Roughly speaking there about an equal number of bikes sold per year as cars (c. 2.5m), yet despite the increasing expense of buying and running cars there are an awful lot more of them on the roads than bikes.
Britain is a car-obsessed nation. It’s perfectly normal and mainstream to get a kick out of cars. It’s therefore no surprise that plenty of bike trade folk love cars and the freedom that cars can bring.
Mass motoring has enabled an awful lot of things (think out-of-town supermarkets) as well as screwing up an awful lot of other things (think out-of-town supermarkets).
There’s no rule to say that somebody who works in the bicycle industry should automatically despise cars. And many don’t, as was demonstrated recently on the BikeBiz forum when some industry ‘fat cats’ (not my words) poked fun at my suggestion we might want to invest some cash in renewable energy, as China is doing.
But whether you love them or despise them, for city centre use, cars are going be increasingly restricted in years to come. This won’t come about because some lentil-loving loons say it will be so but because of geology and economics – think Peak Oil – and because there’s only so much road space to go around – think Tragedy of the Commons.
OK, I’m a starry-eyed optimist and would love to think we could all ditch cars and ride bikes instead (heck, this doesn’t even happen in the Netherlands, car use is still rampant there despite the bike paths) but, of course, we’re not going to easily prise motorists out of their cocoons and on to people-powered transport. It’s like motorists are super-glued to their cars, no amount of carrot-flavoured cajoling seems to work. And the present Government doesn’t seem too keen on wielding any sticks, as these sticks would lose them votes.
However, Peak Oil and the Tragedy of the Commons will eventually force the Government to act.
The British bike industry could capitalise on the future prospects for increased bicycle sales but, meanwhile, there are forum commenters who say stuff such as "How will we get bikes delivered if we get rid of HGVs?" as though HGVs were the only possible means of transporting goods.
In the US, it’s different. The bicycle industry is now big into promoting cycling as transportation.
There were 700+ delegates at the recent National Bike Summit in Washington D.C. A great many were from the bike industry (almost half, said Rich Kelly of Interbike). They heard the US Secretary of Transportation say "bicycling has an important role to play in America’s transportation mix."
Ray LaHood is a transport secretary who knows the importance of bikes. He told delegates: "You know, bicycling started the personal mobility revolution, well before automobiles emerged."
He added: "When cycling advocates see me exhibiting my enthusiasm for more bicycling and pedestrian options, it’s out of this Administration’s desire to give people more flexible, convenient, and affordable options when it comes to getting around."
Part of the reason such a key figure addressed this bike conference was because of the clear thinking shown by some bike industry leaders over the past ten years. John Burke, president of Trek, for instance. He recently addressed Congress, saying:
"The federal investment in bicycling is providing tremendous benefits to our nation. It is boosting our economy, making our transportation system more efficient, improving the health of Americans, and enhancing the quality of life in communities coast to coast. Few other federal investments — if any — provide so many tangible benefits for so few dollars. Bicycling is precisely the type of cost-effective investment that a fiscally challenged government should make because of the tremendous, multiple returns."
In the UK we need to talk up the prospects for the bicycle. It’s not a toy, or a relic of the 19th Century, it’s going to be one of the key ways of getting around cities in the future. For an increasing number of people it already is, despite the less then ideal cycling infrastructure.
To encourage others to get on their bikes for short, everyday journeys we will need kinder conditions for cyclists. Partly this is to do with more cycle paths, built to exceed standards, but it’s also to do with taming the motorised. Society needs to reduce car speeds, ban HGVs from city centres, and channel those who choose to drive in congested urban areas into a smaller and smaller part of the road space.
The petrolheads in the bike industry, like the petrolheads in society in general, will laugh at such a notion. But the writing is on the wall, and if the UK bike industry could only see it, and became part of the call for change, the market for bicycles and bicycle parts would expand rapidly.