The State of Cycling in the U.K.
By: Georgia Yexley, U.K.-based micromobility expert and inclusive active travel advocate
Thanks to pandemic-era changes and an influx of government funding, the United Kingdom is poised to become a global leader in active transportation.
During the pandemic, the United Kingdom saw a surge of cyclists hit the streets. Reports showed an uplift in leisure cyclists, all making the most of quarantine rules that declared outdoor physical activity as essential. The 2021 Active Lives Survey, however, which looked at rates across the U.K., showed a decline driven by lower rates of leisure cyclists. According to the report, the proportion of adults cycling at least once a week in England decreased from 12% in 2020 to 9% in 2021. While there are a number of factors involved in the peaks and troughs, it’s not a stretch to correlate the number of cars on the road with the number of people cycling: As the pandemic waned and more cars returned, bicyclists’ numbers dwindled.
Across the U.K., in an effort to make streets safe for everyone and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, efforts to mitigate congestion have recently been on the rise. The 2020 Gear Change plan from the U.K. Department of Transport, which aimed to build on the uplift experienced with quieter streets, committed to investing £2 billion into cycling and walking. The Prime Minister's foreword called for the investment in calming traffic measures such as Low Traffic Neighborhoods, alongside the expansion and multiplication of Clean Air Zones in U.K. cities. These measures haven’t been without controversy, though recent studies show that they have been effective in reducing congestion and improving the air quality in some of the U.K.'s most affected cities.
Cycling, cyclists, and cycling infrastructure in particular are polarizing topics in the British media. Headlines speak to the notion of unused bike lanes built for the “lycra-clad” elite and bicycle advocacy groups call out the “loud minority of car lovers.” The publication of media reporting guidelines for road collisions, a few powerful public interest campaigns such as the nationwide #BikeIsBest campaign, (that saw the cycling industry invest in myth-busting billboards), and significant investment from shared micromobility operators into public education and marketing have made an impact. As the environmental and public health impacts of making transport more sustainable come to the fore, public opinion is shifting. Evidence shows sustainability and environmental impact climbing the ranks amongst consumers.
While people’s personal principles are certainly pushing forward cycling in the U.K., when it comes to transport, people remain more concerned with convenience, affordability, and accessibility. As such, there is a subset of cyclists that has been growing: those riding electric bicycles. The steep rate of inflation, and the resulting cost of living crisis, have played a significant role in e-bike uptake. Most users see electric bicycles as an economical alternative to the rising costs of public transport and car ownership. What’s more, e-bikes make the intimidating distance and inclines in many U.K. cities manageable. However, the upfront costs of electric bikes, including adaptive and cargo models, remain a major barrier for many.
The 2022 Shimano “State of the Nation Report” for Europe highlighted that, “Economic factors are seen by Europeans as the strongest encouragement for buying or using an e-bike more.” The report goes on to note that across Europe, 47% of people see the cost of living as the primary motivation for e-bike adoption and 41% see purchase subsidies as an encouragement to more e-bike use. It also noted that Sweden, Norway, Austria, France, Germany, and Scotland (part of the U.K.) all presently offer or have offered e-bike subsidies in recent years.
Like much of Europe, the U.K. has continued to invest in e-cycling. This year, the Department of Transport is investing £8 million from the Gear Change pot into a large consortium of cycling academics, bodies, operators, and retailers delivering on the department’s “Cycling Made E-asier” scheme, a widespread campaign focusing on historically underrepresented demographics in the cycling population. As part of the plan, riders will receive subsidized or free access to e-cycles. The program will be evaluated after a year in order to iterate and hopefully double down on what works.
E-cargo bikes and cycling logistics for businesses are also on the rise, a testament to the economic value provided by the speed and agility bikes offer in congested cities. Growing businesses like Pedal Me, a London-based electric bicycle cargo and passenger courier company,are proving you really can move houses by bike. Investment has poured in from the private sector too: In recent years, as micromobility and shared sustainable transport has boomed across the globe, European firms have launched services providing access to tens of thousands of bikes across the U.K.
While opportunities to utilize e-cycles are growing, however, there have been some economic and supply issues caused by Brexit and the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as slow-moving legislation amongst U.K. lawmakers. This has resulted in difficulty getting bikes into the U.K. Without an affordable supply, demand will undoubtedly wane. Likewise, while the U.K. government has made significant commitments to investing in cycling and stimulating the bicycle industry, it’s still no match for the roughly £5 billion promised to assist in the electrification of the automotive industry.
To entrench its commitment to cycling and walking beyond Gear Change, in 2022 the U.K. government introduced a new executive agency: Active Travel England (ATE). Much like the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is responsible for the standards of driving in the U.K., the ATE is responsible for progressing safety, adoption, and the advancement of walking and cycling across the nation. Not missing the importance of public engagement, the body appointed former Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman as commissioner and boasts members such as the former health secretary Chris Whitty.
The formation of ATE itself is a strong indication that the U.K. is getting serious about sustainable transport and the government recently announced an additional £32.9 million devoted to the necessary skills and training to grow a network of active transportation experts. This is in addition to a recently announced £200 million government fund to support pedestrian, cycling, and micromobility projects across the U.K. (and boost local economies). Plus, in the U.K.’s most congested city, London, a new £110 million Scrappage Scheme will incentivize residents to trade in polluting, older vehicles for electric bikes, scooters, and public transit. Taken together, the U.K. is on track to sustain and surpass its active transportation wins, becoming a global leader in the space.
Georgia Yexley is a micromobility expert and inclusive active travel advocate based in the U.K. Having helped hundreds of cities across the globe achieve their sustainable transport aims, she now advises the public, private, and third sector on improving transport equity for all.