Cycling has come a long way since 1997. I remember as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group back then campaigning for 4 years (ultimately successfully) to persuade the Royal Parks in London to allow a single narrow cycle path through Kensington Gardens. In my own constituency, Exeter, it was considered a novelty to have an MP whose main form of transport was a bike. When I suggested to my city elders they should bid for the Labour Government’s Cycling Demonstration Town programme they said: “You won’t get people cycling in Exeter. It’s too hilly.”
Anyone who has been on a bike in the last 10 years knows modern gearing means hills are no object. Exeter eventually applied for the scheme, was successful and between 2006 and 2011 we enjoyed a massive 50% increase in cycling. Particularly gratifying, has been the big rise in the number of children cycling to school, from virtually zero to 20%.
In London too, thanks to initiatives like Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge and the bike hire scheme he initiated and Boris Johnson took up, there has been a huge increase in cycling. It is wonderful to see the banks of cyclists at junctions at commuter time, including lots of women and parents with children.
I don’t need to explain the merits of cycling to SERA supporters. The health, environmental, congestion and productivity benefits are well documented. Nor do I need to remind you that the Exeter and London experiences are not repeated everywhere. In both these cities and in others like Cambridge and York, long term investment and commitment by (usually Labour) local authorities have boosted cycling rates to close to Danish, Dutch or German levels. (If you want to contrast our record with the Tories’ just look at London, where Labour boroughs have generally championed cycling while Tory ones like Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea have done their best to block progress – including their own Tory Mayor’s plan to extend the network of cycle superhighways). But in most of Britain cycling levels remain pitiful.
This is the context of the recent Inquiry by the All Party Group and our report Get Britain Cycling which was debated in the Commons on September 3 by anyone and everyone who has an interest in cycling. The recurring theme from witnesses was that in order to achieve the progress that other northern European countries have seen needs long term sustained investment and joined up political leadership from the Prime Minister down to local authorities. Our recommendations focussed on investment and leadership, plus road design and safety, training and education. While the Netherlands currently spends £24 per head annually on cycling, we spend just £2 in England. We recommended this be increased to £10 then £20 – still only a tiny fraction of the Government’s roads budget. On political leadership, I told the Transport Secretary that it was not enough for him to pay lip service to cycling one day while the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, was bad mouthing it the next. In the weeks just before the debate Pickles had floated his crazy idea for a parking free for all on double yellow lines regardless of the chaos that would cause the and danger to cyclists and pedestrians and claimed cycling was an issue that only interested the elite.
The coalition Government’s record on cycling is decidedly mixed. Reduced spending, abandonment of Labour’s road death reduction targets, a “war” against speed cameras and the abolition of Cycle England – the very successful body that brought all the disparate cycling groups together and helped drive policy and implementation when Labour was in Government. Lately, one suspects in response to the very effective cycling campaign run by The Times and our All Party report, there have been one or two encouraging announcements. A review of sentencing guidance for those that kill cyclists, a review of the police guidance which leaves 20MPH limits unenforced and a scheme very similar to Labour’s successful Cycling Demonstration Town scheme, but with less money.
The Government’s response to the very modest recommendations in the All Party report have been disappointing hitherto. So I was most heartened by the Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle’s contribution to the debate. Maria has impressed on cycling, as she has on many things. She held an excellent “cycling summit” last year and has quickly acquired a grasp of the subject and commitment. The 8 point plan she announced during the debate, if implemented, would really help drive through a cycling revolution. It includes a long term funding commitment for cycling with funds reallocated within the Transport budget, cycle proofing of all policies and projects, the restoration of road safety targets, a duty on local authorities to support cycling (which Labour’s already introduced in Wales), training for children, better cycle provision written into rail franchises and much tougher safety requirements on HGVs, which account for the majority of cycle deaths in urban areas. This is a great start for Labour and SERA supporters need to ensure such firm commitments survive the manifesto drafting process.
To that end, on the same day as the debate and big cycling demonstration SERA members launched Labour for Cycling and we’ll be holding the first rally of Labour Cyclists at lunchtime on the Monday of Labour Party conference. See you there.