This article by Christian Wolmar, one of Britain’s leading commentators on transport matters, was first published in London Cyclist magazine, April/May 2005.
For much of the past decade I have sat on various government boards aimed at promoting cycling. And I must confess, their achievements have been limited and the experience as a whole has been pretty depressing. Sure there have been a few high points but the overall feeling has been of clattering my head against the bull bars of a Range Rover.
First, I chaired the intermodality group of the National Cycling Strategy which aimed to persuade train and bus operators to provide better facilities for cyclists. We had the odd success, notably with Anglia trains, but that was largely because they were motivated anyway, as one of its founders was a keen cyclist. First Great Eastern, Thameslink and GNER were other companies that responded well at various times, and for a time even Railtrack was on board, though it once sent me a letter saying that basically any spare space at stations would be used for commercial purposes and not bike parking. It was an uphill struggle and for every minor success there were companies like South West Trains ready to ban all cyclists at peak times even when there was purpose built space on their trains.
Then for the past three years I sat on the National Cycling Strategy Board. Again, there were a few victories. Our first chairman, Steve Norris, managed to persuade the then transport minister, John Spellar, to spend £4.5m over three years on setting up a team to encourage local authorities to increase cycling in their area, the English Regions Cycling Development Team, known in a ghastly pun on the acronym as the Air Cadets. The team undertook a lot of vital groundwork in establishing the situation on the ground across the country but found it more difficult to influence councils in improving the situation.
There was, too, a minor victory in that we managed to get the first draft of a policy on cycling by the Strategic Rail Authority thrown out. The document was a disgrace, written in a mean spirited style with the intention of minimising any potential hassle that might be caused by cyclists. Its replacement, published by the SRA, is by no means perfect, but at least aims to encourage operators to deal positively with cyclists and established an ‘aspiration’ that there would be parking available at all stations of a certain size.
The policy fell short, however, of forcing the train companies to promote cycling which could have been done by writing in a clause into their franchise agreements. That was typical of the whole approach by the Department for Transport towards cyclists. Basically, the Department and its agents like the SRA and the Highways Agency have never taken cycling seriously. It is considered as a minority activity that has no significant role in transport policy, nor could ever do so. And there is certainly no recognition that increasing cycling is in line with wider government goals such as reducing pollution and improving health. Indeed, cycling is mentioned over a dozen times in the Health White Paper produced last year.
It was all supposed to be so different when the National Cycling Strategy was introduced in 1996. It was created to bring about a quadrupling of cycling across the country by 2012, but no resources were made available and no detailed blueprint of how this target could be achieved was ever produced. It was supposed to just happen and not surprisingly government figures show that far from increasing, cycling has declined since the setting of the target (though the figures are notoriously unreliable and mask a wide variation across the UK, notably London which has experienced a massive growth in recent years).
What infuriates me and the rest of the Board is that supporting cycling seems to be a no-brainer for government. Getting more people to cycle has so much going for it and where it has happened, the results are clear. Cyclists are fitter than the rest of the population and live longer, schools which have promoted cycling as in York have found themselves quickly top of their sporting leagues and the example of London has shown that quite rapid increases in cycling can be achieved.
Yet in Alistair Darling we have a transport secretary who, on a Radio Five special programme on cycling, not only confessed that he never goes on a bike but said cycling was ‘hard work’ and that boosting cycling would require a major cultural change. So why bother, seemed to be the implication.
Sure, there are a few negatives which are potential pitfalls. A few of us get killed or seriously injured in accidents which is a highly visible statistic, whereas the improvements in health are more hidden (although Hull council, which has focussed on improving the cycling environment, reckons that £40m has been saved in the local NHS bill by spending £4m on traffic calming measures). Many of us jump through red lights and some even cycle on pavements, something which infuriates old ladies. We are, therefore, a visible group of occasional law breakers. And we don’t pay any road tax or indeed anything at all for our transport apart from the initial capital outlay and a bit for servicing and parts.
But hey, put this in perspective. A lot of motorists behave very badly and many kill people when drunk, but it does not lead to an attack on the whole driving fraternity (and sorority). It is time politicians got out of that negative perspective and seriously looked at the benefits.
The only one who has really done so was Steve Norris. The plumpish Tory car selling minister was an unlikely candidate to become cycling’s best friend, but he did so not out of any love of Lycra or indeed much interest in the whole paraphernalia of cycling. It was just, as he explained many times, that he took a cold hard look at the facts and saw that politically cycling was a terrific win win situation. Thus, the National Cycling Strategy was born, sadly neglected by his successors, notably Glenda Jackson who took no interest whatsoever, Spellar who at least gave a bit of money and Kim Howells. Charlotte Atkins, the current incumbent, is keen but appears powerless in the face of her boss, the dull Darling who has taken no interest in the issue.
Indeed, Darling blocked an initiative from the National Cycling Strategy Board that would have taken us forward into the next Parliament with a much stronger cycling promotion agenda. The Board’s life span expired in January and its chairman, Philip Darnton, the ex head of Raleigh, drew up a strategy for the creation of Cycling England which was to group together the relevant ministries – transport, health, education and culture, media and sport – on a board with a significant budget to promote cycling. It needed much less than 1 per cent of the Department for Transport’s budget, along with money from Health, Education and other departments, to make a significant difference on several fronts – promotion, training, improving facilities and so on – but Darling refused to endorse it on the basis that there was no money. In fact, the truth is that there was no political will.
Cycling England will now be launched anyway but with very little money available, just a couple of million that previously was mostly spent on the English Regions Cycling Development Team that is now being disbanded. But at least Cycling England will be the focus for any future initiatives and may look to the lottery for significant funding.
What needs to be done? as Lenin once asked. Well, we could do with a bit of Soviet style planning from central government, forcing local councils and other state bodies such as schools and hospitals to take the issue seriously. But that ain’t going to happen. Instead, we need a ministerial champion, a politician brave enough to ignore the negatives and stand up to any potential Daily Mail jibes about Lycra louts and simply stress the all round benefits of cycling.
The creation of Cycling England is at least a start. Much will depend on the identity of the next transport minister as Darling is certain to go after the election. The argument that there is not enough money is a spurious one. Of course, the chaos on the railways following the Hatfield accident and the demise of Railtrack has proved very expensive and the network is sucking up all the Department’s spare cash.
But all Darnton and the NCSB were asking for was a few tens of millions to kick start a programme of widespread training, improved facilities and promotion whose benefits are in the order of hundreds of millions in terms of saving money for the health service, making people fitter and therefore less likely to miss work, reducing pollution and helping prevent children becoming fat.
What’s happened in London in the past couple of years shows that the cultural change Darling thinks is such an obstacle can be achieved. I was cycling in Farringdon the other day and noticed three or four cyclists dressed in their rather smart work clothes. One young woman had a handbag on her shoulder and a bloke was in his suit. That is the future. If only ministers could see it.
With the creation of Cycling England, at last the right structure is in place and therefore there is some hope of progress. However, much will depend on the identity of the next Transport Secretary and his or her willingness to bat for cycling.