Friday, 30 August 2013

Cycling in the UK: 90% of people get nothing. Small urban areas get some clunky, indecisive funding. Not good enough, HM Government

Rush-hour in the City of London earlier this week. All 'elitists' because they're not driving, apparently. 
I'm beginning to feel sorry for Norman Baker MP. Baker is Parliamentary Under Secretary for Transport and the man who stands up to announce the government's plans for cycling. He isn't getting a very good press. Earlier this week, Baker headlined the Department for Transport's long-delayed response to the Get Britain Cycling inquiry. It's a fairly hapless document that announces things we already know about - a bit of funding for a couple of years for a handful of UK cities and national parks and some limited further commitments. Nothing much.

And that's kind of the problem. Baker has done some good things. He has focussed money on a number of cities and regions where it might have a chance of doing some good. And he has started to create an environment within the Department for Transport that is finally responding to really basic changes that need to happen (such as enabling "No Entry except cyclists" signs).

That said (and I am not completely certain but I get a strong feeling), Baker didn't have anything to do with securing the significant funding for cycling in London that Boris Johnson prised from the Chancellor earlier this year.

And that's the problem. My sense is that Baker is doing what he can for cycling within the narrow confines available to him. But his ability to manoeuvre is tiny. Tiny amounts of money. Tiny (but significant in their own way) amendments to road regulations to enable things like cyclist-friendlier road signs.

As a rule, I get the feeling he's doing his best within a government that simply doesn't think bicycles are important other than in areas like inner London where it is faced with a significant and vocal number of people who want to incorporate the bicycle into our city and where the Mayor (to give him credit) was prepared to demand proper funding. At a national level, however, there is absolutely no-one making big demands for big money for cycling or for big changes in regulations to support real change. Instead, as Peter Walker argues very powerfully in The Guardian we have the likes of other big brand politicians like Eric Pickles who seems to bully his way into the media and wants to encourage "roads full of cars speeding to copious and cheap parking spaces".

Ultimately, though, I think Pickles and his obsession with filling our towns with cars is an irrelevant distraction. He's just playing a populist card and it's very boring and predictable stuff.

There are very many people who want to see towns where kids can play outside; where high streets are full of people not cars; and where it's easier to bike two miles to drop your kids at school than to drive. Those of us who see this sort of future need to focus on the attributes that will make that achievable.

Waiting to cross the road outside Battersea Park. People have priority when they're in cars; never give way to children.
Eric Pickles seems to think that's the right way to be. Not pleasant

Maria Eagle, the (very impressive when I met her) shadow secretary for transport seems to understand what's needed. Writing in the New Statesman, she notes: "When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has a huge potential to cut congestion and boost the economy; and is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget". She also points out, correctly, that we have road and rail budgets established to 2020/21 but cycling budgets are only defined for the next two years.

The truth is that bicycle transport is only just starting to be taken seriously in this country in those handful of places where a large number of people already cycle and where there is political backing to boost it. In reality, I reckon that encompasses less than 10% of the population at most.

So, we are stuck with having to support Norman Baker and his tiny cycling budgets because, for the time being, that's all we're going to get. But we know that it is inevitable bicycle transport will grow in other towns and cities over time and that Eric Pickles is a man on the wrong side of history. And we owe it to ourselves to keep pushing the government and encouraging other people to realise that life in the UK doesn't have to revolve around crap town centres filled with free car parking and empty shops; that parents don't have to be permanent taxi drivers to their children; that older Britons don't have to get about only in cars; that we can have a much better quality of life for all of us if we start changing the transport mix available to us.  Our job is to encourage more and more people to start seeing the alternatives and encourage them to demand the same.

I'll be at the London Cycling Campaign #Space4Cycling ride on Monday in order to make these points. There will be feeder rides coming in from all over London. You have no excuse not to join us. 6pm Monday by the London Eye. Or join one of the many feeder rides coming in from around London. 

Feeder rides to the #Space4Cycling ride on Monday. More details at London Cycling Campaign.