Is cycling a serious solution to the cost of living crisis?

Very few people will have missed the recent rises in energy prices, whether in heating your home, filling your car, or the rising cost of staple foods. Cycling for transport is cheap, resilient to fuel shortages, and offers a solution to mitigate some of the impact of rising energy costs on a personal and societal level.

We are living through a cost of living crisis, in which inflation is set to see most households financially worse off each year as real-term earnings fail to keep pace with the rising cost of goods, household bills and tax rises.

This crisis shows no signs of abating and ordinary family’s standards of living are being squeezed, with hard choices being made by many and some sadly being pushed further into poverty. Whilst it might make financial sense to insulate your home, switch to an electric car, replace an old boiler with an air source heat pump, and I encourage you to do so if you can afford to, these are costs some households simply cannot bear alone.

Prices at the pump have skyrocketed, and whilst the government has just reduced fuel duty by 5p per litre of petrol, it offers little consolation for those depending on fuel which looks set to continue to reach record highs. Prices may start to fall gradually once the energy markets adapt to the new geopolitical realities, however nothing is certain. We may yet see prices rising further, some pundits predict prices reaching £3 per litre if there is continued disruption in the energy markets resulting from the war in Ukraine. There has never been a better time to dust off the bicycle in your shed, pick up an inexpensive and professionally serviced bicycle from your local bicycle charity, or take up your employer’s cycle to work scheme.

Cuts to fuel duty will be welcomed by some, but it is worth mentioning that fuel duty makes up an increasingly small fraction of the cost of fuel, price rises are not driven by tax increases (they have been frozen for a decade). Instead, costs are rising due to geopolitical events, shortages, and increased costs associated with extraction of depleting finite oil reserves. Further, the cut to fuel duty will do more to benefit those who choose to drive the largest, most inefficient vehicles, such as SUVs and overpowered engines. Invariably, this cut will hurt government revenues, and in the long run it is likely that taxes will be raised elsewhere to make up for the shortfall in fuel duty. The cynics among us may be tempted to think this is a popular giveaway to the well-off, whilst those who can afford the sky high prices tend to limit their driving already and drive modest cars. Regardless of your politics, one thing we can all agree on, motoring will not be getting cheaper any time soon.

The ONS suggested the average running costs of a motor exceeded £2500 a year in 2020, with fuel and insurance costs soaring, the cost of motoring is expected to keep rising dramatically. Whilst the cost of new bicycles have also increased since the pandemic disrupted supply lines, whatever your financial situation, the initial upfront investment of a bicycle and other necessary equipment is dwarfed by the costs of motoring or public transport, and that’s before your tax contributions are costing in. Even if you can’t go car free, regular cycling will help you mitigate the impact of future price rises in fuel. £300-400 will buy you an entry level bicycle that would suit most people’s transport needs, of course, you can spend more than that, but there really is no requirement to.

According to Department for Transport statistics, 71% of all journeys made in England in 2020, are under five miles, a distance that is achievable for many by bicycle, the more often, and further you ride, the more you stand save. You might not be in a position to eliminate car use entirely, but each journey you take by bicycle will be saving you fuel and ‘wear and tear’ on a car which all adds up. Those who can eliminate car use entirely, or ditch a second car stand to save thousands of pounds a year, which would go a long way to mitigate the financial squeeze in the months and years ahead, but there is benefit even if you are just shifting a few local journeys to bicycle. You don’t need an all or nothing approach to enjoy the benefits of cycling.

The costs of motoring are rising steeply, but there is a way to avoid the hikes.

The cost of living crisis is not only impacting motorists. About 1 in 4 households do not have access to a car. They may be reliant on walking, buses, or rail, which can be slow, unreliable and indirect. Costs of trains and buses are increasing rapidly. Cycling offers an easy, efficient, cheaper, healthier and faster alternative to overcrowded and uncomfortable buses and trains. Cycling is also known for its predictable journey times, regardless of how congested the roads are, you can generally expect to arrive on schedule, something those of you familiar with public transport will probably appreciate.

As experienced cyclists we know that once you try cycling, you will be a convert. Before you know it, you will be finding reasons to cycle, not to save money, but for the sheer joy it brings as you pedal about. If fitness and geography are not in your favour, or you expect to need to ride longer distances in less time, consider an e-bike. Whilst typically more expensive than an ordinary push bicycle, they are still far cheaper than a car and cost only a few pence per mile to run, and they take the physical strain out of cycling, making it accessible to all ages and abilities.

Cycling can even shorten your journey times, especially in an urban setting, and when travelling at peak times, which by the way is when fuel economy is typically at its worst due to stop start driving conditions. Cycling to work or the shops will save you money on parking too. A study has demonstrated that employees who cycle to work tend to be more productive after they switch, cyclists also have less time out of work sick than their non-cycling counterparts. The advantages for your income or career advancement should be clear.

Cycling can not only save individuals and households money in leaner times, cycling also saves society money by reducing congestion, the need for road expansion schemes, improving public health, and saving the NHS money on preventable lifestyle diseases which could be avoided if more people were active. Reports from the Netherlands suggest that by spending €500 million on cycling infrastructure annually, they in turn receive a €19 billion dividend in economic and health benefits for society. Clearly, the UK cannot afford to miss out on this windfall in these austere times, and we hope you will join us in spreading the message about the benefits of active travel far and wide.

If you are new to cycling, or are considering cycling for transport for the first time, there is a great selection of guides and ‘how-tos’ for beginners on the Cycling UK website.