Brompton Bicycles are responsible for getting over 350,000 city dwellers moving on their folding bikes. As part of our Active by Design campaign we asked Brompton’s MD, Will Butler-Adams what it would take to create a cycling culture in the UK like that in Holland and Denmark.
There’s a funny quirk in the UK when it comes to cycling: we associate bikes with fitness. Cycling means wearing Lycra, special shoes and arriving at the office in time to have a shower before you start work. Go to the cities where cycling is a way of life, like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, and you don’t see that. People there just use bikes. They understand that a bike is a mode of transport, not an exercise vehicle and that you don’t need to go 100 miles an hour to still get somewhere spectacularly quickly. It's a mind-set that removes any exclusivity, stigma or fears of cycling and makes it accessible to absolutely everybody.
Absorbing a Dutch-style cycling culture could have a massive impact on our health and wellbeing in Britain. Imagine if less of us were stuck in cars at peak hour or squashed into a packed underground train? If more than 4% of us regularly cycled? Perhaps our staggering levels of obesity might be reduced, and that might mean that treating diabetes would no longer cost the NHS over £1.5 million an hour. It could be all of these things, but a cycling culture doesn't just happen, it evolves over a long period of time. It requires commitment from government and cooperation between companies and citizens - and when you succeed, the rewards the are huge.
Look at Holland. In the 1970’s only 6% of the population commuted by bike. It was the decade of an oil crisis and the Dutch government decided to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. One of the things that changed was the introduction of a law that required all new developments to prioritise cycling. So, for example, if you were building a school, part of your budget had to pay for the cycle path to the nearest town and back. The same applied to flats and new roads, it was incorporated into everything. That sort of investment in infrastructure is not whimsical. It’s a long-term political aim developed over 30-40 years, and in Holland it saw bicycle use increase from 6% to 32%. That's a third of the population reducing their risk of diabetes and their carbon emissions. The key to changing the culture began with policy and was realised through infrastructure.
When you invest in infrastructure, the cyclists will come. We can see it starting in London with the Superhighways and the Boris Bikes. But what about cities outside of London? At £20K per bike plus the cost of vans redistributing bikes all day, a Boris scheme is simply not viable for our regional capitals or second tier cities. That's why we've taken a different approach with the Brompton Docks.
In one car parking space we can fit 40 bikes in a solar powered dock. You hire a bike for as long as you need it and the bike becomes yours for that time, stored under your desk at work or folded up under the stairs at home. It doesn’t require other expensive infrastructure like docking stations all over the place, or vans moving bikes around the city every day. In the right places these docks could become change agents. That’s why we're working with organisations like Deloitte, University of Greenwich and the Whittington Hospital to incorporate Brompton Docks into workplaces and campuses.
By asking organisations to take responsibility for providing access to a working bike for their staff and students, we’ve found another way to embed cycling into our infrastructure and culture. We’re also working with developers to include these docks in new residential builds. In this case the bikes are owned by the development and the costs are included in the running overheads of the flat - which makes them free for the resident. It’s about breaking down the barriers and making cycling accessible. If we can give people the confidence to get back into cycling, then we can slowly start to create a new cycling culture across the UK.
Which brings me on to safety. If people don’t feel safe doing something, they won’t do it. So it's the greatest barrier we face. The only way to really improve safety is with infrastructure. Legislating for helmets is not the answer. It's dangerous territory. You start with a helmet that protects your head, but if you have a car coming at you, your back is vulnerable too, so you should be wearing some sort of back support. But hang-on, your legs look a bit dodgy, you need leg protectors. You end up with a situation where it's fine to put a bicycle next to a two tonne truck because the person is wearing a suit of armour. The solution is not to keep trying to protect a human being from a two tonne truck. The solution is not to put a human being on a bicycle in the same place as a two tonne truck in the first place. That's about cycle paths, highways and roads. It's about infrastructure.
It sounds corny but cycling changed my life beyond words. It's one of life’s great innocent pleasures. It gives me freedom and well-being. That transformative power could happen at a societal level as well as an individual level, but as a society we need to design an infrastructure that really works – one that solves the problems of our modern city lives and gives everyone the chance to enjoy the simple pleasures and convenience of the bicycle.
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