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UK’s cycling market and infrastructure “being left behind” by Europe, experts warn

Though cycling levels continue to rise by 33 percent, bike sales are down by a quarter on pre-pandemic levels

While cycling levels continue to grow, the UK’s bike industry has slouched to pre-pandemic levels and sales of electric bikes have finally plateaued following the boom of 2020, prompting experts to warn that the country is at risk of “being left behind” by Europe when it comes to cycling growth.

According to figures provided by the Department for Transport, cycling levels are up 33 percent in the year to 30 July.

However, as contributor Laura Laker has noted in an article for the Guardian this week, sales of new bikes are not keeping pace with this recent boost.

The latest market report from the Bicycle Association has shown that cycle sales are down more than a quarter on pre-Covid levels from January to June. Hybrid and children’s bikes have been the worst affected by this slump, though the “enthusiast” categories of road and gravel bikes have grown.

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Steve Garidis, the Bicycle Association’s executive director, says more needs to be done in the UK to boost cycling uptake, including providing further investment in infrastructure, secure bike parking facilities, and e-bike charging networks and subsidies.

 “Things are very difficult right now,” Garidis told the Guardian. “Since May 2021 sales have been tracking at below pre-Covid levels, and if you take out the 2020 mega boom in cycling and sales, we’re now doing worse than we were before Covid hit.

“When I look at the comparison between the UK and what’s happening in Europe it’s just a bit depressing, it’s sort of stark.

“There’s a definite sense that we’re being left behind, in terms of the size and value of the cycling market, but also left behind in terms of how people are getting around, both for leisure and for everyday [trips].”

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Garidis also pointed out that the cost-of-living crisis has collided with a slump in the demand for bikes, though recent research by Blackhawk Network’s Cyclescheme suggests that commuters are switching to two wheels to help navigate the current crisis.

According to a survey carried out by Cyclescheme, 46 percent of commuters would prefer to cycle to work than spend money on travel, while over two-thirds of respondents have started or are considering cycling to work to decrease costs.

These findings have been echoed by Cycling UK, which has argued that the rapid growth of cycling since March is largely due to rising fuel prices. However, the cycling charity has warned that the recent surge could be undone if fuel prices drop, unless cycling infrastructure improves.

This view is echoed by Garidis, who has called on the government and businesses to incentivise people to travel by bike.

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He continued: “I think that if you had partnerships, collaborations with national chains of coffee shops or hotels or other sorts of practical everyday destinations, where there might be mutual benefit in attracting new customers coming on two wheels instead of four, people [may] take notice and think ‘I could do that’.

“There’s just a massive lack of infrastructure in terms of parking at the moment. Obviously, there’s a big focus [on] cycle lanes, which is brilliant, but you need somewhere to lock the bike when you get to the other end.

“Even e-bike growth, which had been pretty stratospheric and was driving the whole market, has stalled and is flat. Clearly e-bikes have got a massive application in bringing people to cycling… and we’re missing out.”

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E-bikes, which have been earmarked as the most natural alternative to driving, make up nine percent of bike purchases in the UK. In Europe, however, they account for 23 percent of all sales. The United Kingdom also suffers from a notable lack of e-bike facilities. While there are 190,000 electric cars registered in the UK – only 15,000 more than e-bikes – there are 30,000 e-car charging points, compared to a paltry 16 for e-bikes.

Urging the government to introduce e-bike subsidies, Garidis said: “It’s been the big difference between what the UK has done to promote uptake versus what Europe has done, and you can see the results.”

“E-cycles are a vital part of our ambitious action to increase active travel, and we are investing in a wide range of measures to support more people to use them and reduce emissions,” a DfT spokesperson said.

“This includes committing £42m to improve cycle storage at railway stations and cycle routes to stations, £8m for a national e-cycle pilot to boost take-up, and putting tax benefits in place for buying e-cycles through the Cycle to Work scheme.”

Ryan joined as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.

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