Last month British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government will devote respectable amounts of money to make bicycling safer on U.K. roads. The announcement promised spending into nine figures:
With local contributions, the total new funding for cycling is £148 million between now and 2015. The announcement includes a commitment from the government to cut red tape that can stifle cycle-friendly road design and to encourage changes to the way roads are built or altered. Councils will be expected to up their game to deliver infrastructure that takes cycling into account from the design stage.
Certainly the timing of this sudden desire to turn London into Copenhagen has something to do with, for lack of a better term, fashion. So-called “bike bistros,” with parking for bikes and a two-wheeler theme, have been cropping up for a while now in the U.K. Internationally too. British cycling has gotten a shot in the arm from recent success in the scandalous sport of bicycle racing. The past two editions of the Tour de France, fighting to prove its post-Armstrong legitimacy, went to British riders. Britain’s national cyclists’ club—called “British Cycling,” sensibly—claims that its membership has doubled since Bradley “Wiggo” Wiggins’ 2011 Tour victory.
But it’s also a practical matter. Use of bicycles in London is up 110 percent from just over a decade ago, and not much less in the U.K. broadly. If they don’t spend some money on new bike lanes and signage and so forth, they’ll certainly pay more to treat victims of collisions, and have to deal with increased tension between cyclists and other users of the roadways and sidewalks.
Britain’s bike boom is just the latest chapter in that nation’s long history with the elegant human-powered machines. It’s not just the U.K. however. An alternative argument for a bike boom in the European Union comes from Spain, where the motivation appears to be local financial straits. Bikes are cheaper to operate and cheaper to buy than cars, and with Europe still struggling financially, transportation is a good place to cut the monthly budget. The unemployment figures also remain high, which has provoked some bootstrapping—and bike shops are cheap, fun businesses to launch and operate. A laid off Spanish design worker who opened a Madrid bike shop tells the Guardian that “amid the rising cost of car use and public transport … we’re getting more customers each day…. All types of people come in, young and old, some want a new bike, some bring in the bicycles they’ve had stored in the garage for 30 years to be repaired.”
Spanish bike sales appear to have just exceeded car sales for the first time—780,000 bikes sold to 700,000 cars in a year, according to the same report.