Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cycling Safety - Westminster Hall Debate

2000 cyclists turned out on Wednesday 22 Feb 2012 to signal their support for the cycling safety debate at Westminster Hall the following day. You can read the transcript of the debate here and the second half of it here.

Other bloggers have commented favourably on the debate, on the enthusiasm and passion expressed by MPs for cycling.

Sorry folks, but I'm not persuaded. Talk is cheap. Debates count for nothing. All the major parties have had nothing but warm words for cycling for a decade and a half, but have delivered little. That's partly down to lack of investment, partly down to the wrong investment, and partly down to lack of will.

Lack of will first: Labour in its 13-year term first ignored cycling, then procrastinated about it, and then ran out of time. I think Adonis, Labour's last transport minister, would have done good things but didn't have long enough (or perhaps didn't move fast enough) at the helm. In the debate Ben Bradshaw (Lab) - who I think is very promising - warned Norman Baker of the "cultural problem in parts of the Department [of Transport] and in local government, which are still, in many cases, dominated by the road lobby". Baker countered "I do not believe that there is a cultural problem in the Department." In my humble opinion, it's likely Baker is either covering up the truth, or he's extremely naive. There is a cultural problem at TfL - we see this in sharp relief in the decisions taken that have resulted in deaths at Kings Cross and Bow. You'll see the same cultural problem in highways departments up and down the country. It's hardly likely the Department of Transport has changed its world view in the last year and a half, especially with Philip Hammond in charge.

Wrong investment next: Ian Austin (Lab) pointed out that £5 per head of population per year had been spent in London for 10 years. It's almost unbelievable that you could spend that much - let me just work it out on a ciggy packet - 8 million x £5 x 10 years is £400M - and end up with so little. Then there were the Cycle Demonstration Towns. The idea that any research needed to be done on cycling is a little ridiculous. There are plenty of demonstration towns on the Continent - they've done all the hard work figuring out what works - all we need to do is copy them. Next let's look at Boris's efforts. Cycle Superhighways have cost around £10M each. Thats considerably more than £1M/mile. You could put in segregated paths for that kind of money, instead of just paint.

Last, lack of investment. I pointed out in my post on a Norman Baker interview that the danger of getting rid of ring-fenced cycling funding and delegating which transport modes to prioritise to local councils was ill-advised and likely to lead to less funding for cycling. In that interview, Baker said, "I think local councillors want to do some of these green things. They’ve got the same objectives.” It looks like my prediction was right. Julian Huppert (LD) enthused about "a new local sustainable transport fund that is worth more than £500 million. Every local authority applied for money from that fund, and 38 out of the 39 successful bids included cycling aspects." What he didn't say is what those 38 'cycling aspects' were or what they were worth. Luckily, this information is revealed in this parliamentary answer:

11. Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): How much of the local sustainable transport fund and the funding for the growth strategy for cycling and walking will be spent on cycle safety in the next financial year. [95959]

Norman Baker: During 2012-13, £11 million pounds will be spent on Bikeability and £8 million will be spent through the growth strategy on off-road infrastructure for cyclists. Funding to local authorities for cycling through successful local sustainable transport fund projects is at least £15 million in the forthcoming year. Approximately 40% of the measures funded relate to infrastructure or training, both of which will help cycle safety.
So there you have it. £15M, which is, if you're trying to get a nation to cycle, bugger all. It's 25p per head of population - less than 1% of what gets spent in the Netherlands. In fact I spend more than that on wiping my nether regions! Baker's Lib Dem colleague Julian Huppert does seem to get it though: he pointed out, "I want to see that [sustainable transport] fund grow and I want a clear message from the Minister that schemes with lots of cycling in them are more likely to be successful. We need to increase substantially our national spend on cycling infrastructure, and that would be one way to do it. Local authorities are investing in some of these schemes, but they need to do more." He's saying exactly what I alluded to above: you cannot leave it up to local authorities to prioritise cycling, because they don't.

In my view, the only encouraging thing to come from this debate is that the arguments in favour of cycling are well-understood by members of all political parties: the health, environmental and economic benefits were all covered, along with its efficient use of energy and roadspace. Segregation was called for and Rob Wilson (Con) said, "The main thing that will increase the number of cyclists in our towns and cities is better safety...simply painting some white lines on the road is just not good enough".  There was no clear party political line, although it's worth pointing out that the Tories who are actually influencing policy - on the London Assembly and in the Department of Transport - don't have such enlightened views.

In any case, there is a difference between the arguments being well-understood and those arguments winning out when there is competition for budgets or conflict with vested interests. We have a cycling Prime Minister and a cycling Mayor of London, but there's no sign of a new golden age of cycling. The recently departed Transport Minister Philip Hammond was totally clueless about cycling; at least his replacement Justine Greening knows one end of a bike from the other. However, she's been notably silent since she replaced the Jag-driving Hammond: is this the prelude to a change of direction, or will we get the same old pro-car policies with a softer tone?

The fundamental problem is that allocating roadspace to cycling involves tough decisions that will anger the motor lobby, who want free car parking rather than cycle paths. In the past, politicians of all colours have chickened out when faced with those dilemmas. Even though we're in a time of supposed austerity, we're still spending billions on new road schemes, and billions on extra tunnels for the HS2 rail scheme to placate a small number of electors in Tory shire constituencies. A tiny fraction of those sums would make a real difference to cycling, but only if correctly applied. You could spend lots of money on cycle lanes that are used as car parks half the time, and disappear altogether just when they're most needed. Justine Greening, if she so chooses, could go down in history as a minister who was bold enough to make the vision of mass cycling a reality, and in doing so and could bring massive savings and economic benefits to the NHS, the Department of Transport, and the wider economy. We live in hope.


  1. The dull thud of truth. As many have said - we've still hardly started. At some point it will get rolling though.

  2. How can the Tories justify the state subsidy of parking? Surely they should believe that the state has no place offering free or subsidised parking at rates which private enterprise couldn't hope to compete with.

  3. You're spot on here. I withheld my cynicism over the parliamentary debate last week but it looks like things are just business as usual. Until politicians start tackling the assumptions behind the way we use the road and the direct links to why only low numbers of people cycle, we'll struggle to meet even the most modest targets.

  4. Excellent post. You're absolutely right. We've been here before, and this should be considered to be nothing more than yet more hot air until we start seeing some results.