The wheels of change: building better bicycles for a better Britain

A revolution in bicycle design could be kick-started by a government-run competition. Entrants would be instructed to submit designs for a radically new model of bicycle, which would have to meet a strict set of requirements, including (but not necessarily limited to): truly puncture-proof wheels (perhaps moving away from the inner-tube and tyre combo), non-slippable chains (or an alternative to the chain altogether), a much more durable braking system, and a simpler alternative to the gearing system. The bike should also be lightweight, and extra credit would be given to designs which made use of sustainable or recycled material.

The prize money would have to be of sufficient value to incentivise professional engineering outfits to enter; however, in the spirit of the Heywood Prize itself, students and garden-shed inventors would of course be encouraged to participate as well. The government should also emphasise the significant kudos that society would accord to the winning designer – this would not just result in their short-term financial gain, but it would also offer them the chance to be immortalised as someone who contributed to society in a truly meaningful and long-lasting way. Think the Wright brothers on two wheels.

We have recently seen the incredible success of the teams of scientists who created the COVID vaccines at top speed, something that many had predicted would not be possible and certainly not in such a short time frame. This example should act as a great motivator and also as a check on the naysayers – negativity and pessimism should fall by the wayside in the face of the past year’s scientific achievements. Two centuries’ inertia in bicycle design could be swept aside by the spirit of the vaccines.

A shortlist of promising entries – selected by a pre-appointed panel of experts – would be drawn up, with prototypes made and tested. Once the winning design was chosen, the bike would then be manufactured in Britain, forming part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda: the production of these new bikes could create hundreds of jobs in parts of the country particularly badly hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic, and would become a symbol of the rebirth of the country’s long-neglected manufacturing base. The finished bike would be sold through existing bike retailers, with the cost subsidised for those in receipt of welfare payments in order to ensure that it was affordable to all sections of society.

Mentioning cost raises the elephant in the room. Yes, this would be an expensive venture, however the expense should not fall on the government alone. There are increasing numbers of enormous companies looking to improve their image – BP (oil spills, fossil fuels) and Amazon (tiny tax contributions, poor working conditions) both spring to mind, to take just two examples. If the government played its cards correctly, it could strike a deal with a company of this sort to defray the cost of the project. This would be a win-win partnership: the company would get to burnish its image through close association with a non-polluting, obesity-busting, affordable mode of transport, while the cost to the government (and therefore taxpayers) would be significantly reduced. What’s not to like? Private companies regularly make significant financial contributions to government-run projects like the Olympics, for instance, and if the government were to emphasise the historic importance of this scheme, I don’t see why it should be any different here.

Finally, I am aware that the success of this whole project would rest on breakthroughs in engineering which of course can’t be guaranteed – no one has managed to come up with a less error-prone gearing system in 200 years, for instance, so why should now be the moment? There are two reasons why I think the time has come. First, because of the example of the scientific breakthroughs of the last year: as mentioned above, the spirit of the COVID vaccine will animate many different endeavours in the coming years, and this could be one of them – if ever a reminder were needed of human ingenuity, the vaccinators have provided it. Second, because we have got too used to accepting mediocrity in bicycles and have never demanded better. It suits bicycle companies to continue manufacturing bikes as they currently are, because broken bikes require new parts, and new parts equal big profits. It’s time to break that cycle, and if 200 years of the market haven’t done it, decisive government intervention could.

We’ve shrugged our shoulders for too long about bad bikes, such that they have just become accepted as one of the irritations of life. It need not be like this, and society’s growing concerns about climate change and poor public health will mean that it’s imperative that it isn’t like this for much longer. We need better bikes, and this could be the way to do it.




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