Wednesday, 15 February 2012

I want my MP to take next week's cycling debate seriously - not just helmets, hi-viz and training. That's why I'll be at the Flashride the night before. Join our Flashride at Westminster, Wednesday 22nd February.

Call the Midwife. My gran remembers cycling all over.
She'd never contemplate it now: 'too many cars..!'
Once upon a time, a UK politician who divides opinion told people looking for work 'to get on their bike'.  So I did. When I was 17, I went and worked in Germany to earn enough money to pay for my first year at university. I bought a second hand bike and cycled to work. In a car factory, of all places.

I couldn't afford to live in the town so I rented a room 10km away. I didn't have a helmet or any hi-viz. But I did have some lights and I cycled in my work clothes. The entire route went along either a bike track or through streets in the town that were only for bikes and for the people that lived there to drive in and out.

Looking back, it sounds rather quaint but what I didn't really appreciate at the time was that this was something normal in Germany. The municipality was designed to include me on a bike in a way that you rarely see in the UK.

I very much doubt I'd have done an equivalent journey by bike in the UK back then. I would probably have caught the bus or looked for a lift to work. The reason? An equivalent journey in the UK would have meant cycling down the dual carriageway with cars at 70mph+ and lorries thundering past me, rather than cycling on a bike track well away from it. The infrastructure just isn't there to make me want to do everyday cycling and feel I'm doing something safe and normal in my everyday clothes.

I don't really have a problem with cars. I think people rely on them too much, I think they pollute too much and I think over-dependence on them is killing off our town centres (Mary Portas, bizarrely, can't appreciate that point). But like many people, I see them as something of a necessary evil. I don't cycle because it's sustainable or because it's green or because it's 'active travel'. I just use a bike to get around. End of story.

Back then (we're talking mid 1990s) there were just shy of 20 million cars in the UK. Now there are just shy of 30 million. That's a pretty fundamental shift in the way our roads look and feel. During that period, almost nothing has happened to make it easier or safer to cycle on those roads, despite the fact there are massively more people using them now in faster and bigger cars.

My feeling is that people who aren't in cars have been squeezed off the roads by the massive shift towards a car-centric transport network.

During that period, many politicians will argue, our roads have become safer. So what's the big deal? Well, here's a comment by Peter Hitchens, writing in the Mail on Sunday of all places:

"I think our roads are statistically safer largely because soft targets, particularly child cyclists, have almost entirely retreated from them. But the roads are not really safer. It’s just that people have learned to avoid them unless they themselves go out in armour, and have narrowed their lives as a  result."

I couldn't agree more.

Next week, for the first time in over 16 years, cycling gets a look-in at national level. As Carlton Reid points out: "In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken."

Hats off to The Times's 'Cities fit for cycling campaign' for raising the issue at a national level (although I note Scotland's government has already radically altered its funding plans in favour of cycling) and to Julian Huppert MP (LibDem) for tabling next Thursday's early day motion in Westminster. Hats-off also to the several MPs (Simon Hughes LibDem and Zac Goldsmith Conservative stand out in London so far) for getting behind the campaign. Labour's Sadiq Khan (Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice) told me today on twitter that his party supports 'proper cycle ways, junction design and traffic phasing'. We'll see what happens.

Carlton Reid continues: "Big bucks needs to be thrown around to protect vulnerable road users. Some tough decisions need to be made on how we want our cities to look in 20 years time. And the race tracks that are our rural roads need to be changed, too. Naturally, it will be far easier for MPs to lobby for things like helmet compulsion for cyclists rather than place draconian restrictions on the “freedoms” enjoyed - and exploited - by Mondeo-man."

David Cameron's response to the cycling debate. 
Sadly lacking. 
I've been dismayed by the responses to the cycling debate that many Conservative MPs have sent to their constituents. Many have used the exact same text as this letter sent by David Cameron which you can see here.

As Carlton Reid points out, the emphasis risks being 'cyclists should wear helmets, cyclists should wear hi-viz, cyclists should have more training'. End of debate.

I think that's only the start of the debate and I'm disappointed to see how many Conservative MPs have sent a cut and paste version of Cameron's letter. It suggests they don't really understand why thousands of people are writing to them about cycling.

That's why I will be attending the Flashride on Wednesday 22nd February, the eve of the biggest debate on cycling this country has seen in 16 years. I want to remind those MPs, including my own Labour MP (whose response you can see here) that I want them to understand the issue and not resort to helmets, hi-viz and training as the be all and end all of the problem.

Join us. Wednesday 22nd February. Meet at the Duke of York steps, The Mall, 6.15pm. 

More details on ibikelondon blog here and on the London Cycling Campaign page here.

It's not too late to write to your MP and tell them why you think they should attend the debate by clicking here and sending an email directly to them.