Sustainable transport | The cycling economy. Financial benefits of cycling

A review of  a report from the London School of Economics looking at the UK cycling economy and the economic benefits generated by cyclists. The report investigates the factors that have played a part in driving the growth of the cycling industry.

Investigation shows that there is a number of factors which have played a part in pushing this growth, including:

  • 200% expansion of the National Cycle Network to over 12,000 miles
  • More dedicated cycling lanes in urban and city areas
  • Environmental concerns, with 83 per cent of people believing that environmental questions are a priority issue (2)
  • Health considerations, with inactivity costs in the UK estimated to be £760m per annum (3) and 80 and 70 % of men and women respectively forecast to be overweight or obese
  • Increase in the numbers of large scale organised cycling events across the UK

UK started building cycling infrastructure since 1934, when the first bike path opened in West London, with an 8 foot 6 inch width, and 2.5 mile length (4). By 1949, cycling had reached a peak, with over one-third of all journeys in the UK covered by bike. Unfortunately, between the post-war period and the 1970s, travel policy strongly favoured the development of car traffic and cycling declined dramatically. It’s not until the 1990s that Government policy reinvigorated cycling as a sustainable travel option, facilitated by the pressure of the British Medical Association, which began to advocate the health benefits of cycling in tackling the nation’s increasing lack of exercise. During this time, debates on climate change also defined cycling as a means of reducing CO2 emissions and as an alternative to road expansion. Currently, the average proportion of people aged five and over who own a bike in the UK is 42 per cent, but only 57 per cent use their bicycle, according to the Department for Transport’s 2009 National Travel Survey.

Male cyclists dominate in the UK, making over 70% of all bicycle trips. In contrast to the UK, women dominate in the Netherlands, making around 55% of all bicycle trips.

The success of cycling in North Europe is due to many factors, with the most significant being the establishment and promotion of independent cycling facilities. These act as an ‘anchor’ around which an integrated ecosystem of cycling- friendly elements has been established. Key facilitators in the cycling ecosystem include:

  • Cycling has been made both age- and gender-neutral, appealing to the most of people, across all ages and genders
  • Coordinated and preferential traffic signals that facilitate faster and safer journeys
  • ‘Short cut’ routes in dense urban areas and capital cities that join arterial road routes
  • Traffic calming initiatives that include road narrowing and speed restrictions
  • Extensive parking
  • Established bike rental schemes
  • Long-running training programmes for children
  • The prevalence of strict ‘liability laws’ that assume a car driver is responsible in the event of a collision between a car and a cyclist

Value to the UK economy.

The contribution to the UK economy can be segmented across 3 major areas.

  1. The sale of bicycles. In 2010, 3.7m bikes were sold in the UK, representing a 28 per cent increase over 2009.
  2. The sale of cycling accessories. There is a lack of reliable in evaluating this segment. However, the estimated contribution from accessories is of £853m in 2010, comprised of both ‘hard accessories’ (helmets, pumps, clothing, etc.) and ‘soft accessories’ such as servicing and repairs, from both new and existing cyclists.
  3. Cycling employment. A lack of accurate employment data has been highlighted, with the previous section defining the economic contribution from employment, which is estimated to be around £500m in 2010 with £100m generated in taxes and NI contributions, from an employment base of around 23,000 people in retail sales, manufacturing and cycling infrastructure.

Additional economic contributions may be made to UK economy by other direct and indirect areas of cycling activity: for example the health benefits of cycling save the economy £128m per year in absenteeism. Regular cyclists in fact take 7.4 sick days per year in comparison to the 8.7 sick days taken by non-cyclists.

Looking forward, if the existing cycling levels increase by a rate of 20 percent by 2015, the projected gains over the next decade include:

  • Frequent and Regular cyclists could further save the economy £2b over a ten-year period in terms of reduced absenteeism;
  • A 20 per cent increase in current cycling levels by 2015 could save the economy £207m in terms of reduced traffic congestion and £71m in terms of lower pollution levels.

Expanding cycling culture may seem profitable, however the study reports that safety, road confidence, self-belief and time availability are all barriers to the emerging cycling culture. And although 80 percent of children own bikes, the study reports a doubling of the proportion of children being driven to school over the past 20 years. If these economic benefits are to come true, a financial commitment from the U.K. government is an essential component, but sadly the report claims the proportion of GDP spent on public cycling infrastructure by the government has been lower than many other countries.

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