Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett:
It is in no spirit of levity that I call attention to the plight of cycling in the United Kingdom. It is not a light matter that a famous British industry should find itself in dire straits. It is not a light matter that over 3,000 people should be out of work in Birmingham, and that the great factories at Nottingham should be reduced to a four-day week. It is not a light matter that the country should be faced with the loss of a traditional export market while the whole of this industry works at less than 50 per cent. of its capacity.
Yet I did not seek for this debate primarily from the industrial point of view, important though that is. I have neither a personal nor a constituency interest in the cycle industry—there are other hon. Members who are much better qualified to argue that angle. Indeed, it was as a result of listening to their pleas for relief for this industry from Purchase Tax that the idea occurred to me that it might be useful to consider for a few minutes the wider aspect of cycling in this country.
I do not question, of course, that some fiscal assistance might not be helpful. On the other hand, I doubt whether the total abolition of Purchase Tax would prove a radical remedy for the industry's difficulty. Surely, the basic trouble is the declining number of people who regularly cycle. Let me start therefore, by saying a word about the extent of this decline.
Unfortunately, there are no accurate figures, but it is estimated by the trade that there are about 9 million cycles in use today, and it is known that rather over 3 million of these are used by children under 15. It is further estimated that these figures represent a decline of about 3 million in the number of adult cyclists compared with 20 years ago. Against this, the figures for child cyclists are tending to rise, and clubs like the Cyclists Touring Club are doing their utmost to encourage youngsters to join, and to co-operate with the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme. In that connection, I am pleased to note that Croydon, apparently, leads the country, no fewer than 5,733 children having gained the certificate up to last week.
As I have said, the number of adult cyclists appears to have declined by at least 3 million since pre-war days. Most, although by no means all, of this decline has been brought about by fewer people cycling to and from their work. There has also been a heavy—but, again, unknown—decline in the number of people who go for so-called "club runs" at weekends. Anyone who uses the roads today, and can remember the 'thirties will have noticed the change. Curiously enough, the membership of the older clubs—which keep accurate records—has not declined very much since 1938. I understand that they have about 100,000 members today, although it is true that they went through a phase, rising to about a quarter of a million members in the early post-war years.
In the 'thirties there were innumerable office cycle clubs, and cycle sections of boys' clubs which, taken together, made cycling perhaps the greatest recreational and social movement of that time. Today, all that is very much reduced.
I turn now to the causes of the decline. Here also we enter into the realm of speculation. The most popular explanation is that people who used to cycle to work can now afford to use motor transport. Indeed, compared with 1938 there are almost exactly one million more motor cycles of all kinds on the roads. That would indicate that perhaps upward of two million people mostly use public transport. Perhaps some of them have private cars and go to work that way. This fact would go a long way to explain the embarrassing rise in the peak loads from which so many public transport undertakings are suffering.
Again, there is the mistaken fear that cycling is unduly dangerous. In point of fact—anyhow, in point of statistical fact—one's chances of being involved in an accident are four times as great in a motor car and ten times as great on a motor cycle as they are on a pedal cycle. Yet although one can still survive on a pedal bicycle, I must admit that the pleasure of cycling, at any rate on the main roads and in towns, grows less with every year that passes.
Constant vigilance and sustained concentration are now necessary. One is continually near-missed by a veritable whirlwind of desperately driven cars—or, at least, that is the way it seems to the cyclist. Indeed, some drivers openly resent the presence of cyclists on the main roads and expect them to get out of their way. If the worst happens and they do not get out of their way, motorists rely very often on the fact that there will probably be a majority of fellow-motorists on the jury.
When we consider the consequences of the decline in cycling, we come to firmer ground. It spells greater demands on public transport, higher living costs and no regular fresh air and exercise for a growing proportion of the population. The decline in club cycling means that there is so much less healthy social life and less healthy exercise for the rising generation, and0 so much more hanging about with consequent temptation to get into mischief.
To my mind, the most serious consequence of the decline in cycling is that it was once the principal means whereby the population kept fit. So far as I can see, no increase in playing fields could possibly take its place. I hope, therefore, that the Wolfenden Committee on Sport will take note of the magnitude of the contribution which a revival of cycling could make towards national fitness. I hope that educational authorities will make sure that the importance of regular exercise—anyhow, regular exercise to the average person—is carefully explained. I know that there are many hon. Members who take no exercise, and glory in the fact and seem to remain quite well but then, I think you will agree, Mr. Speaker, hon. Members as a body are perhaps not representative of the average man. I repeat, therefore, that it is necessary to the average person's health and happiness to be reasonably fit.
With the approaching end of National Service and with the ever-rising proportion of the population who are employed on sedentary or static work, this ability to keep fit and take healthy exercise will depend more and more upon sport. Potentially, cycling can be the cheapest sport for the greatest number, and that is why I view its decline with so much concern. The House may be interested to know that the American authorities have already reached this conclusion. With the support, I understand, of the President himself, the President's Council on Youth Fitness has been sponsoring a considerable propaganda campaign in support of cycling, for the last year.
What then can we do here? No doubt, it would pay the Ministry of Health to sponsor a similar campaign in this country. No doubt, a certain amount of selective help to those hostels which cater especially for young touring cyclists and a certain amount of help to bodies which organise continental cycling tours would be useful. However, I see that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation is to reply to this debate, so I should, perhaps, close with one or two suggestions about what his Ministry might be able to do to help.
At the risk of making myself unpopular, I wish to advocate the far more extensive construction of cycle tracks. Segregation of different types of road user is, surely, the means to both safety and comfort. I know that the cycling clubs have consistently boycotted the tracks, and, for that matter, so has the long-distance, fast cyclist. To be fair to these people, however, the surface of the existing tracks is not really safe for a light-weight bicycle ridden fast. Nevertheless, I understand it to be the opinion of the police, contrary to popular opinion, that the great majority of cyclists always use tracks when they can.
A great deal of special pleading has been deployed against the tracks. For example, most ingenious statistics have been cooked up to show that it is as dangerous to cycle along a track as it is to cycle on the carriageway. It all depends, of course, on the kind of accident one has in mind. However, the true case for cycle tracks rests, I should say, far more on comfort than on safety. I myself always use a cycle track when there is one. The use of a cycle track enables the rider to relax and look at the scenery; indeed, one can even compose one's next oration while riding along.
Provided that the tracks were reasonably wide and well maintained, I do not myself believe that there would be nearly as much opposition to making them compulsory on the trunk roads as is sometimes supposed. In passing, Mr. Speaker, I will point out that that would not require legislation. The existing powers are sufficient for that to be done. Of course, in built-up, urban areas segregation is not possible.
This leads me to my second and even less popular suggestion, I suggest that, in the interests not only of cyclists but, incidentally, of pedestrians as well, the time has really come when serious consideration should be given to enforcing the 30 miles-an-hour speed limit, at least during those times of the day when large numbers of people are going to work or returning home after work. I recognise that a great number of drivers already observe the limits, but the existence of even a few cars which overtake at 50 miles an hour in a crowded street imposes a very great strain on the cyclist.
It would be easy to go on suggesting ways and means of encouraging cycling, but time will not permit. I wish to leave my hon. Friend with the thought that a revival of cycling in this country is, indeed, in the national interest, and I appeal to his Ministry to make a conscious effort to foster it.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) on his good fortune in securing the Adjournment this afternoon and raising this interesting topic. He unconsciously paid a tribute to the excellence of cycle tracks whereon, he tells us, he usually composes his speeches. After listening to his very good speech this afternoon, I can only suppose that they are rather better than he suggested. However, be that as it may, I agree with him that we do not in this country have a very liberal provision of cycle tracks.
As my hon. and gallant Friend rightly said, the general attitude of the cycling clubs has been to dislike cycle tracks and to feel that they contain, in themselves, a threat to the cyclist's right to use the road itself. They have, therefore, never been particularly keen on cycle tracks. It is interesting to note that, years ago, the cycling clubs were amongst the pioneers demanding special motor roads from which cyclists were to he excluded altogether. That, of course, has now become a reality. The new motor road is to be opened today week, when we shall have a motor way upon which no cyclists are allowed.
But I think that it is symptomatic of the general outlook of cyclists that they are not particularly keen on cycle tracks, and even if we had a really good system of cycle tracks I doubt whether my hon. and gallant Friend is right that they would be that popular. It may be that there is something in the national character that does not particularly like being segregated at the side of the road. It is inherent that if there is a regular and comprehensive system of cycle tracks inevitably there would be compulsion to use them, as there is indeed in many Continental countries. It may be that that is a reason why they have never been very popular and one of the reasons, at any rate, why they have not been built more.
Cycle tracks are expensive to build. My hon. and gallant Friend is right in saying that we have power to build them, but a good deal extra width is required to do so. It is extremely important that, if they are to be built at all, they should be built in urban areas, where it is difficult to find the extra width. The extra expense would be heavy and the general trend has been against them rather than in favour of them.
I learnt with interest of the developments which have been made in the new towns of Basildon and, in particular, Harlow, where a special cycling track system has been laid out for the cyclists so that they can cycle round the main shopping centres without encountering traffic. I am told that they are not unpopular, despite the comments that I have made. I am bound to say that I do not see any great prospect of increasing cycling tracks considerably, because to do it on a really large scale, which would be necessary to make a real impact, would be a very expensive undertaking and it would seriously reduce the amount of new road work which we could carry out.
My hon. and gallant Friend suggested that we might consider the strict enforcement of the 30-mile an hour limit. I agree with him that often observance is not as good as it ought to be, and we have introduced this year the device of the 40-mile an hour limit in the hope that in urban and semi-urban areas we shall achieve better observance by regulating the speed limit more nearly to the speed of the average vehicle and thereby achieve greater co-operation from the motorists. In this country the practice is to make enforcement not on a 100 per cent. system but rather on a token basis on the assumption that the average driver would observe the law.
It is true that the 30-mile an hour limit is not always observed as well as it should be. It should be observed because it is one of the best safety measures in our whole road code. I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend that, where it is not well observed, it is an additional danger to cyclists. The fact is that on our roads today the weight and speed of traffic does cause discomfort to cyclists, especially if riding alone, and it is undoubtedly one of the features which is having a deterrent effect on the amount of cycling that now goes on.
I can confirm my hon. and gallant Friend's figures about the reduction in the cycle population. We accept that pre-war there were about 12 million cyclists. Today, the total is about 9 million, and I observe that the membership of the Cyclists Touring Club has fallen by some 40 per cent. in the last eight years, which is a serious reduction.
However, the child cyclist picture to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred is reversed. We think that there are probably about double the child cyclists today compared with pre-war. There are about 3 million today. We have, as has been said, introduced the national child cyclist training scheme in the past few months in order to improve the degree of skill of children and to make sure that when they go cycling on the road they are reasonably safe. I congratulate Croydon on being pre-eminent in passing these tests. No doubt the children of Croydon have been observing my hon. and gallant Friend and seen the right way to ride a bicycle.
My own feeling about the general picture of cycling is that it reflects the rising standard of living in the country. Many people who used to ride bicycles to work now go by car, motor bike or moped Some probably go by public transport, but very large numbers who used to cycle now go by car. For example, they make up a car load of four fellows. It happens all over the country, and it is bound to happen more. That is a good thing, and I am sure we would all be delighted to welcome it.
One has only to look at the huge increase in vehicle registration. In the past five years there has been about a 100 per cent. increase in registrations, and I should think that in the next ten years the number is probably likely to double again. So the necessity for the push bike as a means of getting about is fast disappearing.
On the other hand, the children who have cycles today come from families which ten or twenty years ago almost certainly could not have afforded them. Once again, more purchasing power has made it possible for the youngsters to have bikes. That, again, is a good thing, because it gives them an early chance to learn how to go about on the roads, what the rules of the road are and how to conduct themselves in safety.
My hon. Friend says it is a good thing that people should use cars to go backwards and forwards to work. Would he say that was true if the distance was, say, three miles? Would he say that it was better for a person to use his car to take him backwards and forwards to work over that distance rather than walk or use a cycle unless he is doing hard manual work?
My hon. and gallant Friend puts in a qualification—unless such persons are doing hard manual work. Three miles is a good walk. I am among the few remaining people who like to walk to work, but I have only about a mile and a half to go. It is a good thing to walk a certain distance to work, but it takes time. On the other hand, if one proposes to cycle there is the problem of the weather if it is wet, and it is not awfully convenient—there is no getting away from it—to cycle three or four miles to work. On the whole, though, it is a good thing. I agree entirely with my hon. and gallant Friend that it is a bad thing if people do not have any physical exercise and do not have the pleasure and good health that comes from it. I think we are tending as a nation to fall into the practice of watching other people perform in the realms of sport rather than performing ourselves, and that is a great loss to us individually. It may be that the popular craze of the hula hoop is symptomatic of our condition. When I was a youngster we used to bowl hoops along and run after them. Today one stands still and twiddles the hoop round oneself. Maybe that is symptomatic of this situation and a bad thing.
On the other hand, one must accept—I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend will—that, although people are less inclined to work and play games for recreation, the growing habit of using the motor car to take the family out into the countryside will probably have great benefit in itself eventually. It is true that the family sets out not with the intention of walking and taking exercise, but having driven into the country, they stop the car somewhere and get out and in the course of time they begin to walk about because they enjoy being there, and they walk around and look at the fields, the cows and the views, and gradually learn the delights of the countryside.
I am not among the Members of Parliament to whom my hon. and gallant Friend referred who think it a mistake to take physical exercise and who say that they are better for not doing so. I think that it is one of the pleasures of life to move one's body and to feel the wind on one's face and the sun on one's back. I am sure that that is the common experience. I am delighted to see people going into the countryside at weekends and, although to start with they do not walk and lose the great benefit which they used to get from cycling, they gradually come to enjoy the benefits which all countrymen enjoy from walking in the countryside, both in the pleasure of the exercise and the pleasure of seeing what is going on.
My hon. and gallant Friend can take some comfort from the fact that we are all the same in the end. We all have the same instincts and the same blood running in our veins and when we go into the countryside, we probably react in the same way, so that the benefits of physical recreation are not completely lost.
Although people may tend to play games less, nowadays, this is certainly the age of "do-it-yourself". As soon as a man gets married, any idea that he will be able to sit down and put his feet up must surely disappear. Not only will he be called upon to "do-it-himself" in assisting his wife with the washing up at the sink, but he will have to paint the walls, dig the garden, and undertake plumbing and electrician's work and a whole range of other things. He will find a great deal of hard physical exercise in that, and the contortions he will have to go through to do a bit of amateur plumbing will be "quite something "for him—much more exercise than he ever took on a bicycle.
We do not need to despair that our physical fitness and physical strength are deteriorating in all aspects of our national life, although I am with my hon. and gallant Friend in regretting the diminution of any aspect of it. I call his attention to certain other aspects which are reassuring that there is vigour and enterprise still, and that when called upon the Englishman can still show himself a vigorous and capable human being.
I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will take some comfort from that and certainly from the fact that as a Ministry we are doing a great deal in encouraging the training of youngsters to see that they have a safe ride on the road.