How good is cycling in the city is not only determined by the quality of the cycle network, how safe we feel when cycling and how attractive and competitive is cycling compared to other transport modes. There are also other, "soft", measures that can add to the attractiveness of cycling and can convince particularly non-cyclists to try it out. Whereas it is painfully true that Britain is decades behind most of other European countries in terms of the "hard" measures, we must admit that it is ahead of many countries when it comes to softer measures. We can (rightly) argue that this is a poor excuse for not doing a proper job in designing and planning for cyclists - namely, no matter how well you promote cycling and train people there will be no mass cycling in British cities until we get the infrastructure right in order for people to feel safe and comfortable on their bikes. Nevertheless, discarding soft measures completely would diminish the positive, albeit small, impacts they have on individuals.
Having lived in Leeds and Birmingham I have to say that both offer equally sub-standard conditions for cycling - both cities are built and planned for motor vehicles with cyclists representing a minority. However, Leeds has built its first, albeit mediocre, "cycle superhighway" and purely due to the city's smaller size it feels more manageable and less hazardous on bike. And there is also a student cycle hire at University of Leeds which I feel is a great opportunity to popularise cycling.
Targeting the right population is essential to get it right. Whereas Birmingham is targeting the deprived areas with Big Birmingham Bikes, in Leeds its students are recognised as users with a great potential for greater take-up of cycling. Cycling, being a low cost form of transport, is ideal for students who struggle to save some money, whilst offering a flexible and quick way to get to uni which is normally never too far away. Indeed, with Cambridge and Oxford being the most successful cycling British towns there is certainly a degree of connection between the levels of cycling and number of students. Not to mention the key Dutch student cities where virtually all students cycle, such as Utrecht and Groningen. However, having studied in both countries, the ease of getting a bike is different here in Britain compared with the Netherlands.
I studied in Utrecht for a year and one of the key things they suggested to us on the induction day was: get a bike and cycle. There was no debate about why and how, it was purely the fact that this is how you move from A to B in that country. We were advised to buy a cheap second hand bike, which are abundant. We all did it in the first week, we cycled all year round (even those who were not used to it in their own countries), and we sold the bike when we left, end of story.
Then I also studied for a year in Leeds. Obviously it was a totally different story - even though I studied transport planning no one mentioned cycling at the induction day and there were only a handful of us who did it in the year to come. However, the University made the decision to make cycling much easier by running the Velocampus Leeds Bike Hire. Run by several partners, it has been offering over 400 bikes for hire to a total of 65,000 students of University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Trinity University since 2008. The hire system has changed across the years, but when I was there I found out about the offer at the airport upon arrival, and on the next day I had my bike for loan for the next 10 months.
The procedure was simple: I paid £50 for rent and £100 for deposit which I got back upon return of the bike. The bike (photo at the top of the article) was a comfortable ladies hybrid bike with mudguards, pannier rack, and D-lock, but unfortunately without lights.
Throughout the year the basic free bike servicing was available at the Velocampus run by interns and volunteers where maintenance and bike training courses were also available free of charge. When I finished uni I simply returned the bike, meaning it is a perfect option for overseas students or indeed students from anywhere in the UK who do not want a hassle related to buying and selling a bike, do not know where to buy one, or there are simply no easy ways of doing so. It is also great for those who are not familiar with cycling and would first just like to give it a go.
Whereas back in 2013 you could hire a bike for the entire year this is now limited to a 3-month period which can then be extended. This hire length is only available to students and costs £15 for 3 months with £100 deposit which you get back if you return the bike in the same condition. Students, staff and visitors can hire bike for periods up to 4 weeks, which is obviously more expensive. It is a student's responsibility to take care of the insurance against theft - I personally did not insure it but in case of theft you need to cover the cost of the whole bike (ca £300).
So how is the cycle hire funded? The service was set up as part of the million pound UTravelActive programme, which did not encompass only the bike hire but also the promotional events, campaigns, training to promote cycling and walking, supported by improved facilities such as cycle parking. The funding was provided by the NHS Leeds, University of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds Trinity University College and Leeds City Council and finally from BIG Lottery through Sustrans and the Travel Actively Consortium. Additional funding was secured from BIG Lottery and Local Sustainable Transport Fund that ensured programme continuation until 2015. The project has now been embedded in the universities and hospitals and from April 2016; the partners will run their own projects rather than there being one overarching project.
The monitoring of the programme found that bike hire was a catalyst for behaviour change to cycling, attracting previously non/infrequent cyclists with 90% of hirers continuing to cycle. They attracted 800 extra cyclists over 3 years on hire bikes and it is clear that demand for bike hire continues to outstrip supply. In addition, more than 2000 people have changed their travel behaviour through a range of campaigns and activities alongside infrastructure improvements.
Other universities in the UK that offer a similar service are Staffordshire, Keele, Nottingham, and Durham. But by far the largest scheme is run in Ghent in Belgium, where the city subsidises 7,500 rental bikes through its student cycle hire scheme. The programme was founded by the city and other partners and receives a subsidy of €250,000/year (ca £190,000) from the city and the university and colleges, offering cycle hire from €35 (ca £27) a year for students.
Birmingham is the UK's second largest student city, with five universities (Aston, Birmingham, Birmingham City, Newman, and University College Birmingham), and over 65,000 higher education students. However, students only have an option of either buying a bike or hiring it, which is expensive long term (the cheapest option, Brompton Hire, would cost over £450 for six months). Even though the poor or non-existent cycle infrastructure in Birmingham currently does not support a larger take up of cycling, such student cycle hire schemes do offer a potential to increase cycling not only in the student years but to also help sustain this healthy habit later in life. Unfortunately, there is a big unexploited potential to increase cycling amongst Birmingham students even though they currently represent a big part of the (tiny) existing cycling community. Worse yet, Birmingham City Council has recently accepted lower levels of cycle parking than called for in the guidance for Birmingham City University's new campus and private student accommodation at Aston University and Selly Oak. Rather than permitting new developments to install pitifully low levels of cycle parking because the developers argue there is no demand by students, Birmingham City Council needs to be providing cycle hire schemes for students and telling developers to provide more cycle parking because BCC will be creating that demand.