LONDON (Reuters) - It has taken a pandemic, empty roads and one of the sunniest Springs on record for Britons to fall back in love with the bicycle but the fear keeping Chris Boardman awake at night is that it will be a brief flirtation.
The former Olympic champion is heartened by the government’s response to a 70% spike in cycle use during the coronavirus lockdown -- namely 250 million pounds ($304.53 million) of funding for local councils to install ‘active travel’ measures.
With train and bus travel discouraged to aid social-distancing, pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and even e-scooter hire stations are appearing in towns and cities.
As Greater Manchester’s first Cycling and Walking Commissioner, it should be music to Boardman’s ears but it’s not quite that straightforward.
“I’ve had a few sleepless nights, to be honest,” Boardman, who won pursuit gold at the 1992 Olympics and broke the world hour record three times, told Reuters this week.
“This might sound melodramatic, but we are at a crossroads and we could go either way, and I don’t know which way it is. For the first time we genuinely have a real choice, we could change our transport culture, the way we use our streets.”
While the majority of businesses have suffered during the pandemic, bike shops have struggled to keep up with demand.
Boardman, who launched his own brand of bikes in a partnership with High Street chain Halfords in 2007, has even been volunteering his time as a part-time mechanic fixing up the bikes of health service workers in the past weeks.
The 51-year-old says calling the current crisis an “opportunity” for cycling as a primary means of transport sounds odd when thousands have died.
But Boardman, whose 75-year-old mother Carol was killed when struck by a car while riding a bike in 2016, approaches his campaign for safer cycling and walking with the same determination that marked his illustrious career.
He believes that out of the darkness of the pandemic, a new blueprint for the way we move around can emerge.
“You’ve turned off car use globally and now you have to choose whether you want to turn it back on again or do something different,” Boardman, figurehead for a scheme to create a 1,800-mile walking and cycling network in Greater Manchester, said.
He points to a range of “geeky” statistics. In Greater Manchester he says public transport use has dipped 90% since the lockdown with car journeys down 60%, figures echoed nationally.
“We have 200 million car journeys in our city region of less than 1km which is an embarrassing stat, but also very exciting as it shows how easy actually it will be to change,” he says.
“Cycling initially went up 22% compared to pre Covid levels. That rose to 47% and it’s reached as high as 70%.
“And these are not what you would call ‘cyclists’ with the lycra and road bikes and stuff, it’s normal people, in normal clothes doing normal things.”
At some stage, Boardman knows ‘normality’ will return but is optimistic that the government, perhaps out of necessity, now realise that weaning the public away from their habitual car use can speed the recovery, and create a healthier society.
“We have got 1950s levels of traffic and it’s made it a nice environment,” he says. “What we need to do is give people that safe space. The measures the government have brought in have been done for pragmatic reasons, not ethical or ecological ones.
“A third of people don’t have access to a car. If you’re saying don’t use public transport, but don’t provide safe cycling, you’ve penalised the poorest in the community.
“I like that it’s emergency measures. The government is saying we have got to do this, but if after six months you don’t like it, we’ll take the cones away and go back to normal.
“But I believe that once people try it, they will want to keep it. Hopefully we’ll get permanence in the end.
“This is a moment we’ll never have in our lifetime. We can choose to keep it or wipe it all away. What we do next will affect our futures forever.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis
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