"Further than the end of the road"- voices of a lost generation for cycling?


During 2016, SQW investigated the economic impact of the bicycle industry and cycling for the Bicycle Association of Great Britain. Amongst other findings, the study revealed a sharp fall in bicycle imports in 2016 and a troubling decline in children's cycling over the past decade. Below we discuss the evidence and implications for the bicycle industry and government.Cycling_SQW_Insight.jpg

In March 2017, the marvellous BBC social history of Raleigh bicycles Pedalling Dreams introduced us to 10 year-old Margaret Dutton. Over one day in 1930, Margaret and her father cycled 100 miles from Huddersfield to Rhyl, and home again by bike the next day. As she said in 2014, 'Cycling was just something I loved doing and I was a very determined girl'.

There is little doubt that children today still love cycling. In 2015, Ipsos Mori asked children the same age as Margaret how they would describe cycling: 'cycling is fun' was the resounding chorus. In 2014, The Association of Bikeability Schemes asked children what would make cycling more enjoyable, and most said they wanted what Margaret had: a good bike, someone to ride with, and somewhere to ride to. For one child, just being 'allowed to ride further than the end of the road' would be enough.

Are these the voices of a lost generation? Our analysis revealed a sharp decline in bicycle imports in 2016. This matters because Bicycle Association members (importers, distributors, retailers) estimate that, unlike the 1930s, almost all bicycles sold in the UK today are imports, and around one third of these are children's bikes. But family cycling (including children's bikes) today contributes less than 10% of the value of all bicycle sales.

At the other end of the market, our fascination with competitive cycling has driven up prices for high-performance equipment, so cycling enthusiasts now contribute around half the value of all bicycle sales (with recreational and commuter cycling filling in the remainder). It seems likely that high-volume but low-value children's bikes are disproportionately represented in declining bicycle imports.

Our analysis of National Travel Survey data suggests this is indeed the case. Children are still more likely to own a bicycle than any other age group, but the proportion of children who own or have access to one has declined steadily over the past decade (see chart below). Moreover, children are making fewer trips and cycling fewer miles than five years ago. At the same time, bicycle ownership, trips and miles have increased for older people. Despite Britain's trumpeted sport cycling success in recent years, the proportion of people who own a bike (less than half) and adults who ride a bike (around a quarter) remain unchanged.

Cycling_Data_-_SQW.pngThis presents a challenge for the bicycle industry and government. Bicycle marketing focused on high performance equipment (see any brand website) does not reflect the cycling most people do, and is unlikely to get more people into cycling. Fear of cycling on busy roads, worry about looking silly in Lycra, anxiety over choosing and maintaining a bike: any of these is likely to deter the many people who can't, don't or won't cycle. Fear of cycling on the road in particular is increasing, despite falling fatality rates (deaths per miles cycled).

Without sustained investment in infrastructure, training and other interventions to promote cycling, it is likely that parents' concerns will be transferred to their children, whose starting point we must remember is 'cycling is fun'. Nurturing this intrinsic enthusiasm is essential if cycling children are to grow into cycling adults. Even in Margaret Dutton's childhood, a golden age when Raleigh bicycles ruled the road, parents were the principal barriers and enablers of children's cycling:

The odd thing was that at the time we never even considered my age, although my mum had a fit when we told her our plans - we just got on our bikes and went.

Children need little encouragement to cycle, but they do need permission and support. Industry and government have a responsibility to promote and improve cycling for the vast majority of people who don't yet cycle, not just those who do. If we are to secure the next generation for cycling, and amass all the transport and health benefits cycling offers, parents in particular must be persuaded that cycling could be, for them, an enjoyable and accessible form of family mobility and recreation.