On October 26, I went to Birmingham to a conference organised by the Cycle Campaign Network (to which Cambridge Cycling Campaign is affiliated), on the National Cycling Strategy. The conference was extremely well attended: over 200 delegates I reckoned, which I think reflected the strong focus of the day, which some previous conferences have lacked.
There was a lot of detail during the day, but I mainly want to write about the first session. This was a speech by Andrew Smith, who is Shadow Secretary of State for Transport. This means, of course, that there is a significant possibility that he may be Secretary of State for Transport next year.
Smith was extremely positive, and his speech (and even his presence at the conference, which he said was his first outside the Labour Party machinery in his present role) showed how much cycling as an issue has turned around in the last three years. From being a safety problem, it has become a potential solution to traffic problems and to be encouraged.
Andrew Smith is himself a cyclist in London, and says he has a commitment to cycling, even though his constituency is Oxford East which includes the Cowley car plant. He wants to challenge the marginalisation of cycling which has occurred until the very recent past, and which has been reflected in a reduction from 37% of journeys in 1949 to only 2.3% nationally last year, and only 1.5% of the budget, even though 38% of households own a bike. He did pay a tribute to Steven Norris, the (former) minister behind the Cycling Strategy, but he tempered this with an indictment of the Government’s transport policy over the past 17 years: only five years ago, the Department of Transport was saying that I was not their role to encourage cycling.
The Labour Party’s transport policy is set out in their Concensus for Change, which sets out six principles:
- improving accessibility, including land-use planning to reduce the need for journeys
- providing and managing transport for economic activity
- efficiency (best use of money)
- environmental sustainability
- equity (especially regarding people with disabilities, and low-incomes)
- the importance of health and safety Cycling ranks high in meeting these principles.
Andrew Smith had five key points regarding cycling policies:
- a local approach: using the principle of “subsidiarity” to direct decision making to the lowest effective level, renewing democracy at a local level. In transport terms, this includes strategic regional transport planning and enabling local authorities to take an integrated approach.
- improving safety: fatal cycle accidents have dropped over ten years (though there was a highly alarming 27% rise last year). But cycling has reduced too. We need: to ensure all roads are made safer for cyclists; to improve driver awareness; traffic calming to take into account the needs of cyclists; and to establish safe routes to school. In 65 trial schemes, Denmark has managed to reduce casualties by 85%.
- Inter-modality: in this context between public transport and bikes. Did you know that Danish Taxis are required by law to be able to carry two bikes?
- Secure cycle storage: quality of which is an indicator of the seriousness with which cycling is taken. Employers have a part to play. The fear of theft is a big deterrent to cycling: 500,000 bikes are stolen annually, with a value of around £200 million.
- cycle culture: while generating a higher share of journeys by bike, cars will remain important, but need to be controlled. Alternatives to cars need to be attractive: Smith favours the carrot rather than the stick.
Integrated, environmentally friendly strategy is all about opening up choices and cycling has an important role to play, giving access back to all road users with rights equal to those of motor vehicles, and safeguarding those rights in all planning decisions.
Answers to questions showed that while no commitment would be given on increasing spending (the usual Labour line), there was a strong willingness on Andrew Smith’s part to shifting resources around to benefit cycling, and especially the “package” approach of planning transport for an area.