Historic King’s Speech provides snapshot of the government’s priorities
On 7 November, King Charles commenced the opening of Parliament by delivering the King’s Speech, a document written by the government which outlines its legislative priorities for the following year. It was a historic moment because it was the first time we’ve had a King’s Speech – rather than a Queen’s Speech – in more than 70 years.
Amid all the pageantry, it included some important factors for active and sustainable travel – as well as leaving out equally important elements.
In this year’s King’s Speech, the government laid out plans to introduce three transport-related pieces of legislation. All three had been promised back in the Queen’s Speech in 2022, so their inclusion wasn’t surprising.
The first, the Automated Vehicles Bill, will create a legal framework for regulating self-driving vehicles. Although the technology undoubtedly poses potential risks, Cycling UK also recognises its long-term potential to make our roads safer – by reducing human error and speeding – and to free up road space for better walking and cycling provision – because driverless cars can steer more precisely.
It’s possible that someday self-driving vehicles won’t need a driver at all. That too would have potential upsides and downsides.
If regulated badly, it could spark massive growth in car ownership and use, with every child (as well as adult) wanting to have their own driverless car. If regulated well, driverless cars could free people from car ownership altogether, as driverless taxis could function a bit like a car club but without the need to pick up the car.
However, to ensure safety for pedestrians and cyclists while the technology is still being tested and developed, it is critical that driverless vehicles are first used only on motorways or in other controlled environments where they won’t mix with pedestrian or cycle traffic.
Sarah McMonagle, Cycling UK’s director of external affairs, commented: “It is vital that any new legislation for driverless vehicles has a clear focus on protecting, and not undermining, the safety of people who are walking or cycling.” Forthcoming legislation should also protect other road users from unfair litigation after collisions with driverless cars.
The government has also promised, again, to introduce the Rail Reform Bill. This legislation would follow up on the Williams-Shapps Review recommendations from 2021, for example by establishing Great British Railways to manage the network and simplifying ticketing systems.
Cycling UK wholly supports the government’s goal to increase the number of trips made by rail – which is an important way to reduce traffic on our streets. Any new legislation must also make sure that train travel becomes more accessible to people with various types of cycle.
That means that train companies must be required not only to provide more dedicated bike spaces, but also to make them more accessible, for example by using bigger hooks that accommodate wider tyres and always providing horizontal stowage options. Recent EU regulation changes require all new trains to provide at least four cycle spaces.
Cycling UK also wants to see replacement bus services that are able to carry cycles. And while not requiring legislation, government should also provide funding for and encourage increased secure cycle parking capacity at train stations – which is the biggest enabler of cycle-rail integration.
The fact is that most carbon emissions from cars come from journeys that are too long to switch to cycling. That’s where trains come in, and enabling people to cycle to their train stations allows more people to enjoy healthy, sustainable transport.
Legislation to tackle the “pedicabs scourge in London” was the last dedicated transport legislation announced in the King’s Speech and will apply only to the capital. Until now, pedicabs have been able to operate in London without any regulations due to an odd quirk of the law.
After years of complaints, government is promising to provide Transport for London with the power to create licensing and vehicle safety requirements, control fares and prohibit pedicabs in certain areas.
Cycling UK believes that pedicabs – both in and outside of London – should be regulated in such a way that protects passengers but also makes them viable enough to operate. Currently, pedicabs outside of London face the same requirements as taxis, which makes them nearly impossible to operate.
Pedicabs, while clearly needing regulation, can be a force for good by providing people – especially tourists – with a sustainable alternative to taxis.
Road traffic offences and penalties
The King’s Speech also included a Sentencing Bill and a Criminal Justice Bill. While this is not transport legislation, it is an opportunity for Cycling UK to renew calls for a review of road traffic offences and penalties – something that the government has been promising for an entire decade.
Within such a review, we call for greater clarity on the distinction between ‘careless’ and ‘dangerous’ driving, appropriate use of driving bans and tougher sentences for serious ‘hit-and-run' and ‘car-dooring’ offences. For more detail, see our Five Flaws: Failing Laws report.
What was missing from the King’s Speech
The King’s Speech vaguely promised action “on tackling climate change”. Yet it fell flat in any meaningful suggestions about how this could be achieved in decarbonising transport, which is one of the UK’s largest sources of carbon emissions.
As Sarah McMonagle, Cycling UK’s director of external affairs, said: “Faced with the triple whammy of climate, cost-of-living and a health crisis, today was an opportunity for the government to set out a plan to improve people’s options regarding how they travel locally – without always having to rely on their car. Sadly, this opportunity was completely missed.”
How you can get involved
On the other hand, Cycling UK was relieved that the King’s Speech didn’t include any of the government’s recent rhetoric attacking important local transport measures which make our neighbourhoods better places to live and our streets safer.
Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns, said: “Prior to the King’s Speech the media were speculating about possible legislation to make it harder for councils to introduce 20mph speed limits or low emission zones, based on some of the proposals in the government’s ‘plan for drivers’ launched last month.
“The intention behind those proposals may have been to make any sustainable transport initiative a wedge issue in advance of the next election, portraying the government on the side of the motorist and anyone questioning their narrative as being against.
We’ll now need to see which of the ‘plan for drivers’ proposals the government seeks to introduce through changes to guidance, thus avoiding legislative scrutiny.”
It’s important to continue showing the government that anti-cycling measures will not win votes – especially in the lead up to an election year. To show your support for safer cycling, please add your voice to our petition to the prime minister.