extensive plans for a “new era” of cycling and why this is great for Britain’s sustainable future plans.
What does cycle mean to you? Perhaps it evokes images of serious athletes whizzing around the velodrome, or a long string of lycra-clad men winding through the Alps or hurtling down the Champs-Elysees. Or perhaps you are a motorist, seemingly the natural enemy of the cyclist, and see cyclists as nuisances who tend to disregard the rules of the road. Whether you admire or despise cyclists, it seems that in the UK, cycling is not regarded as the norm. However, this may be about to change, as the government plan to create a “new era for cycling“.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that post-pandemic, the UK will witness a “golden age of cycling”. The government have pledged to implement a £2 billion package, creating more cycle lanes, safer roads, and vouchers for bike repairs to usher in this “new era”. They aim to “relieve the pressure” on our trains, trams and buses. This is especially important following the pandemic because there is reduced capacity on public transport due to social distancing.
Of course, the simple solution to the problem of less space on public transport could be to drive into work. Environmentally, however, this could be disastrous. According to the ONS, in 1990, 255 billion miles were travelled by road in Great Britain. This has since increased by 29% to 328 billion miles in 2018. Over a fifth of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from road traffic. An increase in the number of cars on the road would be a huge step backwards with regards to climate change
Before the UK went into lockdown, there were 100,000 cars per day in the central London congestion charge zone. Transport for London has voiced their concern that once lockdown is over, this could double to 200,000 cars per day. This will release more harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming as well as polluting the air we breathe.
Before lockdown, there were 4.5 million daily car journeys across the capital alone. 60% of these journeys were under 2.5 miles, suggesting that encouraging people to cycle to work is not such a radical idea. The language of the government certainly suggests comprehensive reform, and brings hope of a more sustainable future, but can this be realisable?
Presently, 61% of people feel that the UK’s roads are unsafe for cyclists, with Manchester deemed the most dangerous city in the country for those on two wheels. Countrywide, roads are rife with potholes. Bike lanes are often narrow or not fully segregated from the lanes that belong to cars. Cars are often found parked over bike lanes. And most bike lanes simply do not cover enough area, stopping outside city limits. To attract commuters, they must extend 5-10 miles outside of cities and be smooth and wide enough for people to feel safe on their daily journeys. All of this must change if we want to encourage people to cycle.
Happily, the lockdown has seen bike sales soar. People have discovered the physical and mental health benefits of cycling when taking advantage of their daily exercise allowance. During the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic, cycling has also enabled people to socialise with friends and family members from a safe distance.
The peak of the lockdown saw carbon emissions globally drop by 17% to levels that had not been seen since 2006. Maintaining this means we must move towards more sustainable everyday habits. Hopefully, the country can unite its newfound interest in cycling with the desire to keep carbon emissions from creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels.
As cities like York, Brighton and Bristol work towards banning cars from their centres shortly, travelling on two wheels may become the new normal. Perhaps our cities can take inspiration from Copenhagen, Denmark, rated the best city for cycling in the world. Copenhageners travel 894,000 miles by bike every single day, with 62% of inhabitants using their bikes to get to work or school. Crucially, with 104 miles of new cycle highways and four bicycle bridges, it is the spectacular infrastructure which enables Copenhageners to get around safely and efficiently.
Ultimately, we need a cycling revolution. Car driving is not sustainable. It causes gridlock and pollution and promotes a sedentary lifestyle. But political commitment, public backing and proper infrastructure will all be essential to change the way we travel. Normalising cycling into an activity for everyone will help us to move away from cars while leaving public transport free for the people who need it most. Most importantly, people must feel confident that they will be safe while travelling by bike. If we can achieve this, then the Prime Minister’s dream of the “golden age” may yet dawn in the UK.
About the author: Molli Tyldesley is an English Literature student at the University of York.