Covid-19 has necessitated the reinvention of numerous sectors, with transport being particularly affected. No longer can millions of office workers and students crowd onto trains and buses for their commute, as social distancing rules mandate limited capacity. Instead, the UK is being encouraged to pursue active travel, with numerous schemes aimed at incentivising people to start cycling. The highway code is being updated, new cycle lanes put in, and vouchers for repairs handed out.
However, there is significant opposition. Drivers argue that providing for cycling is too expensive and that the loss of parking spaces that is often necessary negatively impacts on businesses. Yet many of these arguments are flawed. It is becoming increasingly apparent that cycling can in fact help drive economic growth.
Take the argument that businesses will be financially impacted by cycle lanes as an example. Some businesses argue removing space for driving and parking will lower their revenue, as fewer people can visit at any one time. Furthermore, those who do visit won’t be able to buy as much due to constraints on how much they can carry while walking or cycling. Despite this, the data actually suggests otherwise. In Manhattan for example, 9th Avenue retails sales increased by 49% compared to the 3% average in the borough after a protected cycle lane was built in 2008. A study in 2012 in Portland, Oregon, showed that cyclists spent on average the same or more than drivers and that they made more trips, and a more recent study which looked at the impact of cycle lanes in 6 different cities concluded that the bike lanes helped boost business and employment in both the retail and food sectors. This boost is the result of the varying space that bikes and cars take up. One parking space can contain a stand for six bikes and while the average urban road lane can only take 2000 cars per hour at peak capacity, it can take over 14000 bikes. With only 1.58 people in the average car, by transforming a normal urban lane into a bike lane it is possible to more than quadruple the capacity. Even if individual cyclists don’t spend as much, the sheer quantity of passers-by who can easily stop and spend definitely makes up for this.
Increasing the prevalence of cycling also deals with congestion. Every year, congestion causes more than £10 billion in losses in English urban areas alone, as it delays employees and deliveries of goods. We have already seen that bike lanes can significantly increase the capacity of normal roads, which helps alleviate congestion. And this is not the only benefit: by encouraging drivers onto bikes, there are fewer cars on the road, leading to less pollution. Even when factoring in the production of the bike and calorie intake needed to start cycling, riding a bike produces ten times less carbon dioxide per kilometre than the average car.
Reducing pollution has numerous benefits to wider society, both because it helps to limit climate change and it improves the health of many who suffer with breathing difficulties. Research published in The Lancet suggests that the NHS could save £17 billion over 20 years if walking and cycling increased due to the effect of exercise on illnesses such as diabetes, dementia and heart disease.
The positive externalities of cycling are clearly very large, but the cycling industry itself is also a significant part of the economy. A study in 2014 showed that over 655,000 people across the EU were employed in the cycling sector and that there was the capacity for this to grow by 400,000 people if the percentage of people who cycled as a share of all transport modes doubled. Even back in 2010, people employed in the cycling sector in the UK contributed £100 million in taxes.
Thus, as the country looks to work its way out of recession while also dealing with climate change and the obesity epidemic, spending on improving the provision for cycling is an obvious way forward. The return on investment is high, averaging at least 13:1 in the UK, and the positive externalities are significant. Improved health and cleaner air are necessary in the long run, so if we can achieve that while also boosting retail sales and employment, it is an ideal solution.