Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A friendly approach and word-of-mouth are key to the Urban Cycle Loan program’s success.
Getting people from any social group to cycle more can have major benefits in cutting pollution and congestion. But when one relatively privileged niche dominates the bike lanes, there’s a danger that cycling investment won’t achieve anything like its maximum potential impact on the environmental or public health. Extending cycling’s popularity to groups underrepresented in the current rider fleet is a key issue for any city that truly wants the mode to take off.
A scheme in London shows how this equity might be achieved. Set up by the London Cycling Campaign, the Urban Cycle Loan project was created four years ago to encourage Londoners who hadn’t previously cycled to give it a try. While it wasn’t necessarily set up to target any specific societal segment beyond non-habitual cyclists, the scheme has nonetheless proved very successful in attracting people from groups that are under-represented among London’s cyclists—notably women and, to a lesser extent, ethnic minorities.
The scheme works like this: Applicants in four participating boroughs self-select, learning of the scheme via word of mouth or the community news sheets that many U.K. boroughs publish. For a nominal fee of £10 ($14), the scheme’s 400 annual trainees get free use of a bike, lock, helmet, and high-visibility vest for a month, starting it all with a friendly, non-judgmental training session at a local center. Encouraged to keep a diary of their changing travel habits, riders have the chance to buy their bike at an affordable price once the month’s loan is up.
This straightforward set-up has succeeded in attracting a diverse crowd. Female participants account for 60 percent of the Urban Cycle Loan program, while the number of minorities taking part is considerably higher than their proportion among current U.K. cyclists as a whole. According to a survey from Transport for London, 71 percent of black and minority ethnic Londoners say they “never cycle,” compared with 51 percent of white London adults. In the Urban Cycle Loan program, that participation gap almost disappears, with rates of ethnic minority engagement just below their share of general borough population.
The other good news is that people who try cycling via the Urban Cycle Loan tend to stick with it. According to figures from the LCC, 81 percent of people who bought their bikes after the month’s loan were still using them regularly three months later. And 80 percent of bike loan recipients report improved health and well-being, with 78 percent recommending cycling to a friend or relative.
Habits also change, with riders switching transit modes for many journeys. It’s actually bus use that sees the greatest drop; 31 percent of scheme users said they used the bus less frequently. But car use also dropped among 16 percent of participants.
Over the long-term, the scheme also recoups its costs, which are funded by London boroughs. Using the World Health Organization-developed HEAT tool to measure the economic benefits accrued from decreased mortality rates, the LCC estimates that the scheme generates £2,564,000 ($3,576,000) in savings annually. That measures the benefits to participants alone; if the number of additional people encouraged to cycle by previous scheme participants were taken into account, the benefit could be greater.
Why it works
The scheme’s outreach works so well because it succeeds in overcoming some key obstacles for non-cyclists. The first is cost. If you don’t know anyone with a bike to spare, trying out cycling can take a lot of cash and commitment. In contrast, most people can afford risking £10 on something they might not like, while the scheme also offers an affordable, easily navigable marketplace for picking up a bike after the trial period.
Another major obstacle is that many people are wary of going into bike shops that they see as catering for people who aren’t like them. Furthermore, people are less likely to hear about cycling if fewer people in their social group bike in the first place.
“Research suggests women don't like to go into bike shops, which are often staffed mainly by men and geared towards men,” says LCC Cycling Projects Manager Stewart Dring. “This is a friendlier way for people to try out the bikes than going into this quite aggressive, masculine environment. Word of mouth is also really important. ... Working in areas like Lewisham, where there is a very mixed, well-connected community, word-of-mouth has really helped the message get out through many different informal channels.”
This development of positive word-of-mouth around cycling could arguably be the Urban Cycle Loan’s greatest tool, making every participant a potential new transmitter of cycling benefits. A scheme that hasn’t as yet reached 2,000 alumni can’t on its own change a whole city’s cycling culture. But in breaking down barriers that encourage people to think cycling isn’t for them, this sort of project can send valuable ripples that over time can shift community attitudes.