Will people keep up their good active travel habits post-COVID?

Rebecca Morley speaks to Cyclescheme director and chair of the Cycle to Work Alliance Adrian Warren about how COVID-19 could have a lasting effect on our everyday lives

Lockdown has been a challenging period for many – with restrictions on what we could do and who we could see quickly causing us to change our everyday routines. But with extra time on our hands to try out new things, it seems the UK has been prioritising exercise, picking up healthy hobbies and focusing on mental wellness over the past few months.

This is according to a recent study by Cyclescheme, which found that 83% of people have picked up cycling again as a result of lockdown. The study, which coincided with this year’s Cycle to Work Day on 6th August, also found that 24% of respondents would never have started an exercise regime if it wasn’t for lockdown.

“I was somewhat staggered by some of the stats,” says Adrian Warren, director at Cyclescheme and chair of the Cycle to Work Alliance.  “72% positively changing our lifestyles towards being more active is phenomenal. We wouldn’t have anticipated it two or three years ago.”

There are many reasons why this has happened, Warren continues, one notable one being a lack of commute. In fact, according to the study, 27% of people felt that not having to commute every day was the biggest positive to come out of lockdown. “Myself and many others have got almost two hours back in their day. And that’s not taking into account transition times of adjusting back into home life.

“A lot of people have taken that time to use as their activity – and most have been choosing cycling. I think one of the reasons that cycling’s been adopted is the additional time that people have got back in their everyday lives.”

And the Government has been encouraging cycling too – with Boris Johnson predicting a ‘golden age’ as early as May which was then followed by a £2 billion investment for a cycling and walking ‘revolution’. And from March, we started to see fewer cars on the road which, alongside some nice weather, prompted people who may have previously thought cycling was too dangerous to give it another go.

“It was a safe environment for people that haven’t cycled for a long time to get back on their bike,” says Warren. “It didn’t really matter too much if they wobbled a little bit, or didn’t quite hug the curb and stay out of the way of traffic.”

But with more and more people returning to work, and therefore need to commute again, will we see more of the population make that journey by bike? “I really hope so,” says Warren. “The motivation is there – 77% of people that have started cycling during lockdown have said they want to do so after.

“It’s difficult to get time in your diary to go to a gym, but we always find time to commute. You can combine the two and make it part of your regular activity.” Now it’s about making sure those people who plan to continue riding actually do – and the temporary infrastructure that we’ve seen pop-up in many towns and cities will help that, Warren says.

“Now the challenge is how do we take it from temporary to permanent, and a lot of the initiatives that the Government has released with its Gear Change policy should push us towards that.”

Shifting gears
Johnson has now kickstarted the £2 billion walking and cycling revolution by launching plans for thousands of miles of new protected bike lanes, cycle training for everyone and bikes available on prescription. “From helping people get fit and healthy and lowering their risk of illness, to improving air quality and cutting congestion, cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling some of the biggest health and environmental challenges that we face,” he said.

“But to build a healthier, more active nation, we need the right infrastructure, training and support in place to give people the confidence to travel on two wheels. That’s why now is the time to shift gears and press ahead with our biggest and boldest plans yet to boost active travel – so that everyone can feel the transformative benefits of cycling.”

But given that this isn’t the first time we’ve heard politicians promote cycling, is this latest announcement enough? “It’s an excellent start and £2 billion sounds like an awful lot of money,” says Warren. “It will certainly help make permanent some of the infrastructure that we’ve got, but when you compare it to the investment in roads and rail infrastructure, it isn’t actually that much.

“If we were to really embrace this, the £2 billion will help us give evidence to the fact that if we build initial infrastructure and people use it, behaviour changes and congestion is reduced on roads. That will help the Government to support unlocking further money to really grow the infrastructure – and we can start to catch up with what we see with our European continental friends.”

The next stage, Warren continues, will be to connect towns and cities. “In the bigger cities, people are more reliant on public transport because the roads are so congested. They’ve been more impacted by the capacity restrictions, but certainly, we’re not seeing from the Cyclescheme survey too many disparities between those that live in cities to those in towns. The only difference we would see is that 20% of Londoners will choose cycling as their main form of transport, compared to 12% nationally.”

Flexible working
The last few months have also seen a peak in Cycle to Work certificates. According to the latest data from Cyclescheme, employers are heavily investing in cycling as a benefit to their workforce, with a 542% rise in employer registrations from the 24th March, when UK lockdown commenced, to date.

With much of the nation taking up cycling as a socially distanced mode of transport, Cyclescheme experienced 59.7% more sales in May when compared to the same period last year. “Our employers have witnessed firsthand that they can operate a much more flexible workforce and flexible working policies and still get the output and productivity from their employees,” continues Warren, “so not being so strict with start and finish times, which puts added pressure onto your commute.

“We’ve also seen existing employees run additional enrollment windows. Considering that most employers will be part of the 77% that want to continue cycling, I think it’s great that they’re using that position to help facilitate that for their employees.”

Mental wellbeing
The benefits of cycling on mental health are well-known – and these have become even more evident during lockdown. Research by Cycleplan in April found that 78% of UK cyclists feared their mental health would be negatively affected if the Government enforced a nationwide confinement without daily exercise.

When asked how they benefit from cycling, 66% of respondents said that the activity boosts their mood, with 47% saying it helps them to manage their anxiety. A further 51% of respondents stated that it helps them to reduce stress.

Cyclescheme’s study found that 20% of people have been able to focus on their mental health more as a result of lockdown. “Mental health has significantly risen up the agenda,” says Warren, “and a lot of people have struggled with it through isolation or just being restricted in their movements.

“It’s well documented that physical regular activity has multiple benefits, not just from a physical side, but for mental wellbeing. Medical studies do emphasise that regular exercise reduces your risk of depression. For a lot of people that have been working from home and are in front of the screen for several hours a day, being able to get out of that environment and exercise on your bike or even just walking enables your mind to separate from work and think about other things.

“Mental health has seen a huge number of challenges for individuals during the pandemic, but the regular exercise and the uptake in cycling has helped people through that.”

Starting out
For those who are new to cycling, Warren says the best way to build confidence is just to keep going. “It’s about choosing and planning when you cycle – don’t go out at the busiest time of day where you’re likely to see more traffic than normal. Choose a quieter time to start to introduce yourself to cycling. There’s a lot of negativity out there in how cyclists are perceived, but the more you cycle, the more you realise it’s not always that bad. The majority of journeys are pleasant.”

And hopefully, as more people take up riding as part of their daily lives, some of the negative feelings towards cyclists will fade, too. “About one in six people are negative towards cyclists – it’s the minority,” says Warren. “It just happens to get more headlines. As more people choose to cycle and the congestion reduces and so does the pressure on roads, hopefully, some of that animosity will go away. We are all the same people. I sometimes drive a car and I sometimes ride a bike. I think it will change as more people adopt cycling – people who drive cars will realise that the roads are becoming less congested for them.”

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