Julian, you’ve served five years in Parliament as our MP, representing the cause of cycling admirably. Tell us about being the co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, your role in it, and its achievements. What were your highlights and low points?
It was in many ways an amazing five years for the cause of cycling. It is now much further up the agenda than it was five years ago, as a result of many things – success in the Olympics and Tour de France, and the amazing spectacle of having it here; the Times ‘Cities Fit For Cycling’ campaign, local campaign groups and much more – but also the fact that we were able to make cycling matter in Parliament and government more than before. When I first put in a bid for a parliamentary debate on cycling, the general view was that we wouldn’t get enough MPs to show up – in the end, we broke the record for MPs in Westminster Hall, our second debating chamber, and even ran out of seats. From that point on, we had established a level of importance and credibility that transformed what could be done.
Highlights then included the Get Britain Cycling (GBC) inquiry of 2013 that I led, which I think did set the standard for what we were asking for nationally [see cartoon below], and was well covered – I was particularly proud that we managed to get it supported by everyone from Living Streets to the president of the AA; cycling is good for everyone, not opposed to pedestrians and motorists.
Another highlight was the money that we managed to get in – the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, the £214 million announced in 2014, the Cycle City Ambition Grants – bringing around £10 million to Cambridge, and much more.
The thing that will probably have the longest-lasting influence, however, was the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy I managed to get into the Infrastructure Act. This means there is a legal requirement to have a strategy for active transport, rather than it being a peripheral activity. I think that will be the key for future cycling investment.
I’d pick two low points – one being the fact that despite all the extra money, more than ever before, we are still way below the £10 per person, per year we called for as an initial step in GBC. We achieved a lot, but it’s pretty depressing how much more there is still to do.
The second relates to that – we had a plan to try to get a cross-party commitment to cycle funding. We in the Lib Dems committed to the GBC target (that was easy – I wrote that bit of the manifesto), but both Labour and the Conservatives refused to join in. We just couldn’t get cycling to be seen as something that would swing votes.
What, for you, are the main reasons for getting more people cycling, more often?
Simple – it’s a healthy, low-pollutant, low-carbon, efficient, economic, sociable, reliable, congestion-busting, fun thing to do. Individuals benefit when they cycle, the country benefits, and the world benefits. What’s not to like?
In addition, supporting cycling is about deciding what sort of city we want to live in. If you think about the street you live in, and what you’d like it to look and feel like, you’d probably come up with something far more human than most of our streets currently are.
Of course, not everyone can cycle, and not every trip can sensibly be cycled – but people who don’t cycle are also benefited by others choosing to cycle rather than drive.
One of the first things that the Coalition government did in 2010 upon taking office was the scrapping of Cycling England. What were your thoughts on this?
This was a bad idea and a great shame, but unfortunately Cycling England got caught up in Philip Hammond’s desire to get rid of QUANGOs. In fact, his instructions when he became transport secretary were to get rid of cycling as a DfT function; he saw it as unimportant and trivial. We fought back hard to stop that, but we weren’t in time to save Cycling England. I spoke in detail to the chair of Cycling England, and his view was that it was more important to save Bikeability, which we did manage to do.
Why do you think that cycling is considered a fringe activity within the DfT, despite the clear cost-benefit ratio?
Not for any rational reasons! The best I can come up with is that it is a combination of cycling being a minority activity and the fact that many of the solutions are not grand projects that get delivered nationally. I hope this will change, and the new Investment Strategy should ensure that cycling rises up the pecking order.
What do you feel should be the priorities for the new government? Is there much likelihood of cycling being taken seriously?
I wrote a full manifesto on this for the election! In terms of cycling, the proposals we made in GBC still stand: getting in more funding, better road design, safety measures, more training, and political leadership. Cycling absolutely has to be taken seriously! So far, there haven’t been the right signs . . .
What could we, and indeed others in the cycle advocacy community, do better to advance our cause of getting more people cycling?
I think the Campaign does a fantastic job in engaging – it’s a model to be followed elsewhere in the country. There’s an important balance to strike between ardent activism and collaborative working – some groups are too confrontational to achieve much.
But more generally, I think the key is to get out of the old fights of cyclists vs drivers, or cyclists vs pedestrians, which the media are far too keen to want to present. The key is to argue for a better living environment for all. People in general benefit from sensible measures that will also help people when they cycle.
Lastly, what would you say to Cambridge’s new MP, Daniel Zeichner, in terms of taking forward your work on cycling?
I hope Daniel will take cycling seriously, and actually do something to push that ahead. It is very easy as an MP to look like you’re doing things – Parliament abounds in things to attend, sign, or pose for photos in front of. The challenge is actually making a difference, which takes far more time and effort but is what actually matters. I hope Daniel will choose to make a difference on this.
Some of his Labour colleagues ‘get’ cycling – Ian Austin, my co-chair, Ben Bradshaw, Mary Creagh, to name a few. Others very much don’t – sadly including Michael Dugher, the shadow transport secretary. I hope Daniel will have the courage to challenge his own party if their anti-cycling wing becomes more ascendant.
I would love to see cycling being something that can be and is supported across all the political parties.