The city cycle

The pandemic’s impact on how employees commute to offices in the cities where most are found, is self-evident. As we commute less, attitudes about how we travel to offices are also changing. Many cities are responding with exciting urban planning projects to help make walking and cycling safer and easier. One British brand, Brompton Bicycle, is synonymous with that change.

Will Butler-Adams, its Chief Executive Officer, is a man on a mission.

Just back from Los Angeles and brimming with energy, he conducts our Zoom meeting standing up, at one point quickly eating a banana and at another grabbing a bicycle to hold up to the camera to better illustrate a point.

But it is his passion for cycling, and specifically for the role it will play as cities develop, that is apparent beyond all else. “All we think about is urban living and what cities might look like,” he says. “Cities are on a trajectory, whether they like it or not, to end up more or less in the same place, [which has] been predicated by cities designed around people, with active transport, health and humanity at its heart.”

Butler-Adams is well placed to opine on how cities are likely to evolve. Lightweight and foldable, Brompton bikes are designed for practical urban living, allowing users to move easily around cities before neatly stowing their bike under a desk or taking it on the train.

Developed by inventor Andrew Ritchie in the 1970s and named for the Brompton Oratory in west London, the company is now in 47 countries. Or, as Butler-Adams corrects himself, “it’s not 47 countries, it’s 150 cities”.

In the fold In 1975, Andrew Ritchie expertly engineered the Brompton to transform into a small, locked package—all in under 20 seconds.

The pandemic, he believes, has accelerated the trajectory, giving citizens a taste of how urban areas could be improved.

“All we’ve ever known is cities with noise and big, fat belching vehicles. But then we had this amazing experience [during lockdown] of what they could be like if they were designed around people: cities were calmer, people came out and got to know their neighbours. They took back their streets.”

It also gave politicians the confidence to back potentially divisive policies. Butler-Adams points to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has pledged to make the French capital – notorious for its pollution – 100% bikeable.

Designed for people – Cyclists on rue de Rivoli and direction sign one of the many cycle paths of the French capital.
Photo: Oliverouge 3 /

“All the pundits said that no one would vote for her because they were listening to the vocal minority,” says Butler-Adams. “They weren’t aware of the quiet majority and guess what, she was voted in for a second term. 650km of cycle lanes, 80,000 car parking spaces taken out; most people [in Paris] want a city designed for people.”

Butler-Adams joined Brompton in 2002 after chatting to then-chair Tim Guinness on a bus. By 2008 he had led a management buyout and now holds a stake of around 8 per cent (Ritchie, who is no longer involved in the day-to-day business, owns 15% while growth fund BFG has an 8 per cent stake following a £19m investment in May 2023. The rest is owned by family, friends and staff).

The pandemic saw a surge in demand and hastened the brand’s online debut as it sought to get bikes into the hands of desperate commuters when stores were closed. But that demand slumped last year: as restrictions eased, people started using public transport again and spare cash was spent on long overdue holidays (Bromptons start at £899, with the most advanced models costing over £4,000).

“We went into that fiscal year thinking we were going to absolutely knock the lights out,” recalls Butler-Adams. “But then we saw quite a significant decrease in demand, and of course, we’d placed the order for materials and recruited and trained staff. So, we had to restructure and borrow from the bank.”

Market demand has since stabilised. “We’ve grown at nearly 20% a year for 20 years compound, and that’s what we’ll aim to do. It might be less year-on-year – profits might get a bit of a kick – but we’re not a listed company; we’re a private company interested in making the world a better place. We just want to create a bit of urban freedom and make people happier.”

Butler-Adams strongly dismisses any suggestion that Brompton is an iconic brand, however. “We haven’t even started – you think people know about us because you live in London,” he retorts.

“Most people in the world have never heard of us. Our brand recognition in the UK is around 40%, but in the US it’s 4 per cent and in China, 1 per cent.”

As he says, banana consumed, bike replaced and interview at an end, “There is nothing trendy or iconic about Brompton. All we’re trying to do is make a useful product – there’s already too much crap out there that the world doesn’t need.”

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