ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54

Fuel prices push Britons towards pedal power

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, June 4 (Reuters) - Natalie Steed knew it was time for a change when her aging car ground to a halt in a country lane while she was on holiday in southern England last month. With fuel prices hitting record highs, adding to already painful costs of road taxes, maintenance, tolls and parking, a switch to pedal power was a natural response.

"Buying another car just seemed like such a ridiculous thing to do," Steed told Reuters. "Even without the actual cost of buying it, I'd have to spend a 1,000 pounds year before I even went anywhere in it, and I can do almost everything I need to on a bike." Steed, a mother of two who lives and works in London, instead bought what she calls a "bike with a boat on the front" -- a Danish-made Christiania three-wheeled transporter bike with a cargo box attached -- on which she can do the school run, the shopping and commute to work.

"It's the road equivalent of rowing," she said. And compared to the average annual cost of running a family car in Britain -- currently 6,250 pounds ($12,300), according to the Automobile Association (AA) -- the 1,400 pound ($2,755) cost of the "boat bike" and accessories pales into insignificance.

According to the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC), the UK's national cycling organisation, many thousands more Britons are expected to abandon their cars in favour of bikes with fuel prices at record highs.

CTC is predicting that an extra 1.25 million journeys will be made by bike every day because petrol and diesel are now so expensive. Diesel costs around 1.30 pounds ($2.56) a litre in Britain, while petrol is around 1.17 pounds ($2.30) a litre.

A survey in the United States last week showed that petrol prices of around $4 per gallon had prompted more than 40 percent of Americans to change the work arrangements or the way they commute to work. Around a quarter of those who said they had changed their habits said they had asked for more pay, relied more on public transportation, or started walking and biking to work.

"The amount commuters pay for fuel has a direct correlation with people deciding to take up cycling," said CTC director Kevin Mayne. "Going by bike to work is a cheap, quick, healthy and environmentally friendly way to commute and as people look to save money where they can, it's the obvious choice."

CTC also cites official statistics showing that in the three year period following the last major oil price spike in 1979, cycling in Britain increased by almost 40 percent. This time round, anecdotal evidence from CTC's 70,000 members and affiliates across the country suggests bike shops are seeing increasing demand, not only for relatively low-cost commuter bikes, but for new accessories for bikes people may not have used for a few years but are about to be revived.

"With money tight, we're not seeing many people buying the top of the range models, but people are buying new lights or helmets and getting their old bikes serviced to use again," said CTC spokeswoman Victoria Hazael. In the British capital, congestion charges introduced by then London Mayor Ken Livingstone in 2003, as well as improved cycle lanes and increased motoring costs, have already prompted a significant swing towards pedal power.

According to Transport for London, cycling in the capital has risen by more than 83 percent since 2000 and there are now around 480,000 journeys made by bike in London every day.

Across the country, the economic downturn is starting to pinch consumers' pockets. With truckers and fishermen already protesting about fuel prices, commuters are starting to follow. In the town of Aylesbury in southern England, the number of people cycling has increased by 300 percent since the start of a promotion of bike transport launched at the end of 2005.

"Cycling is now a main mode of transport for over 10 percent of Aylesbury residents," said Simon Glover, the town's cycling team leader, who says Aylesbury commuters can save over 600 pounds ($1,200) in two years by cycling to work instead of driving.

As a country where unsettled weather, hills and less bike-friendly roads have traditionally dampened enthusiasm for cycling, Britain is increasingly looking to more cycle-driven nations like the Netherlands for fresh ideas.

In the London suburb of Richmond, where local authorities have added to the fuel price pain by introducing punishing parking permit costs for so-called "gas guzzling" cars, parents at the Stepping Stones nursery have clubbed together to share a fleet of Dutch cargo bikes to taxi their children to and fro.

The Dutchbikes look a little like a bicycle with a wheelbarrow attached to the front. With an adult pedalling, they can carry up to four young children in the large box suspended between the handlebars and the front wheel.

"They are the ultimate eco-friendly people carrier," said Jessica Anderson, founder of a local Parents for Pedal Power campaign group. "I barely use the car at all now, whereas I used to use it at least three times a week. The last time I filled up at the petrol station I was shocked -- it was 65 pounds ($128)."

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