It’s just before 8am on a late March morning when Holly, an NHS therapist, begins her shift. Today, however, Holly has arrived for work at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital on a bike, courtesy of public cycle share company, Beryl Bikes. Having downloaded the app and signed up using her NHS email address the night before, Holly unlocked a bike near her flat prior to cycling just over two miles to the hospital.
Holly works in the Therapy Department, while her partner, a trainee paramedic, has recently reverted to picking up bank shifts across the hospital. Having never previously cycled to work, the couple made the decision to trial a dockless bike after reading about an initiative which allows NHS workers unlimited use of Beryl Bikes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the last fortnight the global pandemic has seen much of the country grind to a halt, as everyone except key workers have been encouraged by the government to stay at home. The government’s measures extend to all aspects of daily life, including transport, which means that the two buses which Holly usually catches to get to work have been running to a reduced service. Furthermore, the use of public transport, which by its very nature facilitates proximity among its passengers, is seen as more likely than other modes to spread the virus.
Fit for purpose
How best to travel to and from work, while mitigating the risk of spreading the virus, is an issue which millions of people across the globe are currently contending with. Countries have responded to this dilemma in different ways, though the transport mode which has emerged as the choice of many is the humble bicycle. In fact, on the other side of the Atlantic, New York has seen a 52 percent rise in bike use, while in Columbia’s capital city, Bogota, 47 miles of emergency cycleways are being constructed to draw people off public transport.
In the UK there has been a wave of companies which have put their bikes at the disposal of NHS workers. Those based in London include Brompton Bikes, Santander Cycles, Fully Charged and Uber’s JUMP; to the Bridge8Hub and Bikes for Refugees collaborative up in Edinburgh. What then is it about bikes which makes them so suited to the current crisis, especially for NHS workers?
The most obvious advantage is that bikes facilitate social distancing, but crucially do not prohibit social interaction in the way that other vehicles, such as cars, visibly do. On a bike, a user can maintain a considerate distance between themselves and others while still being able to engage with people on their route, something which has been both noticeable and welcomed in the last fortnight. Is it merely a coincidence that the length of the average bike is just shy of the obligatory two meters?
The flexibility that a bike affords users, especially NHS workers who are more likely to work irregular or unsociable shifts, means there is no need to wait for buses or taxis. Additionally, less road traffic has meant quicker journeys, increased safety and decreased levels of pollution. Finally, the long hours that many NHS workers find themselves undertaking can restrict the time a worker has to exercise, a proven tonic for not only an individual’s physical, but perhaps more importantly, their mental wellbeing.
While the short-term practical benefits of mobilising more bikes for NHS workers are clear, what about the long-term policy benefits and why is it so important for the NHS to capitalise on this beyond COVID-19? A total of 5% of all road traffic in England is attributed to activities related to the NHS, whereas NHS-related travel is responsible for 13% of the NHS’s overall carbon footprint. These are huge numbers and demonstrate the critical role that transport plays both within and outside of the institution.
Aware of the size and likely future growth of this footprint, the NHS formed their own ‘Sustainable Development Unit’, which published the first NHS ‘Carbon Reduction Strategy’ back in 2009. The NHS thus became the world’s first major health service to develop a strategic vision, which set out the steps it would need to take to transition to a low carbon economy. The timing of this initiative was pertinent, as the strategy’s legal targets are governed by the then recently implemented ‘Climate Change Act’, passed just a year before in 2008.
Alongside reducing the NHS’s carbon footprint, a chapter in the strategy entitled ‘Low carbon travel: Transport and Access’, makes it clear that facilitating more walking and cycling would contribute to bringing about additional benefits. The first is the anticipated reduction of preventable deaths associated with sedentary lifestyles, including cancer, strokes and coronary heart disease. Sedentary lifestyles cost the NHS around £1.2 billion a year, a fraction of which could be proactively invested upstream to offset some of this vast sum.
Second is the amount of money spent on hospital parking, a long-running and contentious issue within the institution. While this may not seem immediately obvious, car parks require resources to plan, build, maintain, run and secure. This is all money which, as the strategy points out, is effectively diverted away from patient care. Though the extent to which NHS staff are leading sedentary lifestyles, or using hospital car parks, is unknown, the strategy makes it clear that NHS organisations should be ‘exemplar in leading the population-wide shift from sedentary travel to more active travel such as walking and cycling’.
Changing the behaviour and travel patterns of the majority of the NHS’s 1.5 million workers is a formidable challenge. It is one which the report rightly acknowledges requires strategic partnerships, infrastructural improvements and the championing of best practice examples. The institution has recently made bold strides and in January 2020 launched the ‘For a Greener NHS’ campaign. However, can the NHS now build on this to broker new strategic partnerships which harness the goodwill of both established, and emerging, mobility companies for the benefit of its workers?
Holly, for one, says that it is possible she may continue to use the Beryl Bikes beyond the current pandemic, but she is equally quick to point out that she would be more likely to do so were traffic to remain at lower levels. As this sentiment demonstrates, while NHS staff are being encouraged to switch, perhaps this would also be an opportune moment for other road users to consider their own transport choices. If nothing else, the last two weeks have surely highlighted that whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.