Could free bikes help solve our air pollution crisis?

Tom Lawson

A scheme in Birmingham that has given away 4,000 bikes and cycling training has been recognised for its potential in improving air quality

Could a thriving cycling culture banish chronic air pollution? Those at Birmingham city council think it could help, and give residents’ health and mobility a boost at the same time.

A scheme called Big Birmingham Bikes (BBB) has given away 4,000 bikes, and 17,000 residents have received free cycling training. Launched in 2015, the programme targets people most affected by the city’s poor air quality, including those living in deprived areas and homeless people. It is part of the city council’s 20-year Birmingham Cycle Revolution, which aims for 5 per cent of all trips in the city to be made by bike by 2023, and 10 per cent by 2033.

BBB was this month declared joint winner of the 2017 Ashden UK Award for Clean Air in Towns and Cities. Since 2001, the Ashden Awards have recognised innovative projects in the fields of green energy and sustainable travel. The awards were presented at a ceremony in London last week.


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One judge said: “There is huge potential to replicate the scheme and other cities should take note – its simple pragmatism could really help to reframe the national environmental debate.”

Air pollution was declared a national public health emergency by a cross-party group of MPs in 2016 and Birmingham is one of the worst areas for air quality outside of London. Britain’s second largest city consistently breaches the legal nitrogen dioxide limits set out in the European Union’s air quality directive which, according to council figures, results in 900 early deaths per year in the city. An estimated 3,113 hours of congestion has been avoided in Birmingham city centre as a result of the scheme, say those behind it.

Other cities should take note – this scheme’s simple pragmatism could really help to reframe the national environmental debate

“Transport is responsible for 80 per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions in roadside areas and is one of the key opportunities for improving the situation,” says Mike Pepler, Ashden’s UK awards manager.

“The additional health benefits associated with getting people out of cars and on to bikes are well established, making cycling a win-win strategy for tackling this issue.”

As well as aiming to tackle air pollution, BBB offers training to people with little or no cycling experience. BBB staff have linked up with more than 50 community groups, including homelessness and mental health charities, in order to improve mobility, health and wellbeing, and increase access to workplaces, education and training.

A group of trainee cyclists and their free bicycles

“For communities where cycling is not widespread, and where cost is often a prohibitive barrier, free cycle training gives people the confidence to go out and cycle safely, especially if others from similar backgrounds are joining in too,” says Pepler.

As well as training people to cycle confidently around the city, BBB also has created 14 community cycling groups in which people who have been trained pass on their new knowledge to others.

Free cycle training gives people the confidence to go out and cycle safely, especially if others from similar backgrounds are joining in too

Saadia had never cycled before she heard about the free beginners’ classes on offer and decided to take the plunge.

“My husband and I went along and in three hours had covered the basics. I had no experience previously but I really enjoyed it, the freedom of being on a bike.”

She went on to join the local cycling club and started cycling twice a week. “I never had the opportunity to bike before: my friends weren’t into it. I moved over recently from the US and, with no family or friends here, I was bored. The cycling has got me active and helped me get to know people. I couldn’t do three miles before but now I can do 20 to 30.”

Saadia, who learned to ride with the Big Birmingham Bikes scheme

I had no experience previously but I really enjoyed it, the freedom of being on a bike

Of the 4,000 free bikes provided so far, 3,400 have gone to members of the public, and 600 to city council wellbeing centres and independent community groups who run short-term bike hire schemes.

GPS devices attached to each bike have been used to monitor the effectiveness of the programme, and so far more than 220,000 miles have been clocked up on the bikes. The data also reveals that more than 1,500 participants are cycling for 30 minutes at least once a week. Riders, who give permission to be tracked, can view their journeys online and calculate distance and average speed. The information gathered is also used by the council to guide planning and cycling policy. Following the scheme’s success, there are plans to distribute more free bikes. A series of cycle routes are also planned, as part of the wider Birmingham Cycle Revolution project.

“Together, this package of measures will make cycling progressively more attractive to the people of Birmingham, helping cut pollution, reduce congestion and improve health,” says Pepler.


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