TRCH Priscilla

Push Forward: NTU's Community Bike Hub Wants You Lot Back in the Saddle

25 August 19 words: Alex Kuster
photos: Dan Hodgett

Ernest Hemingway once said that, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” In Britain, over 70% of the population confess to never riding a bike. With the climate crisis reaching fever-pitch and obesity levels on the rise, Nottingham Trent University’s Push Forward scheme aims to increase the number of cyclists in the city by providing reasonably-priced rental bikes and support from experienced hands. We talked to Paul Hook, who has recently taken over the community bike hub...

What was the motivation behind Push Forward?
We have about 30,000 students and 5,000 staff at Nottingham Trent University, and the majority of them work in the city centre. Most students live within two or three miles of the campus, and the vast majority of them don’t use the opportunities they have to cycle. There are a lot of barriers that make people in this country think that cycling is not for them, and only about 10% or 15% of people will use a bike on any given day. So that’s tens of thousands of people never choosing to cycle. It’s worrying to see a lot of students still with the mindset that a car is the answer to everything; it’s wrapped up in their ego, status and view of what counts as transport. The job in hand is to try and increase the experience of cyclists now and in the future, and to help people see cycling as the answer for commuting. 

And there are also huge environmental benefits…
One of the aims is to tie into the bigger-picture political momentum surrounding things like Extinction Rebellion. The general populace is being kicked into thinking about plastics and global warming, for example. If people feel the need to take responsibility for the planet and do something pro-active, you’ve got to be able to offer them solutions. Transport is a big contributor to carbon, nitrous oxides and other pollutants. Students are at an age where they’re exploring what they think about the world, who they are as people and what they believe politically, and they need to be encouraged to make active decisions that not only improve themselves directly, but also the community in which they live. 

So with Push Forward, students can pay £39 to get a bike for an entire academic year?
Trent offers, in my view, one of the best cycling schemes in the country. Not all universities offer them, and those that do don’t offer the full range of services involved with Push Forward. For £39 (plus a £60 deposit) you get a very decent bike and, if anything goes wrong, there’s a free service and replaced parts, within reason. You get a D-lock for security, lights for safety and lots of advice and guidance. The University has put a lot of time and energy into promoting cycling, and it’s interesting to see the effect on those that have taken it up. Once you’ve bitten the bug, there’s no going back. It gives you so much freedom. In general, you can leave your house and know that, within a few minutes, you’ll be at your destination. If you hit traffic on a bus or in your car, you don’t get that sort of security. 

A lot of people are afraid to cycle in the city. What advice would you offer to them?
There are a number of different clubs around the city that have a range of rides depending on your level of fitness. Some of them will offer 10-15 mile rides that you can go along as part of a group. The pace isn’t very high, and it’s all very leisurely. This is where you’ve got to get your confidence up. Join a group of regular cyclists on a Sunday morning, watch their habits and learn from them. You can also get familiar with your own routes by walking them first. 

Every time I see a cyclist on a bike I feel like the world is a better place

Where do you stand on helmets?
You’ve always got to wear one. I’ve fallen off and felt the impact where I’ve landed on my side, followed by my head. With my helmet on, I hurt my elbow and hand, but my head was ok. I just feel safer with a helmet. From a psychological point of view, if you’re well-equipped and sensible when you’re cycling, you tend to get more respect from car drivers. If you’re zigging around and you’ve got no helmet on, you’re going to look a bit of a divvy. 

What are your favourite routes around Nottingham?
Holme Pierrepont, Beeston Lock and the Attenborough Nature Reserve are all lovely. The Big Track is good. If you get down to the city on the east side, for example, there's one that you pick up at Burton Joyce railway station. It takes a couple of miles to get to but when you get there, there's a track which is partly-paved and partly-gravelled. It takes you down the side of the Trent and very few people know about it. If you want to go on the Trent Canal from the west side towards Beeston, there's another equally pleasant and traffic-free ride to be had from Burton Joyce.

Nottingham has a really rich cycling history too. We’ve got Raleigh, Paul Smith is a huge cyclist and was part of Sherwood cycling group…
Yes, we do. Universities should be making a statement about how to encourage people. Ultimately, cycling is the best thing to do. If you want any evidence, watch a video of Utrecht, Amsterdam or Berlin. It looks and feels so civilised. No one is in charge, and no one feels the need to cut anyone else up. 

Cycling is so cool as well!
Every time I see a cyclist on a bike I feel like the world is a better place. Bikes are also great for providing education to young people who have been excluded or have mental health problems. Working on them isn’t particularly challenging; they’re easy wins with small learning experiences. The individual parts can be little hands-on projects. 

It feels good to do work with your hands and see the result. We seem to have moved away from that as a society…
We do projects with kids who have been excluded as well as refugees. One of the first things refugees can do is go to a workshop, strip a bike, build it up and then navigate the city on their own bike that they've made. There are far more uses for bikes than just commuting from A to B – there are so many positive experiences to be had. The more of that we have, the closer we come to bringing Nottingham back to its heritage. I bet we had loads of cyclists in the 1950s. We’re going to get our cities back. 

Nottingham Trent University on sustainability

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