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Ensuring cycling is more than just a pandemic trend

By Gareth Nettleton, global vice president and the lead of Strava Metro

Britain’s roads are looking dramatically different these days. While traffic jams may not yet be a thing of the past, in cities especially, we are seeing cars fast being matched by runners and cyclists – something we’ve long hoped for but it’s taken a global pandemic to make it a reality.

In stark contrast to the start of the year, the last few months have been dominated by a completely transformed way in which people move from one place to another.

Active transportation has come to the fore, and the public has shown its capacity to leave cars in the rearview mirror and rethink urban travel.

The idea of packed buses and trains has been shunned in favour of active modes of transport. Cycling, in particular, has taken off – and the bike is fast looking to reclaim Britain’s roads. What we need now is for the Government to act on the infrastructure front and meet this demand.

While the £2 billion of funding announced in May was a key step forward, these funds must meet their purpose – creating an urban environment that encourages and promotes active travel solutions, and this can only be done with the right infrastructure.

It’s clear people are finding new ways of getting from point A to B, most notably hopping on a bike. According to data from Strava Metro, between May 2019 and May 2020, Liverpool saw a 164% year-on-year increase of bike journeys, with Manchester following behind with a surge of 161% and Greater London 54%.

Matching the trend is the UK cycling retail industry, which has been thriving over the last few months – leading retailers are reporting an increase of 677% of entry-level bikes. And let’s not forget the most recent positive prediction from Halford’s assessment that the cycling boom will continue to 2021, as the company continues to see its sales in bikes soaring up throughout lockdown.

We now need to galvanise this rise in cycling and support people’s new habits – and that can only be done by transforming our cities in ways that promote active travel. As people are encouraged to return to offices around the country, we must do all we can to support the millions who have decided to take up cycling as a better, healthier and cheaper form of transportation.

Making a habit a long-term solution
To achieve this, the UK must invest in cycling infrastructure, ensuring that cycling becomes an embedded feature of our new normal. Now is the time to grasp the opportunity and take the steps necessary to turn new habits into new norms. It all starts with public and private sector leaders working together to build data-informed infrastructure that will make cities cycling-friendly. This cross-collaboration is essential if we are to redesign our cities for a post-pandemic world.

We don’t need to look far to see the impact successful cross-collaboration can have on making cities better for active travel. Take London, for example – the efforts the city has taken to better improve its infrastructure and ensure cyclists feel safe has been fundamental to the yearly growth in cycling the capital has witnessed.

Informed funding is at the heart of shaping our cities for active travel. Since 2018, the city has invested an average of £169 million annually, to improve current infrastructure and build on the previous investment in Cycle Superhighways and Quietway routes. As of summer 2019, the Mayor has delivered over 86 miles of the cycle network and saw a 200% increase in people cycling over the same period.

London is the model for us to take forward and replicate if we are to see the number of cycling commuters continue to rise. We can see the benefits Government-backed funding can have in encouraging people to feel safer and healthier when cycling as well as offering a sustainable alternative that leads to a greener future.

However, for cross-collaboration to truly work, we need the private sector to help action the Government’s plans – the engineers, data scientists and urban planners to provide the data insights that are able to inform city planning and infrastructure. This is where organisations like Strava Metro can help play a role in designing what the cities of the future will look like and, more importantly, how we will traverse them.

Strava Metro builds products to empower urban planners, city Governments, safe infrastructure advocates and academics to understand mobility patterns, identify opportunities for investment and evaluate the impact of infrastructure changes. Data plays a fundamental role in realising fit-for-purpose infrastructure. It helps urban planners analyse and plan for active commuting and improving transport infrastructure, as it highlights which areas are best served by existing transport infrastructure and which require greater focus and investment to improve active commute conditions.

Harnessing the popular demand
But while cross-collaboration and fit-for-purpose infrastructure are essential, we need businesses and Governments to directly incentivise people to continue nurturing this newly formed habit. We must guarantee that this trend turns into a lifelong behaviour change and not simply a short-term reaction to the global pandemic.

Cycle to work schemes are an example of a great incentive for people to choose more cost-efficient forms of transportation that also benefit the environment and their health. If we want to continue seeing this trend soaring as offices reopen and people are encouraged to return to the workplace, employers should be encouraged to sign up and offer cycle to work schemes to their employees.

Endless studies have pointed to the health benefits cycling can have on people’s wellbeing, from reducing cardiovascular diseases, tackling diabetes and improving people’s mental health. Beyond the health case for cycling for each individual in the UK, there is also the environmental impact. In the UK alone, daily emissions of greenhouse gases had plunged 31% by early April compared with 2019 levels.

If we are to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, now is the opportunity to reset our cities’ transportation strategy. Fit-for-purpose infrastructure can ensure that the current rise in cycling is nurtured and maintained for the long haul. The outbreak of this pandemic is offering an opportunity for urban planners, businesses and Government to collaborate and reset how they map out and improve their cities’ cycling infrastructure.

The public demand is clearly there – now we need to shift short-term behaviour into long-term planning and create habits that will change our cities for the better. Let’s grasp the nettle – our health, and that of our planet, will reap the rewards.

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