Temporary cycling routes have been implemented in UK cities, with kilometres more in the pipeline. As a way of enabling social distancing, and relieving future pressure on the road network, this has had another benefit. New cyclists are taking to newly cycle-friendly streets, making this form of transport more accessible. Though the infrastructure is important, some of the credit for the health and environmental benefits of this cycling boom should go to the bicycle itself – far from being a low tech solution, the bicycle is the result of generations of engineering innovation.
In April of 2020, a fabric sign propped up by two wooden posts was propped up on the outskirts of a Cambridgeshire village. In large hand-inked capital letters, it bore a message for cyclists: ‘STAY AWAY.’ At the same time, a surge in bicycle sales of over 50% saw mechanics rushed off their feet trying to cope with the demand for new bike builds. In fact, by late May, affordable adult bikes from well-known brands such as Specialized and Raleigh were almost completely out of stock across the country.
Taken in isolation, these parallel bursts of cycling aversion and enthusiasm make a confusing narrative – but you’ve already guessed what was going on. This is a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic, viewed anecdotally through UK cycling. In full, the much-ridiculed anti-cyclist sign (which was, in fairness to the village’s population, not endorsed by the Parish Council or residents) read ‘CYCLISTS STOP PANTING VIRUSES THROUGH OUR VILLAGE STAY AWAY’. In reality, it is unlikely that cyclists from other households pose a significant risk to anyone not travelling in their slipstream.
The cyclists addressed by the mysterious sign maker were likely taking advantage of quieter roads in spring to enjoy their allotted daily exercise in the early stages of the UK’s lockdown. This was not the sole cause of the bicycle sales surge. For commuters wishing to avoid public transport when reopening begins, the bicycle presents a suitably socially distant alternative.
As commuters and city authorities look towards the bicycle as an emergency transport measure, now is the time to remember that this solution is not as low tech as one might think. The modern bicycle is the culmination of generations of engineering innovation, and its potential to transform urban transport is owed in part to a lot of historical inventiveness.
This is something that, with public transport restricted and temporary cycling infrastructure spreading, more people are discovering.
Pop-up bicycle lanes in UK cities
In cities in the across the UK and beyond, pop-up cycle lanes have been (well) popping up, often on closed-off traffic lanes demarcated by rows of traffic cones. The theory, prompting variable levels of urgency in local authorities, is that if commuters who would have taken public transport switch en masse to private cars to aid social distancing, roads networks would be overwhelmed by the extra traffic.
UK Government guidance released in May required local authorities to allocate more space for walking and cycling. The Department for Transport pledged £250 million of emergency funding for pandemic response measures such as pop-up cycle lanes as part of the ‘largest ever boost for cyclists and pedestrians’. This is the first stage of a £2 billion investment, which is part of £5 billion of new funding for cycling and buses announced in February.
According to road.cc, cities including Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London have planned changes to increase cycling and walking space. A number of protected temporary cycleways are already in place in London according to Sustrans, with Transport for London planning a “bike Tube” network above ground.
The first pop-up bike lane in the UK actually predated government guidance and funding. Forbes magazine reports that Leicester City Council established a 500-metre key worker corridor on the 27th of April to help key workers reach the Leicester Royal Infirmary.
This was expanded by another 500 metres days later. In cities such as Leicester which have been, as Carlton Reid notes in Forbes, historically car-dominated, this temporary extra infrastructure is an opportunity for many to pick up long-forgotten bicycles and explore healthier and greener travel.
The traffic cones may be low-tech, but don’t let that fool you. Although the infrastructure is only now catching up, the modern bicycle’s potential to transform how we travel is the result of a whole lot of historical technological innovation.
The invention and innovations behind the modern bicycle
On the face of it, your bike may look like a simplistic machine, and there is some truth to that; one of the joys of cycling is the simplicity of the machine between you and the road. In this case, however, simplicity is not the same thing as simplistic.
An article by Lucy Jolin which originally appeared in the Cambridge Alumni magazine charts the evolution of the bicycle and the engineering behind it. Before the necessary innovations began, it was widely assumed that keeping control of a two-wheeled machine without one’s feet on the ground (see gentleman’s hobby horse) would be impossible.
But, as the article points out, eventually ‘three Frenchmen – one carriage maker and two blacksmiths – came up with the pedal.’ Innovation didn’t stop there, and a Coventry inventor called James Starley ‘came up with the idea of making wheels held in shape by weaving wire spokes together.’ The result was a strong and much lighter wheel.
Another thing we probably take for granted on modern bikes is the inflatable tyre. Formerly, the various prototypical bicycles under the ‘velocipede’ umbrella had tyres of solid rubber, which made riding uncomfortable and inefficient. Following the invention of the vulcanisation process (where sulphur is added to rubber to make it pliable) Scottish inventor Robert Thomson patented a pneumatic tyre in 1847.
Unaware of the prior patent, Scottish born inventor John Boyd Dunlop invented a more widely known pneumatic tyre with bicycles in mind, aiming to make his son’s medically prescribed tri-cycling more comfortable on Belfast’s cobbled streets.
As Lucy Jolin notes, the bicycle has ‘never stopped changing’. The basic parts have been fine-tuned and we’ve come a long way from the days when ‘bone shaker’ was a worryingly accurate name for one of the bicycle’s many ancestors. Today, the steel in frames is being gradually replaced by aerospace aluminium alloys and carbon fibre composites, and you can opt for tyres reinforced with Kevlar fibres.
Far from a nostalgic throwback, or a temporary necessity, the 2020 cycling boom is partly the result of generations of engineering innovation, all leading to one finished product. The emergency lanes provide an important opportunity, but any increase in cycling post-lockdown will also be a fundamentally technological solution to congestion, wellbeing, and green transport.
It remains to be seen whether increased cycling will hold as workplaces and movement patterns move towards normality. The National Transport Survey shows that in England in 2018, 25% of trips (including all transport modes) were under 1 mile, and 68% under 5 miles. We’ve seen during lockdown that given the proper infrastructure, more people will embrace cycling for short journeys.
The opportunity for healthier and greener urban travel is there. And the technology – in the form of the bicycle – is already developed and ready.
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Majenta’s Whitley office is a 15-minute cycle from Coventry’s statue of James Starley, inventor of the spoked bicycle wheel.
And a two-hour cycle from Fort Dunlop, iconic Midlands site which formerly operated as a factory for Dunlop Tyres, founded by John Boyd Dunlop, an inventor of the pneumatic bicycle tyre.