Check out our latest blog by Mildred Locke, BBP Director and and freelance cycling journalist…
Cycling seems to have entered a new era, with an estimated 70% uptake since lockdown began in the UK. This has prompted the government to pledge £2bn towards improvements in walking and cycling over the next five years.
Cycling advocacy groups have welcomed the investment, and we know that a portion of the money allocated will be spent on creating safer cycling infrastructure and subsidising bicycle repair through shop vouchers.
Right now the hot topic is about how to make cycling safer, and the need to invest in quality infrastructure. However what we should also be asking is how cycling could be made more accessible to everyone. Unfortunately this topic just isn’t being addressed right now in government statements, or the wider conversation.
What’s more, while active travel contributes to improved air quality and reducing the impacts of climate change, the conversations around its environmental impact should be extended to our consumption of materials, the waste we produce, and our throwaway culture, particularly relating to the bike market.
While we want more people on bikes, we want them to be available to everyone, and not to the detriment of our planet.
Making bikes accessible
We now know that the first £250,000 of the overall £2bn budget will be spent primarily on creating emergency bike lanes, closing side streets to create quiet cycleways, and encouraging people to dig out their old bikes with bike repair vouchers.
This is all really positive stuff, providing the changes made to the way we navigate our city have some lasting effect, and the people recently taking up cycling are still empowered to use their bikes once lockdown eases.
Good infrastructure is vital for keeping cyclists safe, but the first step in taking up cycling for many is actually getting their hands on a bike. Once again the government has a solution in place, in the form of the Cycle to Work scheme.
This is a nationwide programme that employers can sign up to, and it works by allowing employees to purchase a bike and all the accessories they need without an upfront cost. They then pay it off in monthly instalments directly from their salaries, and aren’t required to pay tax, which means they can save up to 39% in some cases.
The Cycle to Work scheme has been a great way of getting more people on bikes, but we can’t ignore the fact that it’s only available to people whose employers have chosen to take part.
With at least 1.35 million people unemployed, and over 5 million self-employed, that’s already a huge number of people who potentially have a low income, and no access to this scheme. Plus there’s an estimated 380,000 hidden homeless people on the fringes of society in the UK.
Everyone has the right to be mobile in an affordable and sustainable way, but simply not all can afford it.
The work we do at the Bristol Bike Project with our Earn-a-Bike programmes aims to tackle this unfair disadvantage felt by many. Anyone with a long-term barrier to employment, who would benefit greatly from affordable and sustainable travel, can access a secondhand bike from us for very little cost, while learning some useful maintenance skills while they’re at it.
Yet, while we’re immensely proud of what we do, we are really a drop in the ocean. For real and lasting change that doesn’t favour the privileged over the marginalised, programmes like ours should be state-backed and widespread.
Making bikes accessible is already a complex subject, but we’d be remiss not to talk about the environmental impact of choosing only to promote the buying of brand new bikes.
We’re bike lovers, and we understand the excitement that comes with a brand new shiny bike equipped with the latest technology. Still, it cannot be denied that the bike industry has a waste problem.
As things stand currently, a lot of materials you find on a bike, like carbon fibre, rubber and certain plastics, are not widely recycled. While there are certainly ways of using these materials, most bike shops find it difficult to dispose of all the waste materials that could otherwise be collected, and therefore send them to landfill.
Pumping money into the new bike market via the Cycle to Work scheme overlooks a huge resource – the secondhand bike market – and does nothing to tackle our wasteful, throwaway culture.
There are countless pre-loved bikes for sale through independent bike shops and community bike projects like us.
They’re great value for money because they’ve been serviced by professional mechanics, had all their worn parts replaced with new ones, and are sold for much less than their original retail price. Buying secondhand can get you a decent amount of bike for your money.
What we’d like to see
The bike industry needs more of a circular economy, with bikes and their components being recycled and repurposed as much as possible.
In order for this to happen on a scale large enough to significantly decrease our waste production, we need the government to formally recognise the huge resource available in the secondhand bike market, and ultimately extend the Cycle to Work scheme to cover this, encouraging more people to buy secondhand.
Including secondhand bikes in the scheme would make cycling accessible to low-income individuals as well, as more affordable options become available to them. This in turn provides a huge amount of support for grassroots projects like ourselves, as the scheme would direct more custom our way.
And what about those who have slipped through the cracks? Whatever money we make from our trading arm, funds the work we do with our local community. Extending the Cycle to Work scheme to include secondhand bikes, opens us up to taking part in the scheme, and increased sales means even more funding for our community work, like making Earn-a-Bike available to the folks not able to access the scheme.
The benefits of a circular economy in the bike industry lie not only in the way resources are continually reused, but also in the way more people can access it rather than being excluded. Now we just need the government to get on board.