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Pedalling our way to a healthier future, if not economic success

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The UK bicycle industry appears to have been positively impacted by COVID-19, with the latest available import figures showing a 53% year-on-year increase between February and May 2020. That’s an improvement on the 30% rise across the same months in 2019, with the bigger seasonal increase likely to be boosted by the change in lifestyles forced by lockdown against COVID-19.

Imports are a good gauge of ‘ordinary’ bike sales because most mass-produced bikes are now imported, with only high-end machines still being made in the UK. A pandemic that’s been bad for most retailers may just have lifted the gloom for bike shops, which a year ago were looking at a slump in imports, with e-bikes (14% of the total) the only bright area.

While cycle sales – inevitably – go through pronounced seasonal and multi-year ‘cycles’ linked to the state of the economy, they’re now getting a sustained boost from initiatives including better infrastructure, the Cycle to Work scheme and bike repair grants, and higher congestion and pollution charges on other vehicles. The pandemic has made cycling conditions more pleasant thanks to less motorised traffic, and amplified messaging on the importance of exercise.

If the upward trend in sales converts to more people using their new bikes to take journeys that were previously by car or bus, the UK might eventually save on imports of oil, and of foreign cars. But at present, because most bike production has moved to lower-cost locations, the desire to get pedalling is pushing our trade balance further into the red. A reminder that even good news has its downside when economists join the ride.

As a nation, we're pedalling more, but also freewheeling more as e-bikes with their little electric motors take some of the strain. Time will tell what the true impact is, but tentative predictions are that the humble bicycle may well turn out to be the driving force in ongoing efforts to meet carbon reduction targets and improve national health.

Thanks to Dr. Lorraine Mitchell and Alan Shipman for their insights. Please visit our Economics research for more information.

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