Brompton riding high as Covid gets us in the saddle

The fear of using public transport and the rise of e-bikes has put workers in the saddle

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson has been a recent advocate of cycling Credit: Geoff Pugh

Pedal power has come to Britain’s cities and Will Butler-Adams, the boss of Britain’s biggest bike maker, feels vindicated.

“I’ve moved on from being a freak on a soapbox,” says the Brompton managing director. “For three months people have experienced cities in the way they should be; which is with clean air, calm, inviting and safe – rather than a mass of anger, pollution and all the other stuff.”

During the lockdown, ghost trains were a common sight with passenger numbers down 95pc. Demand for buses was little better. While public transport use has risen following the easing of restrictions, it remains at a fraction of pre-Covid levels.

“[The Government’s] public health message has been so powerful about the dangers of the virus… that people are afraid of using public transport,” says Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.

For those that are venturing to the office, the bicycle and the e-bike have proved to be popular substitutes.

“We can’t make enough,” says Butler-Adams. “We’ve stopped taking orders until the end of October. We are in a situation that is so exciting. But we want to try and develop the foundations for the next ten years.

“People will come off bikes over the winter because [the weather] is not so pleasant,” he continues. “[But] that legacy of fear is likely to be around for some time, which means we are going to have people thinking about not going on public transport in spring next year.”

E-bikes are particularly popular for those less inclined to work up a sweat. Electric motors fitted to what otherwise looks like an ordinary bicycle allow users to pedal up hills with ease and give a handy boost on the flats.

E-bikes have risen in popularity

Engineering giant Bosch has led the way in designing e-bike motors. Tamara Winograd, a vice president at the German firm’s e-bike division, predicts that in five years one in every two bikes sold will be an e-bike.

Demand for motors has “increased significantly” since lockdown, she adds. “Bicycles and pedelecs are optimal solutions for private transport; even more so in times of Covid-19. This has also led to increased demand from manufacturers for our drive systems.”

Specialist retailers provide a ray of light for Britain’s beleaguered high street. When Halfords decided to scuttle its upmarket cycling brand Cycle Republic in March, millionaire Adam Norris picked up 11 of its 22 shops.

Norris, father of McLaren Formula One driver Lando, has ploughed some of the fortune he made at online broker Hargreaves Lansdown into “micromobility” venture Pure Electric.

“It’s clear the UK faces the risk of an imminent transport crisis; we’re about to see nearly nine million children go back to school and 9.6m workers coming off furlough,” says Tom McPhail, Pure Electric’s director of public affairs.

“With social distancing and public nervousness about shared transport, buses and trains are going to struggle to take up the slack. If everyone gets in a car, the result will be gridlock. The answer is micromobility: walking, bikes, e-bikes and scooters.”

And with a passion for pedalling coming directly from Downing Street, ministers are on firmly board, Butler-Adams says.

“It’s the first time in a generation that people have thought seriously, in the highest levels of government, that cycling is [thought of] as a mode of transport… We’ve never seen that in 50 years.”

Chris Heaton-Harris, cycling minister, says: “We know people are cycling further than ever, which is why e-bikes could be the perfect option for those who are older, less fit or not wanting to break a sweat on their commute.”

Dr Matthew Niblett, a director at think tank the Independent Transport Commission says that the popularity of bicycles, e-bikes and scooters “should be seen as a positive chapter in the evolution of British transport”.

However, he adds: “Whether these new modes will significantly displace longer-distance road and rail travel remains to be seen. In poor weather or in winter conditions, bus travel will still hold advantages over e-bikes and e-scooters. And for journeys of more than a few miles, it seems unlikely that e-scooters will compete with rail services.”

Even if the current biking boom does fade as a result, Butler-Adams, who was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours list in 2015, the change in mindset – both among those in Westminster and Joe Public – stands his business in good stead.

“Somehow the crisis has made people rethink,” he says. “Somehow I am not quite such a nutter on my soapbox.”