French lessons in getting students back on their bikes

Original article by Tim Dawson, first published at in July 2011

If your preconceptions of students travel patterns owe anything to the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited, then modern campus life will come as a shock. As student numbers have increased – and there are four times more undergraduates today than there were 30 years ago – so the number of students with cars has risen, absolutely and proportionately.

While some students unquestionably suffer significant financial hardship, others appear to lead lives scarcely less gilded than those enjoyed by Evelyn Waugh’s heroes. A study by the University of Bristol, for example, showed that in 2008, 14% of students travelled to university in their own cars.

Few centres of higher learning have the parking capacity to deal with such a daily motorcade to the lecture theatres. As a result, the quest to turn students back on to bikes can be seen in the ‘travel plans’ of universities the length and breadth of the land. And while many of these involve much fretting about cycle paths, and secure parking, an initiative in Leeds has hit upon an impressively successful way to encourage at least some of that city’s 50,000 undergraduates to switch to pedal-powered transport.

In Leeds, the UTravelActive project secured £200,000 from The Big Lottery Fund. Over four years, from 2008, this paid for the establishment and maintenance of a fleet of 400 bikes, which are rented to students at The University of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan University.

“The number of people cycling to the university has risen by 40-50% over the three years of the project”, says Dr Lisa Brannan, the manager of the Leeds active travel project. “Nearly 800 students have benefited from the hire scheme to date and research shows that the scheme has significantly increased students propensity to cycle, as well as giving them a greater sense of well-being.”

The concept owes much to a similar scheme at the University of Nantes, in France, where in 1997 students got together to provide bikes for their fellow students that were cheaper than the cost of a monthly bus ticket. The Leeds version is just as simple.

The money from the Lottery, and match funding from the universities, paid for hire fleet of 400 utility bikes. These are available to students to rent for the entire academic year for just £35 (it will rise to £50 next year). The cost includes a lock and lights. A staffed cycle workshop, which serves as Velocampus’ hub, is also on hand to guide students in cycle maintenance. “We won’t simply fix students bikes, but we will teach them to undertake the work themselves, and will lend them tools and workspace,” explains Brannan.

She believes that many of today’s students arrive at university having never ridden a bike simply to get from A to B. “They might have had them as a toy when they were at primary school, but very few see the bike as a plausible means to transport – even through the vast majority of our students live close enough to the university to make it an easy cycle ride”.

Velocampus’ great strength is that is provides a low-cost, low-risk, guided route into cycling. One interesting result of this is that half of all the scheme’s bikes are hired to women – when Sustrans research suggests that on the National Cycle Network fewer than 20% of regular cyclists are female.

It is not the only intriguing indicator that hire patterns throws up. Every one of the 250 bikes reserved for Leeds University students is on hire – and there is a waiting list of around 100 in case any become free. Of the 150 allocated to Leeds Metropolitan University students, around a third are still awaiting hirers – although there are equal numbers of undergraduates at each institution. “Leeds University students seem to be more open-minded and less worried about being cool”, says one of the project’s volunteers.

Most promisingly, though, 60% of those who return their bikes at the end of the hire period have indicated that they intend to continue cycling.

The bike hire is bolstered with a raft of other initiatives including general training on bike maintenance, route audits, cycle training and a raft of familiar events like cyclists’ breakfasts. Much of this is delivered by volunteer students, working from the hub. The project also receives support from Sustrans, Leeds City Council and the Leeds NHS Primary Care Trust.

The value of the project, beyond the Leeds campuses, is to show how effective investment in soft cycle promotion can be. The “civil-engineering” approach to encouraging bicycle use may leave an unequivocal mark. Whether it represents quite such good value as an inexpensive hire scheme, when it comes down to changing patterns of behaviour is another matter. It is a subject on to which some of the undoubted research fire-power to be found in Leeds’ universities could usefully be directed.

TD July 2011

Picture – Velocampus Leeds co-ordinator Dr Lisa Brannan explains the benefits of the scheme to University of Leeds Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Arthur

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