Gear Change

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 148.

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The government has revealed more plans for the UK’s next golden age of cycling, but will they deliver more, better and safer rides? Roxanne De Beaux explores the impact they will have on cycling in the Cambridge region.

On the evening of 27 July the government launched a new vision for active travel with the release by the Department for Transport (DfT) of the Gear Change vision document together with the accompanying infrastructure design guidance (Local Transport Note 1/20). This was a huge announcement full of bold promises and new expectations for a golden age of cycling in England. We’re still busy reading and absorbing the vast amount of content in this announcement and several other government releases and consultations which came in the following weeks, however the impact on our work has been immediate.

Camcycle’s vision for cycling can no longer be brushed aside. What is now coming from the Prime Minister is what we have been talking about all along

Camcycle’s vision for cycling can no longer be brushed aside. This is now coming from the very top: the Prime Minister is demanding it. We should now be seen and heard more than ever as an authoritative and informed organisation that can help deliver this new vision; after all, this is what we have been talking about all along. It has been made clear that cycling needs to be part of our future, not just through temporary schemes as we cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, but also as we build a more sustainable and efficient future. The Prime Minister has shown an appetite for radical reform, stating in the foreword to Gear Change that this new vision will ‘kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring’. It is also good to see the government acknowledging that past mistakes and poor standards will no longer be accepted, and I’m sure I am not the only person who has been resisting an ‘I told you so’ reaction with nearly every paragraph I read. In the foreword of Local Transport Note (LTN) 1/20, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Minister of State with responsibility for cycling and walking, makes it clear: ‘Too much cycling infrastructure is substandard, providing little protection from motorised traffic and giving up at the very places it is most needed. Some is actually worse than nothing, because it entices novice cyclists with the promise of protection, then abandons them at the most important places. Poor cycling infrastructure discourages cycling and wastes public money.’ The specific standards of infrastructure required to create a cycling nation have been made clear by the DfT. The Dutch inspiration is apparent and, importantly, we’re also seeing the need for inclusive design and accessibility for walking and cycling made explicit. LTN 1/20 refers to the Equality Act 2010 which ‘requires public sector authorities to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty in carrying out their functions. This includes making reasonable adjustments to the existing built environment to ensure the design of infrastructure is accessible to all’. It’s a point Camcycle has long been making but with limited success: hopefully this heralds a major turning point.

The Headline Grabbers

  • A £50 ‘Fix Your Bike’ voucher to be used at local bike shops (applications for these had already crashed the website within hours of release)
  • Cycle training offered for free (or at a nominal cost) for every child and adult who wants it
  • A national e-bike programme of loans, subsidies or other incentives to help those who are older, less fit or need to travel long distances
  • A programme encouraging GPs to prescribe cycling, with patients able to access bikes through their local surgery

The Bike Boosters

  • Thousands of miles of protected cycle routes in towns and cities
  • Increased ‘School Streets’ across the country to protect children as they travel to and from school
  • One new zero-emission transport city and 12 new ‘Mini-Holland’ liveable neighbourhoods
  • More cycle parking in the places people want to go such as shops and workplaces, plus street storage such as cycle hangars outside homes
  • An improved National Cycle Network, which is entirely off-road or on traffic-calmed streets by 2040.

Impact on our campaigning

We at Camcycle are now referring to LTN 1/20 in all of our responses to planning applications. Campaigning issues that have been ongoing are now being reassessed in light of the new guidance. We’re making it clear that proposed developments like the latest changes for the Cambridge Station area that, even with recent updates do not meet the government’s (and our) expectations, are no longer acceptable, nor is the new cycling infrastructure proposed for Northstowe with numerous inaccessible barriers. We’ll be making sure that councillors are well-informed about the new guidance and are therefore equipped to reject planning applications that do not conform. We’re updating our policies to ensure we are referring to the most up-to-date and best guidance available to help Camcycle members and others ensure appropriate infrastructure is built in their neighbourhoods. With such clear guidance from the government that finally meets most of our standards, our campaigning responses are suddenly becoming a lot more straightforward.

However, we’re going to have our work cut out for us. It is clear that many councillors, officers, developers, engineers and consultants are not yet up to speed with the new expectations. That’s fair enough: it has been a lot to take in during a very challenging time. Anecdotally, we’re hearing that there is a shortage of people with the right skills to design the quality and quantity of cycling infrastructure that is required. But this cannot be used as an excuse. We will do our best to get this information to all the relevant stakeholders in our region and, as always, we will continue to apply the same consistency and rigour to every planning application, every development and every consultation. Now we have a much higher standard to hold developers and highways authorities accountable to, but it isn’t just campaigners that local authorities should be aware of.

The Quality Controls

  • A long-term programme and budget for cycling, like the roads programme, to ensure guaranteed pipeline of funding
  • A new commissioning body and inspectorate, Active Travel England, led by a new cycling and walking commissioner
  • A series of national urban road audits to inform decisions on reallocation of road space and yearly Ofsted-style reports on highways authorities grading their performance on providing for active travel
  • New officer posts at local authorities with training in the design and implementation of active travel schemes
  • Enforcement of standards and time limits on active travel schemes: those which are not compliant with the new national standards will not be funded or will have to return funds which were originally received
  • Local authorities’ performances on active travel will be taken into account when considering funding allocations for other transport schemes; this will apply to all government money through any funding body, including schemes delivered through pots such as the Transforming Cities Fund

The Joined-up Thinking

  • Improving legal protections for those walking and cycling and consulting on updates to the Highway Code to better protect vulnerable road users and advise drivers on safe techniques such as leaving at least 1.5m when passing a cyclist and using the Dutch Reach when opening car doors
  • Commencing Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 to allow local authorities to enforce moving traffic offences such as entering mandatory cycle lanes
  • Establishing regional cycle crime enforcement partnerships based on hotspot intelligence to disrupt organised cycle theft
  • Providing clear guidance on designing for inclusive cycling, considering access for all types of rider and cycle and removing exclusionary barriers
  • Increasing storage space for cycles on trains and at stations
  • Ensuring major new rail corridors support local and national plans for traffic-free cycle links between communities
  • Ensuring all new housing and business developments are built around making sustainable travel the first choice for journeys.
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We recently objected to the designs of a cycle route for Northstowe which discriminated against cyclists with disabilities and violated the infrastructure guidance in LTN 1/20.

A new inspectorate for walking and cycling

Local authorities be warned! The soon to be formed Active Travel England will be a statutory consultee within the planning system and will be tasked with Ofsted-style grading of local highways authorities. Those that are not achieving a high enough grade will risk a reduction in funding. Gear Change could not make this any clearer: ‘Active Travel England will examine all applications for funding and refuse any that are not compliant with the new national standards. It will inspect finished schemes and ask for funds to be returned for any which have not been completed as promised, or which have not started or finished by the stipulated times.’ Highways authorities will not just be graded on the quality of cycling projects, but will also be expected to provide suitable active travel infrastructure in all highways projects. ‘Suitable’ will be determined by the Cycling and Walking Commissioner using the standards set out in documents like LTN 1/20 and Manual for Streets. If the previous statement wasn’t strong enough already, the DfT follows it up with ‘Active Travel England’s assessment of an authority’s performance with respect to sustainable travel outcomes, particularly cycling and walking, will be taken into account when considering funding allocations for local transport schemes. We will consult on introducing new criteria to measure local highway authorities’ performance in respect of sustainable travel outcomes, particularly cycling and walking, when considering funding allocations for local transport schemes’. The DfT’s reaction to local authorities’ often substandard attempts at temporary road space reallocation projects will be a good indication of what we can expect from the commissioner, but the indication is that if councils want funding for roads they will have no choice but to make the long overdue investment in appropriate cycling and walking infrastructure too.

Highways authorities will be expected to provide suitable active travel infrastructure in all highways projects. If councils want funding for roads they will have no choice but to make the long overdue investment in appropriate walking and cycling infrastructure too

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Key design principles from the new guidance are based around cycling as a form of mass transit. Routes must be designed for larger numbers of cyclists, and for users of all ages and abilities

Celebrating the bold and remaining vigilant

Every few years we have announcements from the government about new bodies or quangos (quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organisations) for active travel, new funding and/or new aspirational goals for significant increases in cycling. But it has never amounted to much. The latest announcements are bolder than anything we’ve heard to date, especially the greatly improved infrastructure design guidance. However, we must hold on to a good amount of caution. Other promises may continue to be kicked into the long grass. Will Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act be enabled by the end of this year? When will Active Travel England be created and will the commissioner really use the power they are given? Will the promised long-range funding streams really come to bear, particularly under significant political and financial pressure as we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic? How will local authorities react to the new grading system? Are there some who would prefer to build nothing and have no funding rather than step up and create the cycling infrastructure and networks required to make the grade? Will Highways England be held to their own policies or be allowed to continue getting away with inadequate cycling and walking provision? If the government is serious about meeting their objective for cycling and walking to be the natural choice for half of all journeys in towns and cities by 2030 they had better be very, very serious about getting on with everything else they have promised. If Cambridge is to reach its potential then we should expect walking and cycling be the choice for even more than 50% of all journeys.

I think for many, this is the most hopeful sign of a cycling revolution we have seen from the government. This is a great time to be involved in active travel and I sense a huge amount of energy across our movement to get stuck in and help make this vision a reality. I hope all of Cambridgeshire’s local authorities get on board, including strong leadership from council leaders and the Mayor, and I hope the government comes through with their promises to hold highways authorities to account. It may even come about that those who are the boldest and most efficient with their plans will see more funding than those determined to scrape by with the bare minimum. For Cambridgeshire County Council that will require significant improvements to the slow progress shown with the recent pandemic projects.

In the meantime, we as campaigners must ensure we are as informed as we can be and as vigilant as always, so let’s hold every single development and every piece of tarmac across our region to this bold new standard.