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The Short-Lived Golden Age of Cycling In The UK

by Rahil M
0 comment

With a £2 billion package aimed at boosting cycling uptake and the development of segregated bicycle lanes, Johnson aimed to inspire a cycling revolution in the country.

Industry leaders have criticized the government’s decision to cut funding for walking and cycling initiatives, which they believe could have capitalized on the cycling boom when enthusiasm was high.

In the midst of the pandemic, as gyms closed and public transport became less appealing due to the fear of Covid-19 transmission, the then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson envisioned a “golden age of cycling.” With a £2 billion package aimed at boosting cycling uptake and the development of segregated bicycle lanes, Johnson aimed to inspire a cycling revolution in the country.

The pandemic saw a significant increase in bicycle sales, with Mintel data showing a 22% rise to 3.3 million bicycles sold in the year leading up to January 2021. However, much like the fleeting popularity of online grocery shopping, the hopes for a sustained cycling boom have been dashed.

According to the Bicycle Association, sales of mechanical bicycles dropped by almost a quarter in 2022 compared to the previous year. The soaring cost of living and rising theft rates have squeezed consumers, leading to a decline in demand for bicycles.

While the number of bicycles on Britain’s roads remains approximately 11% higher than before the pandemic and nearly 24% higher compared to December 2013, advocates are disappointed that the promised “golden age” has not materialized.

Roger Geffen, policy director at charity Cycling UK, reflects on the missed opportunity, saying, “We do seem to have lost sight of that silver lining. Some people have continued cycling, which is encouraging, but as a whole, we missed an opportunity to create a lasting change.”

For many in the bike industry, the sharp drop in demand since the pandemic has been nothing short of a disaster. Encouraged by the surging sales during the pandemic, bike retailers ordered large quantities of stock, anticipating a prolonged boom. However, as life returned to normal, it became evident that the demand was not sustainable. Sales of mechanical bikes fell by 22% in 2022, nearly a third lower than pre-Covid levels.

Johnathan Harris, director of the Association of Cycle Traders (ACT), explained that many cycle retailers faced the challenge of excessive stock and commitments. Giant, one of the world’s largest bike brands, requested a payment delay from its suppliers in December, citing falling demand and rising stock levels. In a further blow to the industry, Derby bike distributor Moore Large, founded in 1947, collapsed into administration, attributing the failure to a massive oversupply of bikes in the UK.

Retailers have been heavily reliant on discounts to clear excess stock, making it difficult for sellers to cover their costs. Additionally, the rising cost of living has forced households to cut back on discretionary spending, with purchasing a new bike becoming a lower priority for many.

Industry leaders have criticized the government’s decision to cut funding for walking and cycling initiatives, which they believe could have capitalized on the cycling boom when enthusiasm was high. Transport Secretary Mark Harper slashed the active travel budget, which covers cycling and walking infrastructure, from £308 million to £100 million for the next two years.

Furthermore, the persistent issue of bike theft and a lack of trust in authorities to apprehend thieves have added to the challenges faced by the cycling industry. Around 74,000 bikes were stolen across the UK in the year leading up to June 2022, with only a small percentage resulting in suspects being identified or charged. This lack of progress in combating theft has led to a decline in confidence among cyclists, with many feeling that the police are not adequately addressing the issue.

Despite these challenges, there are still reasons for optimism. Interest in electric bikes is growing, with companies like Raleigh reporting higher sales of electric models compared to non-electric ones. Luxury bike sales have also remained relatively unaffected by the cost-of-living crisis.

Commuting bikes and children’s bikes have shown resilience, as they are considered essential for everyday life by customers. However, occasional leisure bikes, which are used infrequently, have experienced a decrease in demand. While the honeymoon phase of Britain’s cycling boom may have come to an end, the love affair with cycling is not completely over. With the pressing issues of climate change, obesity, air pollution, and congestion, cycling remains a clear solution. Advocates believe that politicians who understand the significance of cycling and are willing to prioritize it will emerge, leading to a brighter future for cycling in the UK.

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