Tennis ace Cameron Norrie made headlines at Wimbledon last summer for more than reaching the Grand Slam’s semi-finals. Papped cycling to the tournament, racket slung on his back, he told the press matter-of-factly he does not own a car and bikes to practice almost every day.
In many ways, Norrie is bang on trend. During the pandemic, the government hailed a British “active travel Renaissance” as quiet roads and public transport qualms boosted cycling rates by 46%. But he is still in a tiny minority of Britons who commute by bike.
A recent Ipsos survey found just 5% of the UK population cycle to work or school. While this is almost double the 2.8% recorded in the 2011 census, it’s still far behind Germany, Sweden and the world-leading 30% in the Netherlands.
Why does this matter? It’s long been known that cycling to work benefits employers and workers alike. According to the European Cycle Federation, a commuter who switches from car to bike for an 8km commute saves 750kg of carbon emissions annually. For larger organisations, this could add up to significant cuts in Scope Three emissions (indirect emissions from third parties). Meanwhile, studies have linked cycling to work with a 41% lower risk of premature death and a 45% reduction in cancer risk, while regular exercise can help ward off depression.
The past three years have added impetus. Russell Stephens, head of commercial at Cycling UK, says there has been a surge of interest in its workplace cycling schemes since 2020.
“Going back to the start of the pandemic, businesses wanted to make practical changes, based on the fact that it didn’t feel safe to travel into cities and towns during the lockdown,” he says. “Now we’re seeing a shift towards workplaces trying to help staff with the cost-of-living crisis.” According to new research from Blackhawk Network, commuters can save an average of £1,262 a year by switching to cycling, rising to £1,600 in Greater London.
The charity’s Cycle Friendly Employer accreditation recognises businesses that support biking to work. Among the changes it suggests are installing lockers, showers and secure cycle storage, along with providing liability insurance and hosting bike maintenance sessions. The government’s Cycle to Work scheme is particularly popular. It allows PAYE employees to spread the cost of bicycle equipment through a tax-free salary sacrifice and more than 1.6 million people at 40,000 employers have signed up for it.
How to create a cycling culture
But these interventions count for little without culture change. Nick Chamberlain, policy manager at British Cycling, says, for example, that many believe cycling to work means heavy, sweating effort. This often isn’t true for typical short commutes – so businesses should reflect this in their messaging and imagery.
“Cycling to work doesn’t have to be a sporty thing. You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic,” he says. “Taken steadily, it’s no different to a brisk walk, but the perception is often very different.”
One business putting this into practice with great success is HSBC UK, a former partner of British Cycling.
“We’ve tried to cultivate an environment where anyone can be a cyclist, no matter what you wear, or no matter what bike you have, and also no matter how far you want to go,” says Thomas Collier, a branch network manager in Inverness. “What’s key is keeping it simple and not prescribing to people.”
Collier, a lifelong bike enthusiast, is one of the bank’s 120 Get Active champions around the country, who organise group rides both in-person and virtually and share colleagues’ success stories. To date, 12,000 employees, including CEO Ian Stuart, have registered on HSBC UK’s Get Active Hub app, logging more than 2.1 million cycling miles.
“[The app] creates a community and support area where you can go and see what other people are doing, get ideas and encourage each other,” Collier says.
There are different cycling facilities in each of HSBC’s hundreds of UK workplaces, but “It’s the planning that helps people,” he says. This includes information about shower facilities and where they can lock up their bikes.
Commuting by bike builds resilience
Planning and communication have also been key for Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH), the first UK hospital accredited gold status by Cycling UK. This is despite bigger challenges than most: its large central London campus hosts a diverse workforce, from doctors to administrators, all with varying shift patterns and backgrounds.
All new employees receive an information pack about active travel, including maps of cycle-safe routes to the hospital, information on the health benefits of cycling and even the locations of recent bike thefts. There’s also an email group to share tips, a buddy system for new cyclists and bike hire schemes that give people a chance to try out cycling before investing in their own, says Nick Martin, head of sustainability at the hospital.
A recent staff survey showed that 18% of respondents now use bikes as part of their commute – a huge jump from just a few years ago. Part of that was a shift from public transport during Covid but, although “the pandemic focused minds”, Martin says the hospital sees this as a long-term change.
“The workforce is under strain, as a lot are. So if you can offer something positive, that’s good. It is [also] about the resilience of the hospital in terms of people being able to get in if push comes to shove,” he adds.
Since the start of the pandemic, GOSH has also worked with Camden Borough Council to support the creation of safer cycling routes around the hospital. It followed several cyclist fatalities on nearby roads, including among its staff.
Safer cycling infrastructure is vital
That underlines the very real safety fears many have about bikes. Busy roads that lack segregated, continuous cycle paths can be dangerous as well as intimidating, and cycling is still around 28 times riskier than driving.
That’s something the government is pushing to change. A new public agency, Active Travel England, was established in 2022 to oversee a £2bn budget for safe cycling and walking schemes across the country.
Chamberlain believes that employers should make sure local authorities and MPs know they want to see some of that money invested in their area. “If you want the UK’s workforce to cycle, then businesses should be a critical part of calling for public money to be spent differently. We need businesses to say, ‘We need safe roads, we need good policing, we need safe, high-quality infrastructure.”
Almost a decade ago, support from businesses such as Deloitte, Microsoft and Unilever was instrumental in establishing London’s landmark cycle superhighways. As a result of this and other infrastructure improvements in the capital, Londoners are now three times more likely to cycle for travel than the rest of the country. Now, says Chamberlain, “We need the same level of investment of political capital in all the other big urban centres across the country.”