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Cycling in England: Could new investment power a change in habits?

The UK government has announced a major allocation of investment dedicated to improving England’s cycling infrastructure and thereby encouraging a new wave of commuters and recreational cyclists to get on their bikes. The investment, announced as a £94m ($149.2m) scheme to be split between some chosen cities and national parks, with £77m ($122.2m) shared between the cities and £17m ($26.9m) going to the national parks.

The cities have been named as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford and Norwich. Of these, the money has been weighted in favour of certain cities with Manchester due to receive the largest investment of £20m ($31.7m), then Leeds with £18.1m ($28.7m) and Birmingham with £17m ($26.9m). The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has deemed this project as being designed to create a “cycling revolution” by producing a “continental style cyclotopia” in England. The plan is to invest the money into initiatives such as cycle paths and improving existing cycling infrastructure.

However, while this sounds like a very encouraging level of investment, some commentators see this as merely a start and certainly not likely to provide major change in the UK. For instance, London is not included in this investment as it already has a high level of cyclists and received significant investment already. Notably, four new bicycle “super highways” have already been built at a total cost of£35m ($55.5m) – a much larger amount than even Manchester is set to receive, for only four cycle lanes. This leaves some to question whether £94m ($149.2m) is enough to have the desired effect of making roads safer and ultimately encourage cyclists onto the road around England.

Additionally, when one also compares the latest England-wide development to the level of investment that has gone into London’s “Boris bike” scheme, which is rumoured will cost the tax payer a total of £225m ($357.1m) by 2016, there does seem to be some further disparity. The bike rental scheme has had a major effect in London, helping improve access, encouraging tourists and day trippers to use a clean method of transport and helping alleviate the pressure on the transport system.

However, “Boris bike” scheme has been very costly to implement, so it is unclear how far £20m ($31.7m) will go in Manchester, despite its much smaller size as a city. Furthermore comparing this level of investment to the current estimates that the HS2 project is going to cost – some sources suggest around £80bn ($126.9m) at time of writing – it is clear to see where governmental priorities lie. If hypothetically, £1bn ($1.6bn) of this huge budget was reallocated and spent on each city, it would provide dramatic change and could potentially benefit the economy more through health, environmental and lifestyle benefits.

The UK has traditionally had much less cycling, both recreational and as a mode of transport, than mainland Europe has had, specifically in comparison to France, the Netherlands and Germany. However there are some encouraging signs that this is beginning to change, and some of this is due directly to investment. The complete dominance of the British cycling team in recent world championships and Olympic Games is down to major investment in building new facilities and organizing huge elite and grass-root training projects. Linked to this, are the two consecutive Team Sky Tour de France wins for British athletes and a British based team, all of which has helped to increase the visibility of cycling in the country.

There is also much more going on: cycling purchase schemes, organized cycling events, more facilities, better access to investment, and more shops to buy equipment are all beginning to turn the tide for the UK bicycle industry. Nevertheless, it is principally government, lottery and commercial investment which have had the most impact on the increased engagement with cycling.

Putting it into perspective, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the recently announced investment is encouraging, but not equal to the task of making English cities more like a “continental style cyclotopia” akin to the likes of Amsterdam.

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