They have been a common sight on rural lanes and city streets for more than a century, but could the Royal Mail post bike be set to disappear from our roads?
According to reports this week, the Royal Mail has removed as many as 14,000 bikes from its delivery operations over the past three years, while the final 3,000 to 4,000 bikes will be phased out by the end of 2014. The move comes after more than 120 years of two-wheeled postal delivery. In the late 19th century, posties were responsible for providing their own bikes and were paid an allowance towards their up-keep.
Today, the Royal Mail fleet is made up of Pashley Mailstar models. Designed to operate in tough conditions, it has only has three gears, a step-through frame ideal for quick dismounts on short journeys and has been loved by postmen since it became the standard bike of choice for Royal Mail in 1992. The Mailstar has undergone several modifications since then, but today you're more likely to see a postman pushing one of Royal Mail's 38,000 trolleys, as an increase in the number of parcels we send and receive has made the bike less practical. Cycling groups aren't happy, though, and the charity CTC launched a Keep Posties Cycling campaign two years ago to save the Pashley Mailstar. This came after it was contact by cycling posties and noticed hundreds of ex-Royal Mail bikes turning up in Africa after being appropriated by Re-Cycle, the charity which ships second-hand bikes abroad.
The campaign has not been successful, but the organisation's Roger Geffen is calling for the Royal Mail to "reconsider this decision when restocking its fleet and offer staff who wish to cycle, with all health benefits that offers, the opportunity to get back on bikes".
While Martin Key, British Cycling's campaigns manager, accepts that as "shopping habits change, the Royal Mail needs to adapt", he says: "I strongly believe that the withdrawal is indicative of some of the problems with our roads, which are often unfit for purpose. Government investment into cycling infrastructure has long been neglected, leaving our roads heavily biased towards cars and HGVs, despite the benefits that cycling can bring to society."
According to Royal Mail, a few bikes may remain in specific locations, but the recently privatised firm now makes 51 per cent of its revenue from parcels, thanks to internet shopping, so bikes simply aren't fit for the job of carrying bulky packages.
A spokesperson says: "As we deliver fewer letters but more parcels than we did in the past, we are removing bicycles from our operations across the UK. They are being replaced with trolleys that enable us to take the weight off the shoulders of our staff.
"Modernising our delivery methods is helping to drive environmental efficiencies. Every cycle delivery needs vehicles to support it – to provide postmen and women with replenishment pouches of mail, and to deliver their bulkier items. The use of trolleys means we are now phasing out these support vehicles, which tend to be larger, older and therefore produce more carbon emissions."
Many campaigners are not convinced, though. Carlton Reid, the editor of BikeBiz.com, says "Royal Mail will come to rue this decision", which he adds is "ironic" because rival delivery firms are using load-carrying bikes in increasing numbers. TNT Post, for example, now operates 1,000 Pashley Mailstars, though they are finished in TNT orange, rather than Royal Mail red.
Matthew Hammond, who has been a postman for 28 years, is trying to convince his manager in Battle, East Sussex, to let him keep his bike, which is set to be replaced by a trolley. "My route is semi-rural without pavements for a trolley so a bike is the most efficient form of transport," he says. "They say it's a struggle with the weight of the bike and the parcels but the weight isn't on my back. I'm just pedalling. After hundreds of years delivering by bike, I'm not sure why we have to change it now."
Back in Warwickshire, where Pashley bikes are manufactured, managing director Adrian Williams has mixed feelings about the end of Royal Mail's association with the company, pointing to other firms making use of bicycles in their operations, expanding exports to new markets and a booming retail market for the company. "It's sad that it has come to an end after 35 years, but I don't want to pass judgment on Royal Mail," says Williams. "What I will say is that we thought we had a product that was extremely useful and highly cost-effective."
Lovers of the 26.6kg bike face a challenge getting hold of a Mailstar even as they come out of service. A few are available on eBay and GumTree, but Royal Mail refuses to pass on former post bikes to the public and, until the Re-Cycle scheme was launched, they were cut in half and scrapped. Though, if you can stretch to £750 a "civilian" version of the Mailstar, called the Pronto, is available from Pashley's website. µ