The humble bicycle might yet save the planet
Last week, having reasonably successfully navigated a couple of high stress months, I took off for four days solo bikepacking in the Scottish Cairngorms. Bikepacking is the mad, stripped-back, off-road sibling of traditional cycle touring. This generally translates as spending silly amounts of money on ultralight camping gear, pushing your bike more than expected (aka hike-a-bike) and not changing your clothes much at all (the sheep don’t mind the whiff). And thanks to the wonderfully liberal Scottish land access rules, I could pretty much ride where I wanted (although I followed Markus Stitz’s route) and camp anywhere reasonable to do so. It was brilliant – the freedom to roam the countryside under my own steam.
And the ‘under my own steam’ thing is important. The graph (right) shows that the humble bicycle is an incredibly efficient way to move around. And yet in the UK it is seen as a pastime for middle class, middle age men (like me!) rather than a legitimate form of transport for all – the way it is in the Netherlands or Denmark. The current UK active travel budget is about £400m per annum (it’s surprisingly hard to get an exact figure as it tends to come in lumps), out of a total transport infrastructure budget of about £20 billion per annum (again a bit lumpy, so hard to pin down exactly), so about 2%. And given cycle infra is so cheap, imagine what we could do if that was upped to 10%?
While the Netherlands does have a long cycling heritage, the ‘bike-first’ policy came as a deliberate u-turn away from a trajectory towards a car-centric society in the 1970s. Cities such as London and Paris are now starting to take road space away from motor vehicles and given to cycle routes and, guess what, people start riding their bikes. In Paris, the horrible freeways built alongside the Seine have been ripped out and handed to cyclists and pedestrians – and it is lovely.
It is also pretty much essential if we are to tackle climate change. The idea that we can swap out all fossil fuel vehicles for EVs in a couple of decades is for the birds – developing and installing the charging infrastructure, the grid upgrades, the battery gigafactories will be much more of a slow burn. Much easier to get on two wheels and pedal for short trips today – we have the technology right here, right now. In Copenhagen about 44% of commutes are by bike compared to less than 10% in London. That’s a huge amount of carbon actually mitigated right now rather than possibly mitigated sometime in the future.
Here in the UK, we’ve got to get our minds into gear on cycling. When I looked up UK transport stats for this article, the Government page I got didn’t even mention cycling. Recently I was handed a draft report on the regional green economy and it barely mentioned the cycle industry – manufacture, sales, maintenance, spares, cargo bike logistics etc. In my view, we also waste too much time and effort in public cycle hire schemes in my opinion as they do nothing to facilitate day in day out use (we’ve had at least two schemes fail in my City). Infrastructure first so we can get where we need to go safely and store our bikes securely while we do what we need to do. Cycle hire is just the icing on the cake – we need to bake the cake first.
Bikes are best.