Cycling growth in UK at risk of being left behind by Europe, experts warn

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: LeoPatrizi/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

The UK risks being left behind Europe on cycling growth, experts have warned, as cycle sales are down by a quarter on pre-pandemic levels and electric bike sales are plateauing following a boom in 2020.

Although cycling levels have significantly risen since the pandemic – up 33% in the year to 30 July, according to Department for Transport (DfT) figures – sales of new bikes are not keeping pace.

Those in the industry say more needs to be done to boost cycling uptake, including investing in infrastructure, secure cycle parking, and e-bike subsidies and charging networks.

According to the latest market report from the Bicycle Association, cycle sales are down more than a quarter on pre-Covid levels from January to June. Sales of hybrid and children’s cycles, considered the two most “mainstream” categories, are worst affected, while “enthusiast” categories of road and gravel bikes have grown. Cycle sales are generally linked with cycling levels.

“Things are very difficult right now,” said Steve Garidis, the Bicycle Association’s executive director. “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 [cycling trips].

The association says the cost of living crisis is colliding with a dip in demand for bicycles, while prices have increased and the pound is weakening against the dollar.

The charity Cycling UK believes part of the growth in cycling, which it says accelerated in March, is due to rising fuel prices, encouraging more people to switch to bikes for some trips, but warns that growth could be undone if fuel prices fall, unless cycling infrastructure improves.

Garidis added: “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.”

E-cycles are the most natural “car replacement” and make up 9% of bike purchases in the UK. However, in Europe e-bikes make up 23% of sales. The British and German markets are similar in size but only 165,000 e-bikes are sold a year in the UK compared with 2 million in Germany.

The government has set a target for half of all short trips to be walked or cycled by 2030 in England. In 2019 more than 60% of trips between one and two miles were driven. Research shows most people want to cycle more and support cycling investment but fear of motor traffic is the number one barrier.

In May, Cycling UK was selected to run a national e-cycle support programme, to include short- and long-term e-bike loans and trials. However, the scheme appears to have stalled and neither Cycling UK nor the Department for Transport were able to discuss its status or when it would restart.

About 190,000 electric cars were registered in the UK in 2021, just 15,000 more than e-cycles, but there are more than 30,000 e-car charging points and only 16 e-cycle charging points.

Garidis said: “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’.”

However, he added, there are other pressing issues. “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.”

Garidis urged the government to introduce subsidies for e-bikes: “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.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “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. 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.”