Chair’s comment

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

Getting Britain Cycling?

For 18 months, The Times newspaper has been running a first-rate campaign on getting more people cycling, called ‘Cities Safe For Cycling’, following a serious collision that left one of its journalists in a coma.

Their campaign is primarily about creating the conditions by which anyone could start cycling. For a major newspaper, read by ‘serious people’, to run a long series of articles on cycle safety and infrastructure can only heighten consciousness of this issue amongst decision-makers.

The campaign has coincided with a reawakening of cycle campaign groups around the country in being less tolerant of half-hearted infrastructure that doesn’t genuinely help get more people cycling, learning from best practice on the continent, and being bolder in criticising the small size of the sums of money that are handed down from government. This activity is something in which I as Chair have been encouraging our own organisation to take a strong part.

The aim of this combined activity has been to press the Department for Transport (DfT) to allocate greater resources and to create much stronger guidance (nay, rules) so that the many willing Local Authorities who want to improve cycling have the funding and freedom (or duty) to achieve this.

MPs across the political spectrum have taken up the gauntlet, through the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG), consisting of MPs interested in cycling. They have run an Inquiry, at which I gave evidence on behalf of the Campaign, leading to an excellent report that we strongly welcomed.

The Times then launched a petition to encourage the DfT to accept the recommendations and to force a debate, currently with over 71,000 signatures. Our MP, Julian Huppert (who is Co-Chair of the APPCG), managed to secure such a debate in September, and he deserves the collective thanks of cyclists and transport users around the country.

Some 100 MPs attended the debate. Outside, 5,000 cyclists surrounded (almost literally) the Houses of Parliament with a large ride organised by our friends in London Cycling Campaign to help build public pressure. A group of us from the Campaign took the train to join this excellent event.

Observing the debate from above the Chamber, seeing MP after MP speaking in support of cycling and telling of their own experiences, I found it heartening to see the extent of cross-party support for the principle of improving conditions for cycling. Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Green spoke to give their support, and in many cases urged the government to take a much stronger lead in this area.

It was disappointing therefore that the DfT’s formal response to the APPCG report one week earlier, could only be described as ‘lukewarm’. It basically reeled off a list of the current scraps of existing (short-term) funding, pushing responsibility onto Local Authorities under the guise of localism, rather than showing any leadership from the centre. The case of the Catholic Church junction in Cambridge (see later in this Newsletter) shows why central scrutiny is so important.

(Indeed, the contrast with the electric cars strategy launched a few weeks later could not be greater: long-term funding strategy and central government leadership.)

The response on Twitter was fairly unanimous. One poster said ‘This response will confirm cyclists’ view that the DfT and govt just don’t get cycling, or care about it. No leadership or vision’. Another likened it to the kind of report you get when you scrappily draft something for a meeting the night before.

The Minister in charge, Norman Baker, has clearly tried hard to get what he can from his bosses at the DfT and the Treasury. By contrast, it seems increasingly clear that it is the very top of the DfT and the Prime Minister who are the people with the purse-strings and the absence of political will to improve cycling to a much greater extent.

All this ‘CycleSafe’ activity of the last few months has helped build campaigners’ resolve to see the government to go much further than it has so far. We will continue to play our own part in this.

Martin Lucas-Smith