Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Former Conservative Transport Secretary: "Cycling should be encouraged as a ..way of getting around". Yet on September 5th alone, four people were killed cycling in the UK. That's simply not good enough. It's time for the current Secretary of State to act.

"The long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure
has forced many cyclists onto busy roads,
where they are bound to come into conflict
with drivers of cars"
Earlier this week Malcolm Rifkind MP wrote an article about people using bicycles to get from A to B in London. The article was the front cover piece in the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle.

Frustratingly, the Chronicle chose a deliberately provocative headline: "Let's encourage cyclists who obey laws of the road" it screamed. To my mind, that headline deliberately attempts to equate cyclists with lawbreakers.

The irresponsible tone of the headline was rightfully parodied by the cycling website bikebiz with its own spoof article: "We won't build more roads until motorists start behaving, says Gov't".

The thing is, however, that the actual article itself has a lot to commend it. If you read it carefully, you can see that here we have a senior Conservative MP who is the former Secretary of State for Transport standing up and saying this:

"Cycling should be encouraged as a healthier, cheaper way of getting around that can serve our city’s wellbeing and provide relief to our public transport infrastructure."

He even goes one step further and refers to the lack of infrastructure to support bicycle transport when he says that "the long-term paucity of proper cycling infrastructure has forced many cyclists onto busy roads, where they are bound to come into conflict with drivers of cars". Hard to disagree with, I think.

There are certainly elements of the article that I disagree with and I think the headline is grossly misleading. But the thrust of his argument is fairly balanced: Better behaviour by all road users would be good; cycling is a positive force for change in our cities; to encourage bicycle transport, we need proper infrastructure.

London bike infrastructure. The lorry is turning
left. You're supposed to duck down the lefthand
side of the lorry and cycle straight ahead.
Not simply conflict, it's actually insane. 
And the reason we need that infrastructure is pretty simple: The Times points out today that on September 5th alone, four people were killed cycling in the UK. The newspaper believes the number of people likely to be killed this year will be more than last year. Tellingly, it notes that "Britain has the fifth worst record for reducing cycling fatalities" in the EU. 

Rifkind points out that there is "bound to be conflict" between cyclists and drivers of cars on London's streets. The thing is, there doesn't have to be conflict. As he says, proper infrastructure could help to reduce the level of conflict on our streets.

Another blogger agrees. Talking on the Cyclist No.1 website, Fi Wilson visits Amsterdam and concludes: "There are no battles between car drivers and bikes". Why? Because Dutch politicians have encouraged a 'cycling culture'. Talking about London in particular, she continues: "Things have improved, says the , but the argument so often cited for the lack of a network here is that Britain just ‘isn’t a cycling country’. It is difficult to believe that Holland was once like Britain, but it’s true. They decided to create a cycling culture and now it has towns with over 60% cycling rates...But it takes political bravery. Car drivers are voters, and to side with cyclists is seen as creating an embattled state."

And that's really the crux of it - cycling is political. And people need to show their local politicians that cycling matters to them.

In a funny way, I think Boris Johnson was actually quite brave in backing the growth in cycling. The problem is that he hasn't (to date) been brave enough and the reality is that cycling in London is growing faster than the blue paint on his cycle super highways can dry. The result is that we've ended up with the horrific compromises of Cycle Super Highways that are simply not good enough for safe, everyday cycling. And we have horrific new junctions being built in the name of safer cycling that are anything but safer for cycling.

Typical scene on Cycle Super Highway 8 at rush hour.
The bike lane is normally filled with coaches and taxis as well.
Woefully third-rate infrastructure.
Yet, when politicians like Malcolm Rifkind start talking about infrastructure for bicycle transport, you get the sense that slowly, slowly things are beginning to change.

But what scares me is that at the moment all these good soundbites are simply that and nothing more. Let's take a look at the House of Commons Transport Select Committee - a cross-party group that scrutinises the Department for Transport. Earlier this year, the House of Commons was deserted as 77 MPs joined a debate about cycling safety in the Palace of Westminster next door. And several months later, the Transport Select Committee published a very punchy report calling on the Government to take a much stronger lead on road safety and, in particular, safe cycling.

In that context, it was extremely disappointing to read the minutes of the Transport Select Committee last week when it met the new Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick Mcloughlin. The questions ranged from aviation, to rail transport to road building. But at no point did anyone on the Select Committee ask a question about bicycles as transport.

Which is odd really. Because whether the motoring lobby likes it or not, transport by bicycle is not going away. In today's Financial Times, the chief executive of Tesco said this: "as fuel prices have increased, shoppers are less inclined to travel to out-of-town stores". Rifkind makes a similar point in his article too. Getting about by bicycle is simple and above all it's cheap. The demand is there to make bicycle transport a normal part of our towns and cities. We all need to keep pressure on our politicians to make sure they push for governments (Westminster is only responsible for England's transport these days, Edinburgh and Cardiff have their own challenges) to supply the rules, the funding and the connectivity to make it easier for people to start pedalling.

In England, at least, what really needs to happen is that the current Transport Secretary needs to get behind cycling with real money, real legislation, real regulations and real infrastructure. So far, there's absolutely nothing to suggest that's on the agenda.