This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 95.
… and how the Cambridge News reported them
Julian Huppert has been actively promoting sustainable transport policies, and cycling in particular, since being elected Cambridge’s Member of Parliament last year. It wasn’t a feature of his maiden speech, but on 27 July 2010 he obtained a Westminster Hall debate on sustainable transport, largely provoked by the previous administration’s plans to massively increase road congestion in Cambridge by building a new A14 ‘motorway’ to Huntingdon (with the guided bus fiasco also in mind). He stressed that ‘cycling and walking are the ideal forms of travel’ and specifically mentioned the lack of cycle parking at Cambridge station and the struggle to get ‘No Entry – except cycles’ signs permitted.
Transport minister Norman Baker agreed, but stressed that reducing the national debt was the Coalition Government’s overriding priority, which allowed him to hint that the billion-pound A14 scheme, at least, would be abandoned, as indeed it has been.
More recently, our MP won the right to hold an adjournment debate on cycling on 21 January, and contacted the Campaign a few days before for some ideas. His speech was, as expected, balanced and sensible, and drew a considered and sensible response from junior transport minister Theresa Villiers.
He asked for local authorities to be given greater powers over traffic signs (e.g. to allow ‘No Entry – except cycles’ signs); for the section of the 2004 Traffic Management Act allowing for enforcement of mandatory cycle lanes be brought into force at last; and for the law be changed ‘so that the presence of a vehicle in a cycle path or on a footway be taken as evidence that it was driven there, rather than appearing magically, as seems to be assumed at the moment’. He also revisited the vexed issue of cycle parking at railway stations, especially Cambridge’s, and asked for more 20mph areas.
On a wider scale, he asked for a green thread through all government policy, to allow climate change to be tackled seriously, and in particular for the Department for Transport’s excellent but largely ignored hierarchy of solutions to be promoted to local authorities: ‘Many local authorities still persist in creating poor quality shared-use cycle facilities on pavements, creating unnecessary conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. There clearly is a role for off-road cycle paths, but it must be good quality and not just a cheap alternative to road provision.’ He asked for road danger reduction as a direct means of boosting the number of people cycling, which would in itself make the roads safer for cycling. ‘Road safety policies have for too long focused on making cycling look dangerous – for example, by excessive advocacy of cycle helmets – when we should be addressing the source of the danger’ – in other words, tackling bad driving.
Cambridge News response
Huppert stressed that ‘driving with a reckless disregard for the safety of fellow road users should be treated very seriously’, and that ‘SMIDSY’ (Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you’) is a wholly inadequate excuse that the police and courts are far too ready to accept. In between, he briefly mentioned the concept of proportionate liability (PL), as discussed in our Newsletters 87 and 94 and widespread among those continental countries with high levels of cycling – and this was all that was picked up on by the Cambridge News, which went straight into tabloid ‘war on the motorist’ mode (headline: ‘MP calls for tougher penalties for drivers who injure cyclists’ – www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Home/MPs-safer-cycling-call-angers-drivers.htm, 24 Jan 2011), with the help of a rent-a-quote spinmeister from the RAC Foundation, which ‘campaigns to secure a fair deal for responsible road users’ – apparently meaning car drivers rather than cyclists. The RAC Foundation was founded in 1991 as the research arm of the Royal Automobile Club. The spokesman called the MP’s comments ‘divisive’, saying he risked driving a wedge between cyclists and motorists – a ridiculous hypocrisy that the Cambridge News printed without comment.
Fortunately the News did also use a quote from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s spokesman: ‘On the continent, it [PL] has helped foster a culture of respect among road users. Experience has shown it improves the awareness of those who have responsibility for the most vulnerable of road users.’
Alas, the government seems to be running scared – Norman Baker vaguely said he was in favour of proportionate liability, but expects just too much ‘war on the motorist’ opposition from the tabloids, even though it would save most of their readers £25 a year. Don’t expect logic in government.
It was amusing but also alarming to read the online comments on the Cambridge News article (though why they bother to have comments I don’t know, as they vanish from their website so soon) – the inevitable rants about cyclists with no lights, no test, no insurance etc., but then also various more informed comments about how proportionate liability brings down the cost of insurance for the average car (while increasing it for trucks). The repetitive drone about ‘bikes without lights’ was countered by one comment that ‘DfT research shows for accidents involving cyclists, 2% are attributed to the cyclist having no lights, while 60-75% are solely the driver’s fault’, by comments that the legal system would continue to find cyclists responsible if their lack of lights was to blame for an accident – and by the obvious fact that there isn’t a nightly bloodbath on the streets of Cambridge. Someone called Martin mentioned that PL would also encourage cyclists to respect pedestrians more, and other names familiar to campaign members also made sensible points, with little hope of getting through to the petrolheads.
(The same issues have resurfaced with the opening of the new cycles lanes on Gilbert Road – the Cambridge News‘s article ‘Freewheeling joy in new cycle lane’ (www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Home/Freewheeling-joy-in-new-cycle-lane.htm) took a positive line, but the reader comments were largely of the ‘red-light-jumping cyclists being pampered with facilities they don’t pay for’ variety.)
Online route planning
Huppert continued by asking for ‘a cycling and pedestrian awareness element in the driving test, … that goes beyond the occasional video clip during the theory test’, which was taken up by the Cambridge News‘s online poll – an equally mysterious and pointless feature of their website.
He also asked the DfT not to re-invent the wheel in commissioning a new online cycling route planner when a fine example (CycleStreets) has already been developed by members of this Campaign – the minister replied: ‘there is room for Government action to complement the websites provided by the private sector, particularly given our focus on providing novice cyclists with the information that they need to encourage them to go out cycling, so that they are confident they can identify easier and safer routes’, which could be interpreted as ‘we’re going to go ahead and spend millions we don’t have on doing it our way’.
All in all, it’s splendid to see our MP promoting one of Cambridge’s specialities so tirelessly, but I do worry that he will be tarred with an ‘anti-car’ brush in the minds of many voters. Sadly, the Cambridge News seems to see drivers as a key constituency – nothing to do with its need for car sale ads, of course.