Quieter streets during lockdown have created a cycling boom. Where is it heading? Sandra Dick investigates

The Pentland Hills on the fringes of Edinburgh have more than 100km of trails, most of them ideal for exploring on two wheels.

There are at least 60 cycle routes. Yet despite being raised in the shadow of the hills, Scott Gammie admits that until lockdown prompted him to dig the bike out of the shed, he hadn’t explored any of them.

“I grew up in this area,” he says. “I’ve been up in the Pentlands on foot but not on bike. Now I’m out every day, and I’ve been to places I never knew existed despite living here for 45 years.”

Since lockdown rules turned family life on its head, Scott, 46, wife Dawn, 51 and boys Matt, 11, and nine-year-old Euan have discovered a new love for cycling.

“When things stopped and I started working from home, we got the bikes out and found ourselves going further and further,” he says.

“Now the boys are used to being on the roads, their road awareness is improving, and we all love it.”

Cycling has emerged as one of the few winners from the current pandemic, with bike shops reporting soaring sales and waiting lists of up to three months for new bikes.

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson recently confirmed cycling levels are 50% higher compared with the lockdown baseline, while Cycling Scotland’s automatic cycling counters at 60 spots around the country revealed remarkable results, with one in Dunfermline recording an increase of 215% since lockdown.

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the level of increase in demand for bikes,” says Chris Tiso, whose Tiso Group runs Alpine Bikes, Scotland’s largest independent bike retailer.

“Between our two bike stores in Edinburgh and Aberdeen and online, we’re selling between 100 to 150 bikes a week which is significantly more than we would expect.

“All bike retailers have been swamped by the most phenomenal demand. No-one anticipated it. Suppliers have reached the stage where they have almost run out of bikes.”

Most sales are entry range bikes between £500 to £1,500, suggesting that they’re being snapped up by people looking to start cycling or getting back after a break, he adds.

“Hopefully something positive will emerge as far as the nation’s health is concerned, and we’ll be healthier, fitter than when we went into this,” he adds.

As well as boosting fitness levels, the cycling boom is also changing the face of some of our most-used streets – potentially paving the way for vehicles to finally be overtaken by the humble bike.

The Scottish Government last week boosted funding for local authorities to create infrastructure which will support physical distancing and cater for a shift from public transport, from £10 million to £30m.

Edinburgh City Council, which has received £5m from the fund, has plans to close off key city centre roads to cars, including East Princes Street and Market Street.

Other routes in Greenbank, Leith, Cammo and Silverknowes have already closed, while a segregated cycleway on Old Dalkeith Road, between Cameron Toll and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, is also being created.

Aberdeen City Council says it will use its £1.76m to temporarily turn Union Street into a bike highway, with further plans for other city centre streets.

And in Glasgow, the city council’s £3.5m from the fund is to be partly spent on “temporary strategic cycling routes to highlight cycling as an attractive, viable commuting choice”.

Cllr Anna Richardson, convener for sustainability and carbon reduction, says: “We want to encourage cycling as a longer-term, attractive travel choice, particularly for commuters, and we are moving at pace to provide reassurance that people can move around the city safely.”

Cycling Scotland chief executive Keith Irving says: “We hope that these measures will become part of permanent cycling networks. The top priority to ensure more people cycle is dedicated, segregated cycling paths, separate from traffic.

“Increasing access to bikes, places to store them and cycle training wherever required are the other measures to ensure even more people can enjoy cycling for essential journeys or exercise.”

Even with new cycle lanes, we have a lot of pedalling to do to catch up with some of our European cousins: in the Netherlands, 26% of journeys are by bike, while in Denmark the figure is 20%. Prior to lockdown, Britain managed just 2% of journeys by bike.

And there are lingering concerns that the rise in cycling may be offset by people who would normally use public transport choosing to travel by car instead.

While Neil Greig, policy and research director of road safety charity IAM RoadSmart urges a cautious approach to dramatically altering infrastructure for a cycling boom, that could well be temporary.

“There’s no doubt there’s an increase in cyclists, but I’m not convinced it’s driven by anything more than leisure and keeping fit,” he says. “There seems to be a big rush to change things when we don’t know what the new normal is.

“When people do go back to work, they will still be living in suburbs, they’ll still work in different parts of the city, and still want to get around. Even if we multiply cycling 100-fold, it’s not close to the amount of trips done by car.

“It’s taking a bit of a punt to hope that people will stick with bicycles.”

To do that, Tim Burns of Sustrans suggests there will have to be more than pop-up cycle routes.

“Even the most ambitious plans for walking and cycling from cities across the UK are unlikely to meet the needs of all people who formerly took public transport,” he says.

He suggests making 20mph the default speed in all urban and residential areas, removing VAT from cycle sales, more cycle parking, free cycle servicing, and the development of “park and cycle” facilities at park and ride hubs.

“Staggering shift patterns during the day and rotating shifts during which people can come into the office will also be important,” he adds.

At home in Edinburgh, Scott Gammie – who, ironically, works in the car trade as a franchise principle at Lexus in Edinburgh and Glasgow – is certain the family will be more than just lockdown cyclists.

“We’ll keep doing this,” he says. “My wife is now planning to cycle to work in the city centre. I will have to drive for work, but the goal is to make sure we maintain what we’ve started.

“Really, it would be criminal for me not to find a way of keeping on cycling.”