Was 2012 the year when we finally started to 'Get Britain Cycling'?
In terms of cycling’s political fortunes, 2012 was a remarkably good year. The Times’s Cities fit for cycling campaign has given cycling a huge shot in the arm. Then there was the tremendous successes of Britain’s cyclists in the Tour de France and Olympics. Finally, they were also greatly helped by fantastic behind-the-scenes energy from the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG), who are now preparing for an inquiry on Getting Britain Cycling.
2011: a bleak pre-Olympic legacy
This is all the more remarkable given how cycling had fared the previous year. This time last year, Cycling England had been abolished, taking with it funding and strategic direction.
To add to our woes, the former road safety minister Mike Penning MP was proposing to allow longer lorries onto Britain’s roads, ostensibly on a trial basis. He even told Parliament that his officials had carefully assessed the impact of this trial on cyclists’ safety and there was no problem. We asked him repeatedly to publish this assessment, but it has never appeared. CTC’s No Longer Lorries campaign did at least persuade the Department for Transport (DfT) to scale back the trial to half its original size, however we were unable to avert it entirely.
We proposed a cross-departmental action plan for more and safer cycling, with cross-party backing so that funding commitments could be made, not just for the current parliament, but for the longer term.
The Times campaign launched
Then, late in 2011, the Times contacted us. We knew that one of their journalists, Mary Bowers, had been very seriously injured in a collision with a lorry – even now she remains only minimally conscious, more than a year after the collision. The Times was planning a campaign on cycle safety and wanted to bounce some ideas off us. We encouraged them among other things to call for 20mph speed limits, cycle safety improvements at key junctions, lorry safety, better data for measuring cycle safety, and (crucially) funding. All of these ideas found their way into the Times’s Cities fit for cycling manifesto, launched in February 2012.
The All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group now swung into action, successfully applying for a 3-hour parliamentary debate on cycling. CTC linked up with the other key cycling stakeholders (Sustrans, British Cycling etc) to ensure MPs were well briefed beforehand. On the day of the debate, the main Commons chamber was virtually empty while around 80 MPs crammed into Westminster Hall, in a truly remarkable display of cross-party support for more and safer cycling.
By now, Number 10 was taking an interest. David Cameron declared his support for the Times’s campaign, as did the other main party leaders. Norman Baker MP, the minister responsible for cycling, was also making unexpected progress. Despite previous statements that there would be no new funding for cycling (apart from an uncertain proportion of the £560m allocated to councils via the Local Sustainable Transport Fund), he and the Chancellor between them have since managed to announce £50m for additional cycling infrastructure: £30m for cycle-friendly junction improvements (£15m for London and £15m for the rest of England), £7m for cycle-rail improvements and a further £20m as an additional top-up to be divided between some of the above programmes.
The importance of junctions was gaining wider recognition, not least thanks to a junctions webpage created by the Times – at CTC’s suggestion – where cyclists could nominate the locations where cycle-friendly improvements were most needed. 10,000 suggestions came back in no time at all!
There was further parliamentary activity when the Commons Transport Select Committee decided that its ongoing inquiry on road safety needed an additional evidence session on cycling. They invited Jon Snow and Josie Dew (CTCs President and Vice-President) to give evidence, alongside the Times’s editor James Harding. Their joint call for real Government leadership was strongly echoed by the Select Committee’s inquiry report, issued 2 months later.
Norman Baker and his officials were also busily engaging with CTC and other cycling groups through the Cycling Stakeholder Forum (which he had set up the previous autumn) and its newly formed cycle safety sub-group. However we realised that there was only so much he could do on his own, as a junior minister from the junior party in the coalition. So, together with Sustrans et al, we drafted a proposal to former Transport Secretary Justine Greening – which was duly supported by the other Forum members – urging the Government to adopt a cross-departmental action plan to encourage more and safer cycling, and to secure cross-party backing for it (as this would in turn enable Government to make funding commitments not just for the current parliament, but also for the longer term). The aim was to ensure that the departments responsible for planning, schools, employers, traffic law and enforcement, outdoor access and sport would also play their parts in promoting cycling – and crucially, so would the Treasury!
Around the UK
North of the border, CTC Scotland’s new Chair Chris Oliver was making waves, meeting with ministers and Scottish parliamentarians as well as with Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer. In Northern Ireland, CTC’s lead volunteer campaigner Tom McClelland invited me over to Belfast, together with a representative of the Danish Cycling Embassy, for a frantic day of meetings with ministers, assembly members, government officials and the public. In Wales, CTC Cymru has been very happy to support Sustrans’s excellent campaign for an Active Travel (Wales) Bill, a model which the Whitehall Government would be well advised to follow.
Here too, issues of funding will still be critical. It remains unclear what funding will be available to implement the laudable aims of the Welsh Bill. In Scotland, the combined efforts of Spokes and other local campaign groups, Pedal on Parliament, Cycling Scotland and Sustrans as well as CTC Scotland, have helped secure announcements of £6m for cycling in October, and a further £3.9m just before Christmas. However as Spokes notes, this only just brings the Scottish Government's commitment to just over 1% of its transport budget, way below what will be needed if the SG is to meet its target to increase cycling to 10% of trips by 2020.
London was faring rather better. Towards the end of the year, Mayor Boris Johnson announced plans to spend £913m on cycling over the next 10 years (provided central Government continues to support him!) That's around £13 per head of population, well ahead of most of the rest of the UK, which is a tribute to the impact of the London Cycling Campaign's fantastic Love London Go Dutch campaign. However Coventry is doing even better still, with around £18 per head - and it's still below the Dutch figure nationally of around £24 per head.
However I'm leaping ahead. The summer brought with it the Tour de France and Olympics, and the media were now talking incessantly about cycling. Remarkably though, this discussion was almost entirely positive! Indeed 2012 has seen a really noticeable reduction in the number of times CTC has been called on to do those interminable interviews about cyclists’ behaviour (although there was a brief spike towards the end of the year following the BBC’s thoroughly unhelpful “War on Britain’s roads” programme!)
We did however have to leap into action when Bradley Wiggins went “off-message” on cycle helmets, when asked about the death of a cyclist near the Olympic park. At the time, Wiggins was still in celebratory mood following his Olympic triumph, and was unaware that the cyclist had been wearing a helmet when fatally injured by a bus. He quickly retracted his statement, while CTC and British Cycling both gave copious interviews, stressing that it is far more important to prevent cyclists’ injuries occurring in the first place. As Chris Boardman said: “If there’s a gunman in the street, you don’t give out flak-jackets to the public, you need to stop him shooting.”
Time to 'Get Britain Cycling'
As autumn came and normal political life resumed, cycling was on the agenda at the three main party conferences, in fringe meetings and in ministerial or shadow-ministerial speeches. At the same time, CTC was launching “Cycletopia”, showing that a visionary transformation of cycling in Britain isn’t a far-off pipe-dream – it merely requires some current examples of UK best practice to become the norm in towns and cities throughout the country.
By now, the APPCG were keen on the idea of a parliamentary inquiry on how to “Get Britain Cycling”, and the Times agreed to fund it. CTC led on drafting a parliamentary Early Day Motion (EDM679, Get Britain Cycling), tabled by the APPCG co-chairs, supporting the inquiry and the Times’s campaign, and the need for a cross-departmental action plan to encourage more and safer cycling. As we go into the New Year, EDM 679 has now risen to be the EDM with the 4th highest number of MPs’ signatures in the current session of Parliament. If your MP hasn’t signed yet, please urge him or her to do so.
The inquiry evidence sessions will take place in January and February, with its report due out in April. But the really interesting news to watch out for in the New Year emerged at a recent conference in Leicester on Active Travel. When the Times’s transport correspondent Philip Pank asked Norman Baker whether he had backing from No. 10 for his cycling aspirations, the minister reminded the audience that all 3 party leaders had voiced support for the Times’s manifesto, before adding that the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister would have more to say on cycling in the New Year.
Traffic justice: an idea whose time has come?
It is obviously a matter of great sadness that this year’s flurry of activity was prompted in large part by Mary Bowers’ traumatic injury. It was all the more upsetting that the lorry driver was eventually acquitted of dangerous driving (although he had previously admitted the lesser offence of careless driving) and that another driver was acquitted the same day in relation to another cyclists’ death.
We did however have the chance to raise our concerns about the legal system’s frequently inadequate response to bad driving offences, in a meeting with Helen Grant MP, the Home Office minister responsible for victims of crime. Our joint meeting – which also involved British Cycling and road crash victims’ charity RoadPeace – provided yet more grounds for optimism that this long-neglected issue may at last receive some serious attention from Government in the year ahead.
Still, Mary’s colleagues – notably features writer Kaya Burgess as well as Philip Pank – have risen to the occasion quite magnificently, with the full support of outgoing Times editor James Harding. His departure is a great loss, CTC has thanked him for his leadership in initiating the Times’s campaign, and we very much hope it will be sustained under his successor.
Looking ahead to 2013
We look forward to contributing to the Times-backed “Get Britain Cycling” inquiry, and to re-launching CTC’s Stop Smidsy campaign to strengthen the legal system’s response to bad driving. We also plan to strengthen our support for local campaigning: this too will be a key battle-ground for the future.
Above all though, we look forward to whatever Messrs Cameron and Clegg may have to say about cycling in the New Year. Of course, we already know we will then have to battle away for the funding to get the ‘fine words’ put into practice throughout the country, and to ensure that this money is well spent. I trust we can count on your continued support, as we look to seize on these and every other new opportunity that may arise over the course of 2013. Let’s keep those wheels turning!