I get around a bit, and at a recent talking gig I shared a platform with Laura Shoaf, the managing director for Transport for West Midlands. She’s responsible for delivering the combined authority’s strategy to develop a transport system that integrates the region’s road, rail, bus, cycle and tram networks. In her talk she said something that jumped out at me: “Politicians are now taking more notice of cycling.”
Fantastic! It must be all those benefits of cycling we’ve been banging on about for so long – you know, health, anti-congestion, social equity, speed-through-town and so on. Nope, none of that. It’s jobs. More specifically, 150 jobs at a distribution centre next to a pig-ugly trunk road junction that must be awful to cycle on to get to work. She meant Wiggle, of course. Last year the Portsmouth company moved into The Citadel, a 30,000m2 building beside the Black Country New Road in Bilston, near Wolverhampton. This is situated two miles from the M6 and six miles from the M5, and the warehouse has 95 lorry parking spaces and 32 loading bays. It’s therefore logistically efficient but not exactly green. But it generates jobs.
And it’s jobs that pique the interest of local and national politicians, a fact often wheeled out by Kevin Mayne, development director at the European Cyclists’ Federation. In 2014, the ECF released a study that showed Europe's cycling economy sustained 655,000 jobs, and had the potential to create many more. This, as I’ve talked about in this column previously, has, for good or bad, far more power to influence politicians than cycling’s health, social and environmental benefits. Cycling is bigger, in jobs terms, than “European heritage” industries which have often been cosseted by the EU, says Mayne. Europe’s cycling economy’s jobs – which includes bicycle production, tourism, retail, infrastructure and services – exceeds the 615,000 jobs in mining and quarrying, and is almost twice the number employed in the steel sector.
In that light, 150 jobs may appear small beer, but not so in the West Midlands. Jobs are jobs, and “cycling” becoming associated with “employment” has the potential to shift attitudes.
When Wiggle opened its Bilston distribution centre the City of Wolverhampton Council Cabinet Member for City Assets said: “Having a leading national brand like Wiggle in the city is huge and has already delivered further investment and new jobs for Wolverhampton people.” Councillor John Reynolds continued hat eighty percent of the jobs went to locals, and he hoped that the dual-carriageway-sited business would “inspire people here to become more active and lead healthy lifestyles.”
That’s not so much up to Wiggle, of course, but it is very much in the power of councillors, managing directors of transport authorities, and planners.
In her talk Ms Shoaf said that catering to motorists was an easy sell because JLR was in the area. That’s Jaguar Land Rover, and is just one of the Midlands companies involved in car manufacturing. And it’s making stuff that usually leads to the greatest number of jobs. Responding to Ms Shoaf one of the audience members said: “Bikes are perceived to be built in China, not built locally.”
For the most part this is true but there are signs that Brompton and Pashley will soon not be the only bicycle manufacturers in Britain. There’s not yet a flood of manufacturers wanting to physically make bikes in the UK, and it’s best not to even call it a trickle, but if washing machines can be profitably made in Britain then sometime soon so can bikes.
Wages in China have been on the up and up for some years, resulting in low- to mid-level bikes being made in Vietnam and other Asian countries yet to “suffer” from higher wages for workers. The natural next step is for factory owners to up sticks and move to another low-wage economy, and that will remain the case for factories making Bicycle Shaped Objects, but for higher priced bikes it’s getting likelier and likelier that some production will – slowly – move back to Britain.
In the meantime it’s always worth shouting about the cycling-based jobs that are already here, bike shops included.