Should the Prime Minister Get Britain Cycling?

Photo from Number 10 under CC licence

Should the Prime Minister Get Britain Cycling?

CTC's campaigns and communications co-ordinator Sam Jones discusses whether the latest Governmental response on cycling is further evidence of cycling's need for strong political leadership

The publication of today’s House of Commons Transport Committee (HCTC) Cycling Safety: Government Response marked another disappointing day for cycling in Westminster and Whitehall.

There are two firmly established ways Government uses to bury bad news: one is to release it on a day with worse news, the other is on a Friday. Taking the latter option, this response is just the latest string of wishy-washy promises of looking into the potential for thinking about the possibility of maybe making some thoughts towards the vague chance of getting Britain cycling. It is unlikely to make any national headlines, and is another example of Government apparently back-pedalling even on its recently published draft Cycling Delivery Plan.

As the Prime Minister calls for a ‘cycling revolution’, his Government is making long term plans for road and rail while neglecting cycling. Clearly he needs to step in and take a personal involvement to prevent his cycling plans growing dusty and rusty at the back of the Department for Transport’s store cupboard."

Roger Geffen
CTC Campaigns and Policy Director

The delays in producing the draft Plan, and its rushed publication just minutes before parliament was due to start debating it, demonstrated a lack of political leadership. For instance, it contained virtually nothing about the roles of the departments for Education, Health, Communities & Local Government or the Treasury - and this latest governmental response, despite recommendations from the Select Committee, follows suit.

In its initial inquiry on cycling safety, the Select Committee made a number of recommendations for Government, and this response was meant to answer them. It is a very lightweight response, glossing over many of the recommendations, and omitting one of them altogether.

Breaking the response down into five categories of funding, training and awareness campaigns, vehicle design, design standards and cross departmental leadership, sadly there is little to sing about.

1) Funding

The HCTC in the initial inquiry made the weakened recommendation for the “Government to set out and ambition to reach £10 per head by 2020, with a timetable of how this will be achieved”. The All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s (APPCG) Get Britain Cycling report recommended that there should be funding for cycling of at least £10 per person, per year rising to £25 as targets. This was based on increasing total cycling journeys from its current 2 per cent share to a 10 per cent share of all journeys by 2020, and rising to 25 per cent by 2050.

CTC backed the APPCG’s recommendations, and therefore finds it most frustrating that the Government failed to comment on even the HCTC’s watered down recommendation for funding. Instead their response was to cite that current spending was £5 per head. This is a dubious figure. It is an estimate that includes Transport for London current spending of over £15 per head, hence the average annual spend per person outside London is considerably lower. It also rests on questionable assumptions that 11 per cent of Local Transport Plan integrated transport block funding, and 28 per cent of funding from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, are being spent on cycling.  Currently no evidence has been provided to support either of these figures.  

The DVSA should place significant emphasis on a driver’s approach to motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians: a driver should not receive a licence without demonstrating a level of respect and understanding for more vulnerable road users and pedestrians."

HCTC: Cycling Safety
3rd report of the session, para 21

2) Training and awareness campaigns

The HCTC recommended a focus on safety awareness training among drivers and cyclists of all ages. CTC firmly believes that the Department for Education needs to take an active role in ensuring that primary and secondary schools alike make curriculum time available for Bikeability cycle training.  However the DfE is conspicuously absent both from the Cycling Delivery Plan and the Select Committee response. Another omission from the latter document is anything on funding for cycle training, which is surprising as the draft Cycling Delivery Plan at least sets out an 'aspiration' to continue it beyond the current Parliament!

Perhaps most alarming of all though is the Government’s wholesale deletion of the HCTC’s recommendation that drivers "should not receive a licence without demonstrating a level of respect and understanding for more vulnerable road users and pedestrians" (para 21 of the HCTC report). We can only hope that this was due to incompetence rather than deliberate intent.

3) Lorries

The initial inquiry into Cycling Safety by the HCTC was sparked by the flurry of London cyclists' deaths in November 2013.  This brought the total number of cyclist deaths in London in 2013 to 14, with 9 of them involving lorries. The Committee's recommendations therefore urged the Government to collaborate with the EU and industry to improve the design of vehicles and create a culture of safety in the construction industry.

In response, the Department for Transport claims that out of hours deliveries and longer lorries will mean fewer lorries at busier times. However without other measures to restrain overall growth and in road freight, there is no evidence that any actual reduction will occur. Any long term solution to cycle-lorry safety has to involve cab redesign and fewer lorries on our roads, not more mirrors and longer lorries.

4) Cycle-friendly design guidance

Despite releasing their response on Halloween, it would be wrong to claim it is all doom and gloom. The HCTC called for cycle friendly standards that would open routes to all ages, backgrounds and abilities, and the DfT has said that it “will consider endorsing the revised London Cycle Design Standards…and the [Welsh] Active Travel Guidance”.

This might seem like a bit of a whimsical approach to cycling design, but its mention is welcome. However, Britain desperately needs minimum design standards to counter the bad practises that are currently allowed. Current Government practise is to wash its hands of the need to set a minimum standard, by asserting “local roads are for local authorities”. All this means in reality is that local authorities are left to draw up inconsistent design guidance documents for different parts of the country. This has no benefits whatsoever (except perhaps for the consultants who get to draft all the guidance!)

5) Leadership

Overall this latest response from the Government is a curious paper. Frequently it seems out of sync with the Cycling Delivery Plan published earlier on 16 October. We know that the draft Plan had been through the proverbial wrangler before seeing the light of day, and perhaps it is not so surprising then that there is an inconsistency between these two documents. If this is true though, then it further reinforces cycling’s need for strong leadership which will stave off detrimental tinkering from special advisors and officials and marshal the relevant departments towards an activity and mode of transport which benefits the UK’s health, economy and environment.

As CTC’s Campaigns and Policy Director Roger Geffen said, the Prime Minister needs to wake up to what his ministers are doing and what MPs are calling for. He needs to pop on his cycle clips and get Britain cycling personally.

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