The solution is under our noses: We need more cycling in Britain

Today 27 per cent of journeys in Holland are made by bike - while in Britain the figure is as low as 2 per cent. But cycling could help us achieve our 2050 carbon targets, and take the strain off the NHS.

As water rushes over parts of the UK and the USA recovers from its "Polar Vortex", the climate change debate has returned with a vengence. Correlating directly with our use of fossil fuels, up to 97 per cent of climate science papers now agree that climate change is a problem, and that the world is getting warmer. Comments by figures such as Jeremy Clarkson and Donald Trump calling climate change "science fiction" and "global warming bullshit" look more ridiculous than ever.

But what can we do about it? Although UK cycling has received some bad press in recent months after a spate of deaths in the capital, encouraging more people to cycle seems a remarkably obvious way to help to reduce our carbon emissions and save energy – and is something that is supported by all the major political parties. At least on paper. The transport sector is responsible for a large number of UK emissions, and by limiting them through the use of alternative transport methods the impact could be significantly lower.

On this front, some European countries are well ahead of the curve. Holland, Denmark and Germany all have transport systems that revolve around the use of bicycles. In Holland especially, bikes are everywhere, lining the streets, chained up en masse outside train stations in spaces as large as car parks, and taking precedence on the roads. This healthy relationship with cycling began after protests sparked by the deaths of children on the roads and the 1980s oil crisis led to the introduction of car-free areas in city centres and the rebuilding of roads to encompass separate lanes. Today 27 per cent of journeys in Holland are made by bike.

A 2011 study by the European Cyclists’ Federation, Cycle More Often 2 Cool The Planet, argued “if levels of cycling in the EU-27 were equivalent to those found in Denmark, bicycle use would help achieve 12 to 26 per cent of the 2050 target reduction set for the transport sector.” At the moment, the UK is falling well short, with around 2 per cent of all journeys being taken on bikes by comparison with the Danes' 16 per cent. But that could change: cycling in the UK has a risen by a fifth over the past 10 years.

Speaking to Martin Key from British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling in Great Britain, the wider picture is revealed. While stating that these are “rough calculations”, Key tells me “transport is the single biggest emitter of Co2 (21 per cent of UK emissions)”.

He expands, saying that if we increased the amount we cycle by 500 per cent by 2025, which is “the recommended target of the ‘Get Britain Cycling’ report (which says 10 per cent of all journeys should be made by bike)”, then we would eventually save “10 million tons of Co2 (25 billion miles at 400g of Co2 per mile driven).”

It is in cutting small car journeys and commuter miles where the most energy would be saved – almost a fourth of car journeys made in the UK are under a mile. Despite the imperfect environment for cycling in London, since 2010 "Boris bikes" (or "Ken bikes" as they should properly be called, having been originally planned by the previous mayor) have done a lot to promote inner city commuter cycling – mirroring the 2007 Vélib scheme in Paris.

Boris has promised a "cycling revolution", but little impact has been felt beyond London. A nation-wide scheme would be more appropriate in terms of significantly cutting down on energy usage. Of course there needs to be expenditure in the first instance, but as can be seen in a recent study on town-wide cycling initiatives in England, the social and environmental benefits offset the negatives.

Of course, cycling won’t just benefit the environment: it would lower obesity levels and related illnesses. If the UK can get it right, and create a system comparable to the Netherlands', where despite having the highest proportion of cyclists, they also have the lowest number of cycling fatalities, the benefits to UK carbon output and society as a whole would be enormous.

A lone cyclist on Southwark Bridge. Photograph: Getty Images.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a freelance journalist and Opinions Editor of gal-dem magazine.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.