Cycling — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:31 pm on 10th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative 7:31 pm, 10th February 2016

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to promote the cause of cycling and am grateful to noble Lords for postponing their evening meal to take part. I welcome the Minister who is to reply, and commend in particular the work of his colleague Robert Goodwill, who holds the cycling brief at the department and sets a fine example by travelling on two wheels whenever he can.

On 11 July 1975, more than 40 years ago, I initiated a debate on cycling in the other place. The Minister who replied was Denis Howell—the Sports Minister—indicating that the then Government regarded cycling primarily as a form of recreation. I presented him with a cyclists’ charter: a bicycle unit in his department; cycle lanes through the Royal Parks; proficiency courses for children; a requirement that in all new developments provision should be made to encourage the cyclist by separating his journey from that of the motorist; the identification of cycle-priority routes; mileage allowances for cyclists; and better provision for bicycles on trains by British Rail, with more covered parking spaces at stations. My suggestions were either summarily dismissed —such as the cycle allowance, the bicycle unit in the department and the directives to British Rail—or described by the Minister as “interesting”. This was before “Yes Minister” but, as a former civil servant myself, I knew that by “interesting” he meant absurd.

The very first point he made was that cycling was dangerous, and I am afraid that coloured his whole response. As it was dangerous, he thought we should be careful before encouraging it. But that argument should be stood on its head. Cycling of itself is a benign and safe activity. On health, environmental, energy conservation and congestion grounds, it should be encouraged by making it safer by, among other things, reducing the interface with danger, primarily traffic.

Safety is of course important, as the title of this debate implies, but the Minister reminded the all-party group last week that cycling in London is in fact no more dangerous than walking in London and, crucially, cycling becomes safer as the numbers increase and the terms of trade begin to change.

In the intervening decades since that debate, enormous progress has been made by Administrations of all colours, thanks to the Cyclists’ Touring Club, the all-party group, Sustrans and many others. Despite the tight-fitting lycra suit of public expenditure constraint, during the past five years the Government have invested more in cycling than any previous Government. As noble friend said yesterday, investment has risen from £2 per head to about £6.

The Infrastructure Act requires the Government to produce a cycling and walking investment strategy, with money allocated on the same basis—though not, sadly, in the same quantity—as for rail, main road and motorways. The Minister told us yesterday it would be published in the summer. Can he more precise, and will that be the draft or the final document?

We have a long way to go, and I want to play my modest part in the upper House, where the press has promoted me from the bicycling baronet to the pedalling Peer, to press for further action until we have reached the situation in Holland, which I regard as the cyclist’s Utopia. In the Netherlands, 27% of journeys are by bicycle, compared with 2% here. I am conscious that we need to overcome a disadvantage for which the Almighty is responsible—namely, on the third day, when He said, “Let the dry land appear”, it appeared flat in Holland but hilly in Britain. However, the introduction of multi-geared bicycles and, indeed, the growing popularity of electric bicycles can help to neutralise this handicap.

I visited Holland with other noble Lords in April 2009 and it made a deep impression. For the Dutch, cycling is like walking, but on wheels. In other words, it is done in ordinary clothes, without sweat, by the same people who walk. Here, by contrast, cycling is predominantly male, white, youngish, fast and often in cycling gear. It will take time for this cultural shift to take place, until more people use their feet for journeys up to say half a mile; the bicycle for longer journeys, of up to, say, three or four miles; and then public transport or a car for longer journeys. Nearly everyone in this country can ride a bicycle and there are bicycles in most households. After school, college or university, however, two wheels are abandoned, and resumed only if the Tube drivers or tanker drivers go on strike. I commend the CTC bike revival project to get disused bikes in garages back on the road—the two-wheel version of “bring out your dead”—and I hope it can be expanded.

As I said, this cultural change will take time; it will be decades before we catch up with the Dutch. However, noble Lords can and do help to promote this change. As more people see Peers, Ministers, judges, generals, Permanent Secretaries—even, dare I say, bishops—cycling to work, it helps promote this form of transport. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that regular cyclists live an extra two years.

How can the Government promote this change? When I first took an interest in cycling, segregation of cyclists was seen by many cyclists as a threat to their entitlement to use the road as equals, making them second-class citizens. Having been to Holland, however, I see separate provision as a key part of the change we need. I welcome the superhighways now being built by the Mayor of London and similar initiatives in other towns and cities. Where separate provision is not practical, we need measures to reduce the interface with other traffic and make it safer.

I have a modest shopping list for the Minister, hoping for a warmer response than the one I got from Denis Howell. We need more high-quality, protected cycle lanes on roads with large traffic volumes or high speeds—lanes that are physically separate from cars and pedestrians. We need more segregated routes through parks, and alongside canals and railway lines. We need cycle paths and designated routes that reflect popular journeys. We need to give real thought to how these dedicated routes and paths interface with main roads at junctions. We need to integrate cycling better with public transport, and encourage more employers to make it easier for employees who live nearby to cycle to work.

We should build on the Safe Routes to School initiative, pioneered by Sustrans. In the Netherlands, 45% of primary school children and 75% of secondary school children cycle to school. Here, the figures are 1% and 2%. I welcome the £50 million allocated to Bikeability in December for training in schools, and hope the Minister will liaise with colleagues in DfE and local government to promote safer journeys to school. I recognise that parents are rightly cautious about letting their children cycle to school unless they are satisfied that it is safe for them to do so.

The Government can give clear guidance on the designing of new roads. At the moment there is a confusing plethora of design guidance notes which are contradictory and lead to poor outcomes. Excellent standards have been developed by Transport for London and the Government should follow that example. Planning policy can ensure that all new developments are cycle-friendly.

We need to introduce a new generation of lorries, from whose cabs drivers can see all around them, as with new buses. The Government can give a lead here by specifying the use of these safer lorries by Highways England, the HS2 rail project and other publicly funded infrastructure investment. The City of London is already leading the way in this respect.

One of the messages that Robert Goodwill left with the APPG was that many decisions on cycling have been devolved to local authorities. I have no quarrel with that, but it underlines the need for local, as well as national, champions. There needs to be at least one active councillor on each local authority who is a standard-bearer for the cyclist and who can ensure, among other things, that the pothole fund helps the cyclist as well as the motorist.

I am conscious that, in earlier exchanges on this subject, the cycling fraternity has met some headwind from some noble Lords who have had unfortunate experiences with cyclists. A minority of cyclists give us all a bad name by flouting the

Highway Code and the law. I am no friend of theirs. I am relaxed if the lights turn red because I like to stop and get my breath back. But the antagonism between cyclists and motorists can be overdone. Many cyclists are also motorists: 80% have driving licences and 18% of AA members cycle. All motorists, if not cyclists themselves, have family or friends who are. Like the farmer and the cowman in “Oklahoma!”, the cyclist and the motorist should be friends, having a common interest in making safe and sensible use of the road space where they share it.

Much more needs to be done and other noble Lords will make the case, but I end by quoting what the Prime Minister, who has called for a cycling revolution, said in the Government’s vision document for the cycling and walking investment strategy. The vision was,

“to create an environment which encourages walking and cycling, where cycling and walking is the norm for short journeys or as part of a longer journey. Our ambition is for streets and public places which support walking and cycling”.

That admirable vision needs to be backed by the necessary investment to make this form of transport safer and more popular. It needs to be dynamised by more ambitious targets than the modest ones currently adopted by government, and it needs to be achieved by a genuine partnership with the many people who want to see two wheels realise their true potential in a 21st century transport system.


Andrew Reeves-Hall
Posted on 11 Feb 2016 2:42 pm (Report this annotation)

The Minister of Transport stated on 23 November 2015 that "for spending for which the Government is responsible, in the five years 2011/12 to 2015/16 the Department has increased its spend on cycling in England from £1 per head to £3 per head".

This is half the £6 per head amount that Lord Young of Cookham, and before him on Tuesday Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, told the Lords.