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Small change: Free-wheeling to a happier, healthier future

Published —
02.24.20
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It’s hardly news that we face a climate emergency, an obesity epidemic and an air pollution crisis. But there is one small change we can make that addresses all three: get on your bike. One of my first projects after joining consultants WSP as a transport planner was advising large and small businesses on encouraging their staff to cycle more. Many of the ideas are simple and cheap – and can have a big impact.

It’s often straightforward to install secure cycle parking. Decent showers and lockers mean staff can arrive fresh at their desks and store their kit out of the way. In the UK we have a government-authorised scheme where employees take out a tax-free loan from their employer to buy a new bike and pay it back through payroll – with tax advantages for company and staff.

Some companies offer incentives – maybe a free breakfast event each month for people who cycle to work, tied in with arranging for a local bike shop or mobile technician to visit and offer a tune-up and repair service. There’s even some research that a small cash incentive – just £1 a day – can be effective in embedding a new cycle-to-work habit. And it’s cheaper than providing a car park space.

An enthusiastic cyclist in your team could become your local cycling champion, supporting and encouraging their colleagues. A local cycling club or charity may offer cycling skills and maintenance training. Buy an office bike or two – maybe an e-bike – and cycle to meetings. And for local deliveries, get a cargo bike, or suggest your courier company invests in one. You might lobby your local council – maybe through your Chamber of Commerce – to create a comprehensive network of protected cycle routes, so people aren’t fighting for road space with cars and buses.

Does any of this make any difference? Yes, it does. Companies we’ve worked with – and many others – have found they have happier, healthier workers and lower absenteeism. Encouraging cycling or lending a bike can help people take up job offers when otherwise they couldn’t get to your workplace – which expands your potential talent pool. Your carbon emissions fall, you reduce costs by providing less car parking, and the air in your locality is cleaner and quieter. Small changes like this, by individuals and companies, alongside sustained investment by national and local government, add up to major transformation.

27% of UK carbon emissions are from transport, and around 80% of the pollutants in the UK areas with the worst air quality come from passenger and freight vehicles. More than half of commuting trips in England – 13 million every day – are less than 10km each way. Many of these could be cycled in less than half an hour – but only 5% of people travel to work by bike. Nearly half of working-age adults already own a bike. Many are covered in cobwebs in the shed, no doubt, but they can be brought back to life.

“But we can’t do that here,” you say. I disagree. In 1980 Amsterdam was largely car-dependent – now more than half of trips there are made by bike. Danish politicians cycle to cabinet meetings – it’s normal. Oslo has almost achieved its ambition of a car-free city centre. Wherever we are, we can start to change how we travel. As Cycling Canada says: “Hop on!

Julian Moss is a senior transport planner with WSP in its Liverpool, UK office.