Cycling in England

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:32 pm on 21 January 2011.

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Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 2:32, 21 January 2011

I am very grateful to have secured the debate and I thank the Minister of State for attending, particularly at the end of a week in which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Norman Baker, made an important and encouraging statement on local sustainable transport. Many hon. Members will be aware of my passion for cycling. I believe I was the only Member of Parliament to cycle away from their count. Occasionally this passion has gone too far. At the turn of the year, I successfully tested the surface of a road while descending rather too fast around a bend, and fractured my humerus in the process, which is a rather less amusing injury than the name-or your expression, Mr Deputy Speaker-suggests. The section on cycle safety later in my speech might come with some sense of a wry smile.

Hon. Members may know that my constituency has long been at the forefront of cycling. Some 26% of its adult population cycle to their work or education-a figure comparable with the highest performing cities elsewhere in Europe. When I go to visit schools, it is always heartening to see how many pupils cycle or walk to school, although more could be done. I represent people who, for reasons topographical, historical and cultural, do not merely talk the talk, but walk the walk-or, rather, ride the bike. However, this is a wider debate about cycling in England generally, and I shall make several points about the Government's general strategy and recent announcements. I will also ask some questions that I hope the Minister will answer later.

Why should we encourage cycling? There are a number of reasons: it is safe, healthy, cheap, convenient, fast, reliable, clean and green. Another reason, which I have noticed increasingly as a Member of Parliament, is that cycling around my constituency allows me to see the world around me and for people to see me. In a car, one is very much separated, whereas on a bike, one is very much part of the environment. There is much to welcome in the Government's approach to cycling and to sustainable transport generally. I have already mentioned my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's statement on Wednesday, which contained a great deal of good news. Perhaps the most important announcement in it, apart from the local sustainable transport fund, which I shall come to later, is the £11 million of funding to Bikeability next year and the commitment to support it for the duration of this Parliament. Many people in Cambridge and elsewhere shared my concern about the Government's decision to scrap Cycling England-a decision which I continue to find deeply regrettable, and which led to the title of this debate. We were particularly concerned that Bikeability, a vital training scheme and one that has worked wonders for cycling all around the country, was under serious threat. I am very pleased and relieved that the Government have committed themselves so fully to that scheme.

There are a number of other encouragements. I was especially pleased to hear about the possibility of greater powers for local authorities over traffic signs. Can the Minister confirm that that will allow, among other things, "no entry-except cycles" signs to be used? Contraflow cycling in appropriate one-way streets affords cyclists greater access to quieter streets, avoiding busier roads and making quicker journey times possible. We in Cambridge have asked for years for permission to use those signs, but it has been a struggle with Department for Transport officials until a recent trial was allowed. The current "low-flying motorbike" sign simply is not understood by many people.

There are also some specific issues that need resolving. Could the section of the Traffic Management Act 2004 that allows for enforcement of mandatory cycle lanes be brought into force? I believe it is the only bit that has not yet been implemented. Could the law be adjusted so that the presence of a vehicle in a cycle path or on a footway be taken as evidence that it was driven there, rather than appearing magically, as seems to be assumed at the moment?

One great thing about the headline story of the statement was the setting up of the £560 million local sustainable transport fund. The previous Government-Labour Members are noticeable by their absence-talked a very good game on green issues but destroyed their credibility with disastrous initiatives such as the third runway at Heathrow, which has now thankfully been jettisoned by the coalition. It is essential that a green thread runs through all Government policy if we are seriously to tackle climate change. We cannot rely on an occasional eye-catching idea here, an emotive piece of environmental rhetoric there, while business proceeds as usual. Local sustainable transport has a key role to play. If used correctly to support strong and well-designed bids, the fund will have a vital role to play in shaping our communities and reducing our reliance on expensive and unsustainable transport-but the Minister will realise that that is a big if. I have several questions to raise about how the Government intend to take the scheme forward.

The Department for Transport has produced a very useful guidance document, which I have in my hand, for those local authorities considering bids, and I would encourage local authorities to study it carefully. The assessment criteria for prospective bids are carefully set out in it. I am pleased that front and centre are the two policy objectives driving the Government's approach: creating growth and cutting carbon. But as we all know, those two objectives can and do get in each other's way at times. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify to what extent bids will be judged ultimately on cutting carbon, and to what extent on creating growth.

Perhaps the Minister might also find time to consider and address the other priorities flagged up in last year's Cabinet Office report on urban transport, which found, interestingly, that the economic damage in cities, as a result of detriment to public health through vehicle crashes, poor air quality and physical inactivity from reduced walking and cycling, was three times greater than the effect of congestion alone, although those factors are far too often overlooked in transport decisions.

I hope the Minister and the Government will be sympathetic to the need for radical bids to reduce carbon emissions significantly, but I also believe the Department can and should do more to encourage such bids in the first place. The Department for Transport, along with the late Cycling England, produced a so-called hierarchy of solutions, which does an excellent job in establishing a cycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure -at least, it would do an excellent job if it was not virtually unknown among local authorities and widely flouted in practice. The Department should promote awareness of that policy among local authorities, as it is when they ignore it that we tend to see the type of cycle facilities that are often worse than useless. To take an obvious example, many local authorities still persist in creating poor quality shared-use cycle facilities on pavements, creating unnecessary conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. That is contrary to the guidance from the Department, which rightly focuses on reducing traffic volumes and speeds, redesigning junctions and reallocating road space. There clearly is a role for off-road cycle paths, but it must be good quality and not just a cheap alternative to road provision.

I welcome the Government's guidance, although I wonder whether the Minister can give assurances that it will be put more strongly to local authorities bidding for this important fund. In particular, I take this opportunity to bang the drum for 20 mph speed limits in residential and shopping streets. They make a large difference to safety for children, cyclists and pedestrians but only a small difference to car travel times.

This is part of a wider point: a commitment to reducing road danger is needed. Nearly three quarters of people agree that the idea of cycling on busy roads is frightening, partly because road safety policies have for too long focused on making cycling look dangerous-for example, by excessive advocacy of cycle helmets-when we should be addressing the source of the danger. Slowing traffic is one way to do that; reducing traffic volume is another; and more cyclists lead to safer cycling.

Perhaps the Minister will also consider prosecution, sentencing, liability and awareness issues. In far too many accidents, the ready-made excuse, "I just didn't see him, guv," is invoked and too readily accepted. We must encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to be more ambitious in the choice of charges and the decision to prosecute, so that judges and juries can decide whether an excuse is good enough. Driving with a reckless disregard for the safety of fellow road users should be treated very seriously. Will the Minister consider the use of proportionate liability? Putting the default onus on the more dangerous vehicle in a collision would protect cars from trucks, bikes from cars and pedestrians from bikes.

The frequent use of the "Sorry mate, I didn't see you," or SMIDSY, excuse also points to a lack of awareness among drivers. Many cyclists must simply feel invisible at times. Even in Cambridge, the lack of consideration shown by some motorists is shocking. Will the Minister consider including a cycling and pedestrian awareness element in the driving test, for example, that goes beyond the occasional video clip during the theory test?

Taking away the stigma attached to cycling by making our roads safer would be a positive step in encouraging those who would like to try it but feel intimidated or frightened. That would accompany the successful attempts by organisations, such as the Cyclists Touring Club, to encourage more cycling, particularly to work. Its workplace cycle challenge in Cambridge succeeded in encouraging 132 new cyclists on to the road in just two weeks. The cycle-to-work scheme, which was introduced by the last Government, deserves genuine praise. I should be interested to know whether the Government have any plans to build on the scheme's success and to help to resolve the many concerns about what happens to the bike at the end of the scheme.

It is very important to encourage councils and businesses to provide the small essentials that make the difference to journeys, including convenient, safe and sheltered cycle parks at workplaces and town centres and things such as showers and lockers at work, so that people can travel and more easily be fresh for a day's work.

I have previously asked questions, which are particularly relevant to the Minister, about the difficulties involved in bus and train transfers. The situation for cyclists who commute using other public transport as well remains grim. Problems continue with cycle parking at railway stations, and the Minister is welcome to come to Cambridge to see the problem for herself. Can she offer any further encouragement on the subject at this time, or at least an assurance that it will be given due importance in deliberations over rail and bus stock, routes and timetables? Will these issues feature prominently in franchise negotiations?

May I briefly draw the Minister's attention to problems faced by the cycle-racing community, which has been championed by Ian Austin? Will she support the ongoing work between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and her Department to redraft the outdated Cycle Racing on Highways Regulations 1960? Will she try to facilitate appropriate traffic signs for road cycling? Will she review the anomaly that motor rallies are allowed to take place on bridleways, but cycle racing is not?

As I said, I am grateful for securing this debate, which has achieved extra topicality as a result of Wednesday's statement. The last time that I spoke on transport, the Under-Secretary of State described my speech as something of a wish list. I hope that I have succeeded in reining myself in a little more this time, although my natural enthusiasm for the subject sometimes overtakes me.

I shall finish on a suitably austere note: other cycling enthusiasts have noticed that the Government say in their sustainable transport White Paper that they plan to spend more money on developing their own cycle journey planner. Perhaps in the spirit of the big society, I point the Minister and her Department to the CycleStreets website, which already provides such a service, reliably and efficiently, and without requiring millions of pounds of Government subsidy. The website was developed by two of my constituents, both avid cyclists who are very much involved with the excellent Cambridge cycling campaign, and cost a total of about £40,000 to cover the whole country. I hope the Minister will consider the value for money of supporting and utilising their work, rather than inventing a new wheel. I look forward to her comments.


Peter Miller
Posted on 24 Jan 2011 9:36 pm (Report this annotation)

Thank you for your reference to pavement parking when you said: 'Could the law be adjusted so that the presence of a vehicle in a cycle path or on a footway be taken as evidence that it was driven there, rather than appearing magically, as seems to be assumed at the moment'.

I was disappointed that this point was not addressed in the response. You may be interested in a campaign that I am involved in which aims to get cars off the pavements.

As it happens I had a meeting with my MP on the same day at which he said he would also bring the issue and the campaign to Norman Baker's attention. I also note that parliament has seen fit to publish a briefing on the issue which may indicate that it is coming to the attention to many MPs.