British Cycling – a national federation with an everyday cycling mission
In August 2013, the British Prime Minister David Cameron stood alongside two of Britain’s Olympic gold medal winning cyclists and announced the biggest ever one-off investment – some £94m (€120m) - in cycling, not as a sport, but as a means of transport. Eight cities were to receive funding for networks of cycle routes and promotional activities, as would four national parks.
That event – and the funding alongside it – was in large part due to work by British Cycling, the country’s national governing body for cycling. However, it was only the starting point – since that announcement, British Cycling has redoubled its efforts to try to ensure that fine words for cycling were backed up with adequate resources by launching ‘Time to Choose Cycling’, a 10-point manifesto aimed at national and regional government.
In partnership with major national media, such as the Times newspaper, and other road user organisations, such as the Automobile Association, British Cycling has built political support for cycling in a country where less than 2% of trips are made by bike and only 3% of people travel to work by bike.
Securing such a substantial investment in cycling at a time of falling government expenditure was no small feat. So how did they do it, and why?
British Cycling: Olympic success breeds wider ambitions
The history of cycling’s renaissance in Britain is intertwined with success in competitive sport.
In Atlanta, in 1996, British cyclists won just two bronze medals in cycling. Fast-forward to 2008 and its athletes were dominant, taking eight golds – almost half the total awarded. That feat was repeated in London 2012.
That success was matched on the road with UCI World Championship wins for Mark Cavendish and Nicole Cooke followed by back-to-back British Tour de France victories.
Following this unprecedented elite success, interest in cycling became feverish in Britain during these years – and membership of British Cycling correspondingly increased, from 15,000 in past decades to over 100,000 in 2014.
Like any membership organisation, British Cycling has a duty to reflect the concerns of its members. Recent surveys show that over half join to support the campaigning aims of the organisation. Members range from elite and amateur athletes to people who simply use the bike as a way of getting to work in the morning, paying from £20 (€25) - £59 (€75) in membership fees.
Whether they are getting to work by bike, or competing on a global stage, individuals’ concerns are the same. It’s the conditions on the road that matter, and by taking a lead on improving these, British Cycling can be relevant to a wider range of people on bikes.
Getting people moving
However, British Cycling’s campaigning work isn’t just informed by the wishes of its membership.
Britain has serious health problems: it’s a country where just four in 10 men, and three in 10 women get enough physical activity to benefit their health. Public health doctors have described that lack of physical activity – common across much of the developed world - as an epidemic. Helping people to be more active is a high priority of Government, and of corporations who want to contribute to society.
One of British Cycling’s main sponsors, the media company Sky, committed funding to launch a nationwide programme of rides targeting children and adults who don’t cycle regularly. Most of Britain’s major cities now close their roads for these events, as well as putting on local rides for novices. Many of these are women-only rides, providing a more welcoming environment.
Meanwhile, British Cycling also runs a comprehensive training programme, Go-Ride, which gets children from a young age into racing.
Since 2009, over a million people have cited British Cycling and Sky as a key influence in their decision to cycle more often.
However, as successful as these programmes are, there is significant churn among people who start to cycle but then give up because of worries about safety so British Cycling believes that for the growth cycling has enjoyed in the UK to be sustainable, conditions on the road have to change.
Athletes as advocates
One part of British Cycling’s success has been that it is the athletes themselves who are pressing for changes. British Cycling’s policy adviser is Olympic gold medalist and several-time-holder of the Hour Record, Chris Boardman, who has been the most outspoken campaigner for improvements to cycling.
This year, at the launch of ‘Time to Choose Cycling’, he said, “Local and national government needs to wake up and realise that cycling is the solution to so many of the major problems Britain is now facing.”
Chris Boardman has been the public face of much of British Cycling’s efforts, but he is not the only one. In 2014, 12 of British Cycling’s top athletes, many of them Olympic and Paralympic medal-winners, were involved in lobbying their municipalities, asking that conditions be improved for everyday cycling.
Sir Chris Hoy, Britain’s most successful Olympian, said: “If we want to inspire a transformation in communities across Britain – making them happier and healthier - cycling needs to be prioritised. We desperately need Britain’s roads to accommodate the needs of cyclists to encourage people of all ages to get on bikes.”
British Cycling also uses major events to push for the changes outlined in ‘Time to Choose Cycling’ – this year redesigning the street on which the Tour de France started to make it more friendly for people who use bikes to get around.
Setting out the benefits
British Cycling recently commissioned a report which showed that increasing cycling in Britain to Danish levels could save £17bn (€21bn) in the country’s health costs over the next 20 years.
Getting more people cycling, the report said, would save hundreds of lives each year due to reduced air pollution, would improve safety for all road users, as well as generating wider benefits to society and the economy. Increasing cycling would give greater mobility to the poorest parts of society, enabling people to access jobs and services more easily.
The report was written by academic Dr Rachel Aldred of Westminster University.
British Cycling’s ambitions for cycling are shared by the UCI’s Advocacy Commission, which has set the objectives of giving all children the chance to ride a bike, to improve road safety, and ensure that everyone has access to safe cycling infrastructure.
Commenting on the findings, Chris Boardman said: “Investing in cycling would make a massive difference to all of society. We only have to look to Denmark and the Netherlands – countries which regularly top surveys on being the happiest and healthiest nations in the world – to see what a transformative effect cycling can have. This is about creating better places to live.”
Advice for other organisations who want to campaign on cycling
British Cycling has shown how a national federation can become an advocate for everyday cycling, as well as sport. If you want to use the power of your organisation to try and improve conditions for cycling, British Cycling has the following advice:
- Survey your existing members to find out their priorities for what they want to see changed – they will give credibility and weight to your efforts.
- Most cyclists are concerned about their and others’ safety: helping to improve conditions for them will make your organization more popular.
- Identify local star names to help lead your advocacy efforts.
- Work with other advocacy organisations, such as transport and environmental groups, to coordinate messages. Speak with one voice.
- Build connections with people beyond the sport.