“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.” HG Wells (author of ‘The War of the Worlds’)
In the days and weeks following the London bombings of 2005, it was widely reported that bicycle sales in the city had gone through the roof.
One newspaper, the International Herald Tribune of 12 July 2005, noted that central London retailers quadrupled their sales on the day of the bombing, but also recognised that sales had been increasing by 20-25% a year this decade. In London, these increases were attributed to the introduction of congestion charge two years earlier.
In effect, that longer term growth in the market for bikes was attributable to legislation. Since 2005, cycling has gained even more ground as politicians on all sides clamber over each other to appear more bike-friendly than their rivals, and their efforts combine with public sentiment.
More and more, consumers are being encouraged to believe in the doctrine of Two Wheels Good.
Why are politicians interested?
Promoting cycling has many advantages for politicians. First, actually getting on a bike can make a politician look like regular people, unless, like David Cameron, he makes the mistake of having his bags carried in a car behind. Second, biking is “right on” – it’s green, it’s clean, it smacks of self-sufficiency.
Third and most important of all, it’s healthy, and in tune with the national obsession with being fit (or at least not being an obesity statistic). The more people cycle, the less money the NHS has to spend curing them of heart disease and other ailments related to being unfit.
As the population ages, the effects of unhealthy lifestyles being lived now will be felt by the Exchequer. Taking all of these together, cycling is a win-win-win solution to several problems. It reduces urban congestion, reduces our carbon footprint, reduces health service costs, and decreases pressure on public transport.
At the level of the user, a cyclist pays for the maintenance of his or her bicycle. By comparison, maintaining public transport infrastructure such as the Tube system is often literally unaffordable for the government. HG Wells may well have been right.
But it’s much more than PR for politicians. Initiatives are kicking off across a range of levels. The most important is infrastructure, because its poor and without development there won’t be anything to cycle on.
Nationally, Sustrans, the charity for sustainable transport, won £50 million, by far its biggest ever grant, in December 2007. This came not from government, but from the Big Lottery Fund, voted for by ITV viewers. Sustrans reckons the grant will unlock £100 million in partnership with local authorities and enable the charity to turbocharge its main work of building cycle highways (see pic below) across the country.
In cities, local government has been supporting cycling-initiatives for several years. However, cycling’s importance has now accelerated in this context too. Electioneering in London’s mayoral contest involves competing promises to make the city more cycling friendly.
Ken Livingstone proposes to spend £500 million in ten years on special bike routes and a municipal bike hire system. While Boris Johnson has yet to step up and offer anything as ambitious, he has pledged to make cycling in the capital “easier and safer”. Ten years ago, politicians talking about cycling as part of their campaign would have been unthinkable, especially for such a major position.
Sustrans and such urban initiatives will join up, expanding the horizons of where its possible to cycle. Beyond infrastructure, there are equally large incentives to cycle. The major example (of course offered by OMD UK) is that employers may now join a national scheme to offer their staff tax breaks to buy their own bicycles. The effective saving available on a bike costing up to £1000 can be nearly 50%.
So cycling is a trend with powerful people getting behind it – the public voting Lottery funds its way, politicians putting public money into it. Brand engagement with the trend has so far been low.
Puma, for one example, has collaborated with the bike manufacturer Biomega to produce a machine specifically for urban use, incorporating an ingenious lock to deter thieves as part of the bike. However there are enormous opportunities for other brands to harness the trend.
Where is the Run London for people who would like to cycle but are wary of getting out on the roads? Where are the free branded cycling gear promotions and advertiser funded bike stands?
Bikes and cycling could be a cheap way of grabbing your brand some attention and of doing something new, timely and original for consumers. Get on yer bike.
For feedback or comment, please contact Insight Manager, OMD UK, Michael Tully on Michael.Tully@omd.com
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