I was only 5 years old when I discovered cycling. By the time I was 15, I was one of a handful of youngsters noticed by coaches at a British Cycling event and was selected for the first intake into the newly formed British Cycling Academy System.
Fast forward to today and I dread to think of the miles I’ve racked up and the training hours I’ve put in over the years in order to achieve my goals. You don’t win medals without that kind of single-minded dedication. However, there is also a very real danger that you start to see everything through the eyes of a professional cyclist. For years, I didn’t think about things like road safety, dedicated cycle lanes, cycle superhighways, urban bike rental schemes and the challenges of even getting hold of a bike in the first place as a youngster. Perhaps more accurately, I didn’t think about what I could do to change these things.
In recent years, my mindset has shifted significantly. I have started to think more and more about the future and what I have observed during my time at the top of my sport, as well as what I want to contribute.
Access to bikes
It’s what prompted me to establish the ClancyBriggs Academy, which aims to democratise cycling participation in the UK and overcome some of the economic and social barriers preventing young people from riding bikes. My business partner, Graham Briggs and I want to get more children on bikes and arm them with the skills to enjoy riding their bikes. Some might even go on to forge careers in the sport if they so wish and follow in our footsteps. If they do, I’ll be very proud that we helped them take their first steps.
Access to a bike is only one hurdle encountered by children and something we are working hard with our commercial partners to overcome. There are numerous other obstacles, including safety, which always features high on the list of concerns for parents. It is an issue that’s been talked about for some time and without any easy answers. I’m not a town planner, but I have been fortunate to cycle my bike all over the world and see how different cultures, communities and towns facilitate riding bikes.
Designing the 15-minute city
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that cycling needs to be considered an important aspect of town planning and design and treated on an equal footing with other modes of transportation. We find ourselves in the difficult position of having to redesign and re-engineer our towns and cities to make room for cycling, because we didn’t consider it thoroughly enough in the first place. We need to design for the infrastructure of tomorrow, as much as for the infrastructure of today.
That means we need to start adapting our idea of cycling infrastructure in the wake of the global pandemic. Bike sales have gone through the roof. We need to ensure that after the pandemic is a distant memory, people are still using their bikes. That will be significantly more likely if the idea of the 15-minute city takes root and we all live, work and play, 15 minutes from our homes. In that scenario, cycling will boom. However, it will still require a shift in the mindset of town planners.
The good news is that there are already positive signs. Cycling infrastructure has experienced a boom right across Europe since the coronavirus pandemic hit. It’s estimated that the continent’s cities have spent 1 billion euros on 1000km of cycle lanes last year alone, adapting existing transport systems to the new normal. That’s a direct response to demand as much as anything – cycling is estimated to have grown by 70% in Paris, and Milan’s most popular bike lane is used by some 10,000 cyclists.
Sustainable travel. Sustainable solution
Secondly, we need to start to see sustainable modes of transport, such as cycling, as the remedy for many of the issues many of our civic leaders are grappling with – problems such as pollution, congestion, health and physical fitness, mental wellbeing and much more besides. For too long, many of our decision makers have been at odds with cycling and many cyclists have set themselves at odds with decision makers. Instead, let’s work together to ensure cycling helps to solve some of the big issues we are grappling with. More people on bikes, means less cars on the road and less damage to our roads, which also means less congestion, which means less time spent in jams, which means a more productive economy and more time spent with our families and loved ones. And that’s before we even talk about the health benefits.
Learning from smart cities abroad
There are some fascinating approaches taking place around the world – in Queensland, Australia the Department of Transport and Main Roads has spent time forecasting the positive impact that more bicycles (and less cars) could have on road network maintenance, which amounts to 27 million Australian dollars per working day! More bikes on the roads, means less time and money diverted to ongoing road maintenance.
Back home in the UK there has been some studies around work absenteeism in London, which found that non-cyclists take 8.7 days per year off work, while cyclists on average only take 7.4 days per year off work. The benefit here is not just to our health, but to business productivity too.
Smart cities should nudge us towards healthy choices
It’s here that my first point about town planning and my second point about cycling being part of the solution, converge. There is a strong argument for trying to design our infrastructure and the smart cities of tomorrow in such a way that they force us to become healthy by nature. What I mean by that is that they nudge us into behaviours which keep us healthy and keep the city functioning well and effectively.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of athletes lecturing the general public about the need to do more exercise. Afterall, it’s my job to train day in and day out and stay healthy. It’s not so easy when you’re chained to a desk. So perhaps the solution isn’t simply to tell people to exercise more, but instead to help make sure the way we plan our infrastructure, as well as structure our lives, allows people to actively choose healthier lives on their own terms. That also means doing our best to prevent obstacles which stop people choosing healthy options.
I’ve been fortunate to race at the velodrome in Apeldoorne on numerous occasions. What strikes you about cycling in the Netherlands is not the professional scene, although they have many great cyclists. Instead, it’s the way in which cycling is a habit across the country and across the generational divide. Without romanticising it, families leave their homes by bike. Part of the way through their journey, the children are dropped off at the school gates before parents or grandparents continue by bike to their workplaces. It’s become a cultural and societal habit, but it’s a habit which has been made possible as a result of building the right infrastructure including cycling parking, dedicated cycle lanes, smart junctions and alike.
I suspect I’m not the only one to come away impressed by what some of the Dutch towns and cities have achieved, and so my third point about creating cycle-friendly cities is a reputational one – it’s good for a city’s ‘brand’ to promote sustainable travel. It positions you as an intelligent and forward-thinking city. It contributes to the kind of talent you can then attract to live in your city and power the businesses based in that city. We think about smart cities as being tech-enabled, but the reality is that a smart city is simply one where smart-decisions are being made – progressive decisions that anticipate how we all want to live in the future.
Finally, data counts. As a professional cyclist, I’m used to making incremental changes to my bike, my body, my positioning and my tactics, based on what the data and results are telling me. It pays dividends in your performance.
Cycling apps like Strava and Garmin collect vast swaths of user data each and every day. For the individual user it is often insight on whether they are getting faster, fitter or whether they have finally beaten their best friend’s time on the local climb. Combine that data and look at it collectively and it should be able to tell us a great deal about how cyclists use the roads – when they travel and on what routes. The problem at present is that we are only just starting to think about how to use this kind of data to identify problem areas and make cities safer for bicycles, but it’s a potentially rich area for us to tap into in order to bring about evidence-based interventions in urban design, in the same way as we already use the data from oyster cards. Strava has started selling access to its data sets to city planners in the United States who can use this crowdsourced information to bring about change, but it’s fairly early on in its development and it feels like it’s sometime before it will translate to tangible change to road designs in Doncaster or Gloucester.
Things don’t change overnight, and we’d do well to remember that it took the Dutch 30-50 years to establish the cycling infrastructure they have now. But the changes we are seeing in public behaviour and attitudes as a direct result of the pandemic provide us with a real opportunity to create some momentum and ensure our infrastructure reflects how we will use our towns and cities in the coming decades, including the resurgence of suburban living. My view is that the idea of a genuinely smart city will only be realised if our cycling infrastructure interventions stop being purely cosmetic and start to show the level of ambition that I see day to day from the youngsters who are part of the Clancy Briggs Academy.
Improvements to our cycling infrastructure is just one of the many ways we can meet our global climate change targets. Read our guest blog by Baroness Hayman to read about the other challenges that lie ahead.