Cycling has many great benefits for our mental and physical wellbeing, and is allowed in the government rules, but concerns have been raised
It has rarely been more tempting to get out on a bike. Lockdown life has drastically reduced traffic on the roads and dramatically increased air quality in towns and cities, while April has brought out the sunshine, and with time on our hands and energy to burn, there are few better activities right now than to hop on a bicycle.
The benefits of cycling to our physical and mental wellbeing are well known, but its place in society has taken on even more significance during the coronavirus pandemic. Cycling offers key workers a way of commuting which avoids busy buses and trains, and those on a bike free up space on public transport for those who have no alternative.
But some have raised concerns over cyclists flouting government guidelines by continuing to use it as a social activity, or riding excessive distances and either potentially spreading the virus further afield or risking injury which would burden the NHS at a time of crisis.
Car traffic may be down, but car speeds are on the up, so is cycling on the near-empty roads as safe as it seems?
What are the UK’s rules on cycling in lockdown?
Under the Coronavirus Act 2020 (the legislation introduced in March) exercise is a permitted reason for people to leave the home, provided it is done alone or with members of the same household. The government has been clear in the sense that cycling is a permissible form of daily exercise – along with walking and running – but it has been vague with regard to how long and how far you should ride.
When asked how long we should take to exercise, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said: “I would have thought for most people a walk of up to an hour, a run of 30 minutes or a cycle ride of between that, depending on their level of fitness, is appropriate.”
The government has said you must “stay local” and although driving to a location to walk, run or cycle is permitted, you should not drive for longer than the time taking to exercise. The Crown Prosecution Service added last week that it was down to police interpretation whether exercising more than once per day was a “reasonable excuse” to leave the house.
At the beginning of lockdown, a number of groups including Cycling UK lobbied for cycling to remain possible, citing its significant benefits to our mental and physical health at a time when our wellbeing is in need of extra care.
Hire schemes have jumped to action all over the country providing free bikes for key workers to commute, like Brompton Bike Hire in London, and the government has ensured bike shops are included on the list of key services so cyclists can access repairs, maintenance and equipment.
This week, the government loosened regulations so that local authorities can adapt road markings to better accommodate bikes and, where necessary, divert motor vehicle traffic to improve safety.
How have other countries treated cycling?
In some European countries, cycling is still actively encouraged. In Belgium, perhaps the most cycling-crazed nation on earth, riding with a friend was one of the few social activities which survived strict initial lockdown measures. “You can cycle as far as you want,” said the Belgian health minister Maggie De Block. “I think going out for a walk or a bike ride is healthy.”
Cycle lanes in Berlin have been redrawn to provide more space alongside signs which read: “Cycling to work protects people from infection #Flattenthecurve”. Data from the Netherlands found an almost 100 per cent increase in afternoon cyclists since lockdown kicked in, with the fewest cars recorded on the road in 50 years.
But in Spain, Italy and France – three countries with coronavirus death tolls at a comparable level to the UK – recreational cycling has effectively been outlawed or severely limited within a 2km ring of the home, as part of wider strict measures by authorities. Those out riding in Spain who are not found to be key workers face a possible fine of up to €3,000 (£2,600).
What is the concern at home?
One concern is that cyclists may be riding excessive distances unnecessarily. A new challenge on the popular fitness app Strava has called on users to complete 777 miles on a bike during April, and riders have been logging rides of up to 200km in a single day. Professional triathlete Joe Skipper was criticised online for his 201km ride, despite breaking no rules.
Residents in the Peak District have complained over cyclists from Sheffield riding out into the countryside, with villagers from Bradwell claiming they “pose a threat” by potentially spreading the coronavirus.
One cyclist posted a picture from the Cambridgeshire village of Coveney next to a sign which read: “Stop panting viruses through our village. Stay away.” The parish council of Little Bollington in Cheshire removed their sign telling cyclists to “stay away” or be “prosecuted” after criticism of its inaccuracy – you cannot be prosecuted for cycling away from your home. There was even a report of cyclists being targetted in an incident in south-east London last weekend, where tacks were apparently strewn across a busy cycle route in an effort to puncture bike tyres.
However, providing cyclists ride on their own or in household groups and do not stop to use local shops and services, they are not breaking any rules and there is no scientific evidence to suggest riding through a village or any other area would infect local people.
One research paper, which was widely circulated online, claimed cyclists should stay 20m behind one another in order to stay outside each other’s slipstream of exhaled particles, but the aerodynamic study was dismissed by leading epidemiologists for having little basis in virology, and the authors were criticised for publishing before peer review.
It has also been reported that some people have been cycling socially, with pictures over the Easter weekend purporting to show groups of riders together in London parks, which is against government guidelines. But the vast majority of cyclists ride solo; there is little evidence that social cycling is a serious problem during lockdown or that cyclists are particularly inclined to break social distancing rules.
Although specific distance limits haven’t been outlined, Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner, the former professional cyclist Chris Boardman, says the most important thing is to ride “home to home”.
“I don’t come into contact with anybody, I don’t stop at a cafe or shop, and I’m going to home to home,” Boardman told The Independent. ”That keeps healthy, keeps me safe, gives me a mental break, and that’s enough of a definition, I think.”
Does cycling burden the NHS?
Clearly any significant injury that requires NHS treatment could require valuable resources at a time of crisis for the health service. Across the UK road traffic is down to around a quarter of normal levels, meaning roads are safer and casualties are down, but speeds are up as drivers take advantage – the Metropolitan Police recorded a speed of 134mph in a 40mph zone, and said that while there have been fewer collisions, their consequences have typically been more serious.
Green Party member Caroline Russell led calls for the government to cut speed limits to protect key workers and the public, saying: “It is the Government’s duty to make these journeys safer – we must have a lower default speed limit to protect people walking and cycling.”
Clearly speeding cars are not the responsibility of cyclists, but should they be more wary of the risk of injury?
Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, told The Independent: “Cycling remains a great way for Londoners who need to make essential journeys to get where they need to be. For everyone else getting on a bike is the perfect way of getting regular daily exercise, as is advocated by Public Health England. TfL and City Hall will work with London boroughs who are looking to reduce traffic on residential streets as long as this does not hinder the emergency services or other essential journeys.
“Road traffic levels across London have now halved and it is great to see so many critical workers taking advantage of quieter streets by getting to where they need to be on bike. Whilst the majority of people that are using our roads are doing so safely and for the right reasons, sadly some are selfishly breaking the rules and driving dangerously fast. We would remind drivers that breaking the speed limit is dangerous and especially reckless during this time of national crisis. Robust action will be taken against drivers who put themselves and others at risk.”
Cycling UK insists the activity has an unfounded reputation for being unsafe, writing in a blog post: “When we examined the reported road traffic casualty figures, from 2018, we found cyclists suffered serious injury only once every 900,000 miles – that’s over 36 times around the world at its widest point.” It also pointed to the figure that more than 80 per cent of cycling fatalities involve a vehicle, so with fewer vehicles on the road there has rarely been a better time to ride.
“Since the lockdown, public health experts and government have consistently promoted cycling – while observing social distancing – as a safe form of personal exercise and means to travel for shorter journeys,” Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns, told The Independent. “With traffic at 1950s levels, the roads are far safer than normal. Consequently each day, we’re greeted with the wonderful sight of families venturing out, whether walking or cycling, enjoying their time outdoors.
“So is cycling a burden on the NHS? Cycling UK would say far from it as we see more health workers take up cycling – and as a charity we’re doing our utmost to help them keep cycling safely with insurance, cycling discounts and more with our free membership.”
If anything, cycling’s impacts on the body and immune system are beneficial to our health service in the longer term. Inactivity is estimated to cost the NHS around a billion pounds per year.
So should we be cycling in lockdown?
The short answer is yes: so long as we stick to the rules, riding “home to home” on our own or with someone in our household, cycling is actively encouraged. Cycling has great benefits for mental and physical wellbeing, and the government has encouraged the public to get out and exercise. Cycling is permitted in the UK, so long as you don’t ride with anyone outside your household. There are no restrictions on time and distance, although the official advice is to “stay local”, so it is up to the individual rider to interpret and use common sense.
The most important considerations are to avoid busy roads and congested parks, be vigilant of speeding traffic, and not to take unnecessary risks. For those who love to cycle this a rare time to enjoy quiet roads, while for those who might not have done it in a while there has rarely been a better opportunity to get out there.