Olympic Success Converts Millions of British to Cycling

bikes for sale photo

Image from garryknight

It's amazing what an Olympic victory can do for a country's cycling fervor. Yes, as noted by The Times' transport correspondent, Ben Webster, the British are in the midst of a cycling revival of sorts -- fueled as much by the recent hikes in energy prices as by their team's epic haul at the Beijing Olympics. The squad, which boasted two Olympic track cycling champions and a BMX world champion, took home an impressive 12 medals -- 7 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze -- to top the medal table in that category. That cycling prowess seems to have rubbed off on a large section of the population in the last few months, resulting in record numbers in London and other major cities.

cycling in london photo

Image from Tom T

Indeed, London's streets and junctions have gotten so crowded -- with over 1,000 cyclists an hour now regularly using cycle lanes -- that the city is suffering record bouts of cycling congestion. Though they still represent a small fraction of the city's commuter crowd (thanks in large part to its superb public transit system), the cyclist population has grown by leaps and bounds; the number of cycling trips has doubled since 2000 to more than 500,000 a day. Close to half of all commuters (40 percent) during morning peak hours are now cyclists.

Other major cities that have experienced a boom in the number of cyclists include Sheffield, where the number has surged by 50 percent since 2001, and Darlington, where it is up an astounding 70 percent since 2005. No longer viewed as the "poor man's mode of transport," as Webster puts it, cycling is the new "it" mode of transport, even among the City's ritziest and savviest residents. In fact, the number of new cyclists is so high that city officials are struggling to keep up with the demand:

Tom Bogdanowicz, of the London Cycling Campaign, said that despite £7 million being spent on extra cycle parking stands in the capital since 2005, there was an acute shortage in key locations. "Four bikes are being attached to stands designed for two because people are so desperate to find somewhere to park," he said. "At the main stations, especially Waterloo and Paddington, cyclists are now finding their bikes are becoming trapped in a tangle of frames and wheels."

Much of this can be blamed on the country's poor track record (though I'm sure it still far surpasses our own) when it comes to maintaining and building new cycle lanes. The rate of construction has tumbled from over 224 miles (360 kilometers) a year between 2001 and 2004 to a pitiful 87 miles in 2007; at the same time, bicycle sales have been soaring -- rising from 3.12 million in 2005 to 3.64 million last year.

Fortunately, help is on the way: The Department of Transport has proposed a £100 million ($149 million) infrastructure package for 12 cities. Bristol will be the largest beneficiary, receiving over a tenth of the sum -- £11.4 million ($17 million) -- to create a Velib'-like bike-sharing scheme (a fine model to recreate).

More important, cycle lanes will now connect city centers to the suburbs to encourage more cycle commuting, and the number of children receiving training at school will almost double -- from 1,100 to 2,000 a year (it's always best to get them when they're young). DOT hopes to "encourage 2.5 million more adults and children to take up cycling, improve their fitness and beat the traffic" with their package.

In July, Mayor Boris Johnson announced that London would spend $975 million on walking and cycling programs over the coming decade. In an inspired bit of publicity, he even deemed this summer the "Summer of Cycling," as Andrew wrote about then.

With more and more cities around the world adopting ambitious new bike-sharing programs (yes, even in the U.S.) and investing in new cycling infrastructure -- President-elect Barack Obama is a bit of a cycling enthusiast himself -- the future of cycling looks very bright, indeed.

More about cycling
Urban Cyclists: Stick Together, Don't Inhale?
Roadside Assistance for Cyclists: Get To Where You're Going
Copenhagen Cyclists Take Over Main City Thoroughfare

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