Lord Young of Cookham speaks in the Lords on promoting cycling as safe transport
Lord Young of Cookham speaking in the Lords on promoting cycling as safe transport

Lords debate promotion of cycling as safe transport

During the House of Lords debate yesterday (10 February) on promoting cycling, Peers of all parties called for Dutch-style separate cycle facilities, high quality design standards and increased investment

The debate (see transcript and video) was tabled by Lord Young of Cookham, formerly Sir George Young MP or 'the Bicycling Baronet' (but now the 'Pedalling Peer'), who was himself Secretary of State for Transport from 1995 to 1997. CTC had met him before the debate to discuss the current cycling and were grateful to him for many of the points he raised. CTC also provided several of the speakers with a written briefing. It follows a similar MPs' debate in Westminster Hall a week earlier.

Lord Young started by recalling his first parliamentary speech on cycling in 1975, when he proposed a 'cyclists' charter'. This had called for a cycle unit in the Department of Transport, cycle routes in the Royal Parks, cycle mileage allowances, separate cycle routes in all new developments and action by British Rail to promote cycle-rail travel. The Minister who responded to his speech had dismissed these ideas as "interesting" (civil servant speak for "absurd"), not least because cycling was considered "dangerous" and therefore not to be encouraged.

He said this view should be reversed, as cycling is not especially dangerous and becomes safer as cycle use grows. However, he felt it would take several decades before Britain enjoys Dutch levels of cycle safety.

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."

Lord Young of Cookham

In an update to his speech from 1975, Lord Young offered a "modest shopping list" for the Minister. This included high-quality cycle lanes, separated from the motorists, using parks where possible, with careful design where these routes cross main roads and junctions. He commended Transport for London's design guidance and urged Government to draw on it in order to replace the "plethora of contradictory design guidance which leads to unsatisfactory outcomes".

Recognising Sustrans's work on promoting cycling to school, Lord Young spoke in support of funding for Bikeability cycle training. He also called for safer lorries which allow drivers to see pedestrians and cyclists as easily as bus drivers can, and echoed CTC's call for the Government to set an example by supporting its use on Highways England construction works and the HS2 Rail contract.

Lord Young mentioned the "headwind" of opposition from some peers with concerns about cyclists' behaviour. However, he felt the supposed conflict between cyclists and drivers was much overstated, particularly given that 84% of adult cyclists have driving licences and 18% of AA members cycle regularly. He ended by calling for the funding and the ambitious targets needed to deliver the Prime Minister's aspirations for a "cycling revolution".

He was followed by Lord Berkeley, a Labour Peer and CTC's Vice-President. He commended Lord Young's long-standing advocacy of cycling. However, he reminded the House of a similar Lords debate in 1993 in which many of the same points had been raised and wondered whether enough progress had been made. See this blog on the failure of successive Governments invest in cycling.

Referring to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group's Get Britain Cycling report, with its call for consistent investment in cycling of at least £10 per person annually, Lord Berkeley questioned the Government's claimed annual spending figure of £6 per person. He asked if it was ring-fenced, what it was for, and how come funding so far earmarked for the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy seemed to amount to just £1.39 per person.

Some noble Lords hate cyclists and seem to object to their very existence. Every time the subject is raised at Question Time, some Peer will almost explode..."

Lord Taverne

Lord Taverne (LibDem) started by questioning why some Peers had such a strong hatred of cyclists, and the disruption that segregated cycle facilities supposedly caused to the journeys of "invariably law-abiding motorists". He too deplored lawless or rude cyclists, but noted that some drivers also misbehave, adding that cyclists don't kill. He said he and his wife had given up driving in 1974, had had very few injuries and thoroughly enjoyed getting around London by this healthy, clean and quick mode of transport. He said his family motto was "2 wheels good, 4 wheels bad", and therefore urged the House to disregard the minority's perverse anti-cycling views and start learning from the Dutch and Danes.

Viscount Craigavon voiced concern that funding for cycling was limited. He urged the Government to focus on urban cycling but not to forget the need to improve safety of rural cycling. Regrettably for the cycle lobby, he expressed fears about the potential disruption caused by supposedly under-used segregated cycle lanes. He hoped that their use would increase and that that they would not cause undue frustration among drivers that would rebound on cyclists.

Regrettably the "headwind" of opposition duly arrived in speeches from former Transport Ministers Lords Freeman and Caithness (both Conservatives), with cross-bencher Baroness Flather adding a call for compulsory cycle training. Lord Freeman did however advocate Dutch-style priority junctions and safe lorry designs.

Positivity returned when LibDem Peer Baroness Barker called for adequate investment in cycling. The Baroness had resumed cycling in adulthood thanks to the Bikeability cycle training provided by her local council, which she strongly commended. She highlighted how councils lacked certainty and clarity on what funding is available when the Local Sustainable Transport Fund ends this March, putting cycle training and similar programmes at risk. She also urged the adoption of national design standards to support councils seeking to adopt best practice, such as dedicated cycle lanes. She ended by calling for joined-up funding and leadership.

Lord Rosser (Lab) wanted to know what funding would be available for cycle safety the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, and what targets would be set for reducing cyclist casualties. He had spent a day with the Met Police when they had to deal with the death of a cyclist killed by a lorry: a traumatic experience for the family and for the police themselves. He cited research showing the most effective way to improve cycle safety was to reduce traffic speeds, adding that segregated cycle facilities also have benefits but could create safety disbenefits at junctions if not designed carefully.

In response to the debate, Lords transport minister Lord Ahmad commended his ministerial colleague Robert Goodwill MP's support for cycling. He said the Government "does want to make this country a walking and cycling nation", with a vision of cycle-friendly streets such as those in Denmark and the Netherlands. He recognised the benefits of cycling for the economy. He said that cycling was safer than it is widely perceived to be, but that one death was too many. Contrary to this statement, he then argued that the Government would not be setting a casualty reduction target because its aim was for zero casualties.

[T]he Government are committed to focusing our efforts to promote cycling as a healthy, safe and enjoyable activity for people of all ages."

Lord Ahmad

As a beneficiary of Cycle Proficiency training himself, Lord Ahmad was pleased that the Government was continuing to fund Bikeability cycle training. He said many bodies have roles to play in promoting cycling: the Government, local authorities, police forces and individual cyclists themselves. He said, though, that it was for local authorities to decide what priority to give to cycling in their funding decisions.

According to the Minister, funding is available for cycling, as "everyone that wishes to, can invest up to £10 per head in cycling". He cited the Government's Cycling Ambition Cities programme and the £100m allocated to Highways England for cycling improvements along or across motorways and trunk roads. He talked about the Department's work to develop new traffic signing regulations, trixi-mirrors, safer lorry designs and ways to share good practice on cycle-friendly design. He further commended Transport for London's Safer Lorry Scheme and recognised the importance of traffic law enforcement for the safety of all road users.

The Minister concluded by assuring the House that the Government was "committed to promoting cycling as a healthy, safe and enjoyable activity for people of all ages".

Observing yesterday's debate, Roger Geffen MBE, CTC Policy Director said:

"The fact both the Commons and Lords have held two largely sensible debates on the future of cycling within a week shows cycling's growing importance. With further announcements on the Government's Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy due this spring, this is a critical time for decision-making.

"Both debates have shown that it is not just cyclists and campaigners calling for clarity and certainty of funding and national design standards, but also the very backbone of Parliament. The Government must now reassess its priorities and make real commitments to cycling, such as a £3bn reallocation from the £15bn roads budget."

Prompted by Lord Young's reference to his 1975 speech, and Lord Berkeley harking back to a similar Lords debate in 1993, Roger Geffen also reflects on why we've made so little progress since then.

Roger Geffen