Opinion: The new government roadmap for cycling could benefit us all

This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 148.

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Robin Heydon

The rail industry has a long-term funding roadmap. They know approximately how much money is available and therefore can plan to build railway stations, maintain tracks, and buy new trains. It doesn’t matter if you use a little bit of the money today to do a feasibility study this year, because next year you can stick in the planning application, and a couple of years later you can be building, safe in the knowledge that the money will be available.

The road building industry is the same. I’ve heard it said that they knew when the A14 would be opened because they’d already booked the closing of the East Coast mainline railway to remove the old viaduct years in advance – even before they had the public inquiry.

Cycling has nothing like that. The most feared words from the government over the last few years have been the phrase ‘shovel ready’. That means a scheme where you’ve already done the planning and consultations but don’t have the money available to build it.

The problem with that is that no well-run council would ever spend millions of its own money just in case the government needed some good cycling stories one particular month and just happened to throw in a few million to gain a few more votes.

Yes, this sounds cynical, but it is really what it felt like. We’ve been asking for high-quality cycle facilities and a consistent level of funding. We could build so much more, even if the funding was a little lower than today, just because that constant stream of money would allow good things to be designed in good time, consulted upon, changed a little, and then built, safe in the knowledge that what is designed will be built and can be sensibly connected to the rest of the planned cycling network.

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Electric buses, trains and cars are all subsidised by the government; it’s about time e-bikes were too

But now the government has announced there will be a new body called Active Travel England with an Active Travel Commissioner to audit highways departments to ensure they are meeting the government’s standards for active travel infrastructure. Failure to meet these standards, such as cycleways that are physically separated from motor vehicles, will result in failure to get funding. They would also fund cycle training for every child and any adult who wants it.

More radical is the suggestion that residents could suggest rat-run roads to be closed to through traffic. Even some main roads could become access-only in key locations, like town centres. Taking these steps would rapidly revitalise these centres for business and help create safe, liveable neighbourhoods for residents. Cycling should also get a level playing field in terms of electrification. Whilst electric buses, trains, and cars are all being subsidised by the government, now electric bikes could also become easier to purchase.

I’ve even heard rumours that the law that says you cannot park in a mandatory cycle lane could be enforced by traffic wardens rather than only by the police. Making the hardworked police, who have much more serious crimes to solve, enforce a simple traffic offence was always just a way of saying ‘it is illegal’ without the threat of ‘you’ll be given a ticket’. This may change.

This is still in the realms of ‘press release’ and we need to see the actual text of any such legislative changes and funding agreements, but still it is something to be welcomed.

Perhaps your neighbourhood could become safe for kids to walk or cycle to school or play outside on the street again? Perhaps your local high street could become a social hub where people enjoy spending time outside? Perhaps you will find that cycling is safe, pleasant and fully accessible for your local journeys? Perhaps we could fix a few more roundabouts in Cambridge?

Robin Heydon is Chair of Camcycle. This article was first published on 3 August in the Cambridge News, where you can read his column each week.