Notes from the LibDem conference fringe

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Notes from the LibDem conference fringe

Earlier this week I spoke at two fringe events at the LibDem conference. The first was also addressed by Julian Huppert MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, the second by cycling minister Norman Baker. Both set out their stall as highly impressive advocates for cycling.

The first meeting was hosted by the Freight Transport Association (FTA) together with the Times newspaper and chaired by their transport correspondent Philip Pank, one of the journalists behind the paper's inspirational Cities fit for cycling campaign.

It opened with a presentation from James Hookham, the FTA's MD for Policy and Communications. He set out the very genuine efforts which the FTA and several of its members have made in recent years to respond to mounting concerns about the impact of lorries on cyclists' safety. He showed the audience the FTA's proposed standard sign for placing on the back of lorries to warn cyclists of the risks of riding up the inside, using non-threatening but clear visual imagery.

He also cited the example of Cemex. Ever since one of Cemex's lorries was involved in the death Cynthia Barlow's daughter (Cynthia's subsequent inspirational campaigning on lorry safety led to her becoming Chair of RoadPeace), Cemex has been keen to show leadership on cycle safety. They had an "exchanging places" lorry outside the conference, allowing delegates (including Norman Baker) to sit in the cab and get an idea of just how difficult it is for lorry drivers to see everything around them.

James noted that Cemex and other FTA members have been enthusiastic adopters of new technology to fit sensors and mirrors on lorries. Early indications were that lorry drivers felt these devices were useful, although James said that more recently some drivers have started voicing concern about "information overload", i.e. that the camera images can be confusing rather than helpful, and that the sensors bleep too often to warn them of non-human objects.

CTC and other cycling groups have been aware of these possible concerns right from the outset. However, they are now incredibly cheap to fit, hence potentially a very cost-effective way to save lives. The challenge now is to identify which of the various systems now coming onto the market works best, and then ensure that their use becomes the norm.

Jamie cited the example of Transport for London's Crossrail contract, which - thanks to campaigning by CTC - includes requirements for lorries to comply with best practice on lorry safety. However, he also urged some standardisation of these agreements, and Julian Huppert rightly agreed that it's important that these arrangements result in improved safety, not increased confusion.

Julian then broadened the discussion beyond the lorry issue. He reminded the audience of the extraordinary Westminster Hall debate on cycling which he led, where 80 MPs turned up for a debate on cycling in a parliamentary side chamber while less than a dozen were present in the main chamber. He added that several Ministers were there, even though the rules of Westminster Hall debates prevented them from speaking - and leading politicians rarely spend much time in places where they aren't allowed to speak!

As on previous occasions, Julian was clear, eloquent and persuasive in making the case for more 20mph limits - for which the LibDems had passed a conference motion the previous day - as well as better cycling infrastructure, particularly on the faster and busier roads. He lamented the loss of Cycling England, noting that the culling of this incredibly lean and effective body (in the Government's "bonfire of the quangos") had wiped all of about £200K of the national deficit.

The third speaker was Kevin Delaney. He is now head of road safety at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, but used to be head of traffic policing for the Met Police - an "ex-pleb", as he described himself. He added that the things he had done there meant he would never be on Jeremy Clarkson's Christmas card list.

He stressed the importance of good training and awareness for all road users, acknowledging that the greatest responsibility lies with drivers but rightly adding that pedestrians and cyclists have responsibilities too (I'd merely point out that there are limits to what you can expect of child pedestrians and cyclists!).  He added that the most common factor in collisions was somebody not looking properly.

As the final speaker, I took the opportunity to thank both the Times and Julian in his role as  APPCG chair for the incredible boost they both gave to cycle campaigning earlier in 2012. I described cycle safety as very much a double-edged issue for CTC. On the one hand, it is vital not to overstate the risks of cycling: you are about as unlikely to be killed in a mile of cycling as a mile of walking, and the health benefits are far greater, by a factor of c20:1 according to one Government-endorsed estimate. Despite the risks, a regular adult cyclist can expect 2 years of extra life-expectancy, and CTC members have also been found to live 2 years longer than the national average (how's that as a way to advertise CTC membership?).

Yet it is both the actual and perceived risks of cycling which deter people from giving it a try, undermining its potential health, environmental and other benefits, and indeed the 'safety in numbers' effect - CTC's campaign of that name has clearly shown that cycle use is safest in places with high cycle use.

I then provided a very quick canter through the steps needed to reduce speeds, tackle bad driving, improve safety on major roads and junctions, and finally tackle the threats from lorries.

I noted that lorries represent 5% of road traffic mileage and are involved in just 1.7% of cyclists' reported collisions, a low rate compared with other types of vehicle. However, those collisions are disproportionately likely to be fatal - lorries are involved in around 19% of cyclists' fatalities, and over 50% of those in London. We therefore need to look not just at "kit" such as cameras, sensors and mirrors, but also at ideas like providing cycle training for lorry drivers. The London boroughs of Lambeth and Hackney have been doing this, as have a growing number of freight operators, and the drivers who take part report being agreeably surprised at how much useful information they learn as a result.

At the evening meeting, hosted by ACT-Travelwise, Norman Baker talked up what he has managed to achieve in his time as cycling minister. He mentioned the funding he has managed to secure for the local sustainable transport fund, for Bikeability cycle training, for cycle-rail integration, to support Sustrans's work and for cycle safety improvements at junctions.

He also acknowledged the work of the Cycling Stakeholder Group which he set up, and welcomed the conference's vote for a stronger position on 20mph, something he said would strengthen his hand within Government. He also handled a rapid round of questions very impressively, before heading off for another engagement.

Geoff Gardner (acting CEO of ACT-Travelwise) spoke next, and talked about work he had previously done when working at TRL to show that pedestrians and cycles can share space in 'pedestrianised' (or semi-pedestrianised) areas. Following subsequent questions from audience members, both he, I and others agreed that cyclists and pedestrians can share space if there is enough of it, but that 'cycle facilities' should never place cyclists and pedestrians in conflict, especially where this is purely to "get cyclists out of the way of the traffic".

My own talk covered some of the same themes as in the morning, but ended with a plea over the need for the Government's forthcoming transport strategy to include a commitment to cross-departmental action to promote more and safer cycling.

In short, an Action Plan for more and safer cycling will require high-level political leadership, cabinet-level co-ordination and positive collaboration with other local and national partners, if we are to succeed in Getting Britain Cycling. So we now need to ensure that Messrs Cameron and Clegg get the message - expect a campaign call-out within the next few weeks!"

It's not just about the Department for Transport working with local authorities to create safe and attractive cycling conditions; it's also about the ministers and departments for education, businesses and health taking steps to promote cycling in their respective sectors; it's about the planning department helping to secure cycle provision from new developments; it's about the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice ensuring that road traffic law and its enforcement play their part; it's about the promotion of cycling for outdoor recreation and sport (that's two more government departments); and ultimately it's about the Treasury.

Meanwhile, watch this space for notes from the Labour and Conservative conferences too.


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