Friday, 24 February 2012

As The Guardian comes out in support of The Times, the issue of cycling has now trascended party-politics: My summary of the Westminster Hall debate on cycling. We're all in it together and now the real work begins.

Symbolic: Yesterday, the last car showroom in the City of London closed its doors.
It is being turned into a bicycle shop.
Yesterday, 76 MPs including three ministers, debated cycling in the UK. Wesminster Hall was so rammed that Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) could only find a seat on the opposition side of the Hall. Over at ibikelondon blog, there is a picture that tells it all - 75 MPs in the cycling debate, virtually none in the Commons debate at the same time.

It was fascinating to listen to. I had worried earlier in the week that the debate might tend towards a focus on helmets, red light jumping and hi-viz jackets. Although the debate did touch on these things, it did so fairly and in proportion to the wider context. I was impressed by the informed quality of the debate but most of all by the heart-felt passion of the debate. My first observation was 'blimey, who knew so many MPs use bicycles?'. Almost all of them had a personal story to tell. Heidi Alexander (Lab, Lewisham East) talked of how she had twice been knocked off her bicycle and referred to the roundabouts in Lewisham and Elephant & Castle. Echoing the Prime minister, she commented that you 'take your life into your hands' here and that 'we must sort out these junctions'. She's completely right. She was not, by any means, the only MP to have been knocked off her bicycle or to have been intimidated and abused just because she was on a bicycle.

Ian Austin MP (Lab, Dudley) almost brought tears to my eyes at one point. He talked at length about poor sentencing, how drivers that kill on our roads are - for the most part - let off with minor cautions for ruining lives. It was a theme that echoed throughout the debate. His key point was that if people want to ride a bicycle 'they should be able to do so safely'. Spot on.

Again and again, MPs from across the country talked about how children want to cycle to school but can't because their parents don't want them mixing with heavy and fast traffic. Ben Bradshaw (Lab) pointed out that 20% of secondary school children in Exeter now cycle to school, following investment in safe cycle routes, 10% of primary school children. Sarah Wollaston (Conservative, Totnes) and a Conservative Somerset MP both echoed this point. Many MPs pointed out that much of this success was down to work undertaken by Cycling England - an agency that tied together government initiatives for better, safer, normal cycling in England that was scrapped by the coaliton government. There seemed to be general consensus in the room that the government, instead of scrapping Cycling England, should be beefing it up.

A surprise was Jane Ellison, Conservative MP for Wandsworth (a borough that is uniquely awful for cycling, in my view). She talked about the fact that our cities need continental street designs, about including cycling in junctions and at roundabouts. Infrastructure came up again and again during the debate - cycle routes cut in half by six-lane A-roads, bike lanes with cars parked in them, stop-start bicycle infrastructure that was a result of stop-start bicycling investment. I was almost floored by Oliver Colvile MP (Con) representing Plymouth - a somewhat portly chap, if you follow my meaning - who talked about being a lapsed bicycle user, someone who would cycle but only if there were properly delineated space for cycling on our roads away from big lorries. Here was someone who hasn't used a bicycle in decades but understood clearly why people don't cycle and knew instinctively what needs doing. I don't know the man but I felt his jocular commentary was important for really driving home how non party-political this issue is and how it really isn't about young, fit males sprinting to work in pelotons. It's about everyone and anyone.

Flashride to Parliament, the night before the debate.
Courtesy zefrog
All in all, though, three MPs blew me away (well, almost). Ian Austin, I've already mentioned. The other two were Julian Huppert (LibDem, Cambridge) and Maria Eagle (Labour, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport).

Eagle's main theme was this: "What struck me about that was how obvious were the changes we need to see. This isn’t one of those issues that needs a major ideological debate to be won – just some common sense. And a renewed commitment to cycling safety. None of these things needs to be impossible – or even difficult – to deliver. It’s as much about will as money." She's spot on that it's all about will. This is a theme that we've seen again and again in London where our Mayor has tended to take choices that encourage more and easier driving and instead of choosing safer, easier cycling or walking for Londoners.

I feel that the previous Labour government promised big things for cycling. You can look at the (utterly failed) National Cycling Strategy and see a promise to have 10% of all journeys made by bike in 2012. The money and the commitment never happened. But I think full credit to Eagle. She has got behind this issue, understood it and has dragged her party's heavyweights with her. She acknowledged one key point: "we will not repeat the mistakes of the past – and start taking into account the impact on cyclists of road design". Good.

Eagle talked, as did many others, about the need to fund cycling properly from the centre. Ian Austin talked about the fact that the UK spends £0.79 per person on cycling and that a real commitment would see that figure nearer to £10. Even that is less than half what is spent per head in countries like the Netherlands.

I think, though, the real star of the show was Julian Huppert (LibDem) MP for Cambridge who batted hard-hitting answers questions with speed and precision. His summary was that UK streets should be places that can be used by people from eight to 80. And he's right.

What struck me was the enormously consensual nature of the debate. This wasn't a debate of party-political proportions. It was a debate that showed people care about these issues in their communities. And it was striking how the Guardian newspaper picked up on that theme: 'Whatever newspaper you read (or don't read)', said the Guardian yesterday, 'sign up for the Times campaign. If you live in London support the London Cycling Campaign's Love London, Go Dutch initiative. And maybe, just maybe, the mentality that says "roads are for getting cars from A to B as quickly as possible and everyone else can fend for themselves" that pervades much of UK transport policy will start to change.'

I can't think of the last time that the Guardian came out in support of an initiative by a News International publication. What this says to me is that from this point on, we're all in this together. We're not cyclists any more, we are people that want to get about the places we live in. And we want to do that as responsible, normal citizens and do so by bike, safely.

I felt tremendously sorry for Norman Baker MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport), the man responsible for cycling. He had to sum up the government's response. He is a man who, I think, 'gets' these issues. But he is also the man whose boss scrapped Cycling England. The sentiment in Westminster Hall was fairly united. I sensed MPs on all sides of the House wanted more from the government. Norman Baker is going to need to stand up to his boss. And those of us who believe in these things are going to have to make a lot more noise to make that happen.

You can start by putting Saturday April 28th in your diary. We want this to be the date of the biggest ever bicycle ride in London and the biggest statement of support for cycling. It's about ordinary people saying they support cycling, converging on London but coming from all over the UK. Read here for more details.

You can read more about the debate on The Times's website here