Cycling agenda pushed in Parliament by Cambridge MP

Dr Julian Huppert, the LibDem MP for Cambridge, voted in at the last election, is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and an extremely keen cyclist. In a long speech on Friday he praised some of the coalition Government’s cycling policies but also expressed reservations about the scrapping of Cycling England.

Dr Huppert also talked about strict liability, SMIDSY (‘sorry, mate, I didn’t see you), an antiquated law which prevents cycle racing on public roads, and the Department for Transport’s reliance on pro-helmet messages rather than tackling the source of danger: cars.

“Many cyclists must simply feel invisible at times. Even in Cambridge, the lack of consideration shown by some motorists is shocking.

“Nearly three-quarters of people agree the idea of cycling on busy roads is frightening. That is partly because road safety policies have for too long focused on making cycling look dangerous – for instance, by advocating helmets – when we should be addressing the source of danger.
“Making our roads safer would be a positive step in encouraging those who would like to try it, but feel intimidated or frightened.”

However, according to a Cambridge newspaper, Dr Huppert’s calls for motorists to face stiffer penalties when they kill and injure cyclists has “sparked fury among motorists.” Or, to be more specific, the RAC Foundation, a spokesman from which said:

“Mr Huppert’s motives might be honourable, but rather than encouraging harmony between cyclists and drivers he risks widening the divide.

“The reality is there are reckless elements among all groups of road users.

“He is right to say tough action needs to be taken against offenders, but wrong to seek to establish a hierarchy of the supposed righteous.”

A video of Dr Huppert’s speech can be viewed below, starting at 14:32.36. The sparsely attended debate wasn’t terribly lively but Dr Huppert did receive a reply from transport minister Theresa Villiers. She did not answer all of his questions.

An edited transcript from Hansard can be read below.

Hon. Members may know that my constituency has long been at the forefront of cycling. Some 26% of its adult population cycle to their work or education-a figure comparable with the highest performing cities elsewhere in Europe. When I go to visit schools, it is always heartening to see how many pupils cycle or walk to school, although more could be done. I represent people who, for reasons topographical, historical and cultural, do not merely talk the talk, but walk the walk-or, rather, ride the bike.

Why should we encourage cycling? There are a number of reasons: it is safe, healthy, cheap, convenient, fast, reliable, clean and green. Another reason, which I have noticed increasingly as a Member of Parliament, is that cycling around my constituency allows me to see the world around me and for people to see me. In a car, one is very much separated, whereas on a bike, one is very much part of the environment. There is much to welcome in the Government’s approach to cycling and to sustainable transport generally.

Many people in Cambridge and elsewhere shared my concern about the Government’s decision to scrap Cycling England – a decision which I continue to find deeply regrettable. We were particularly concerned that Bikeability, a vital training scheme and one that has worked wonders for cycling all around the country, was under serious threat. I am very pleased and relieved that the Government have committed themselves so fully to that scheme.

There are a number of other encouragements. I was especially pleased to hear about the possibility of greater powers for local authorities over traffic signs. Can the Minister confirm that that will allow, among other things, “no entry-except cycles” signs to be used? Contraflow cycling in appropriate one-way streets affords cyclists greater access to quieter streets, avoiding busier roads and making quicker journey times possible. We in Cambridge have asked for years for permission to use those signs, but it has been a struggle with Department for Transport officials until a recent trial was allowed. The current “low-flying motorbike” sign simply is not understood by many people.

There are also some specific issues that need resolving. Could the section of the Traffic Management Act 2004 that allows for enforcement of mandatory cycle lanes be brought into force? I believe it is the only bit that has not yet been implemented. Could the law be adjusted so that the presence of a vehicle in a cycle path or on a footway be taken as evidence that it was driven there, rather than appearing magically, as seems to be assumed at the moment?

It is essential that a green thread runs through all Government policy if we are seriously to tackle climate change. We cannot rely on an occasional eye-catching idea here, an emotive piece of environmental rhetoric there, while business proceeds as usual. Local sustainable transport has a key role to play. If used correctly to support strong and well-designed bids, the [£560 million local sustainable transport fund] will have a vital role to play in shaping our communities and reducing our reliance on expensive and unsustainable transport – but the Minister will realise that that is a big if. I have several questions to raise about how the Government intend to take the scheme forward.

I am pleased that front and centre are the two policy objectives driving the Government’s approach: creating growth and cutting carbon. But as we all know, those two objectives can and do get in each other’s way at times. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify to what extent bids will be judged ultimately on cutting carbon, and to what extent on creating growth.

Perhaps the Minister might also find time to consider and address the other priorities flagged up in last year’s Cabinet Office report on urban transport, which found, interestingly, that the economic damage in cities, as a result of detriment to public health through vehicle crashes, poor air quality and physical inactivity from reduced walking and cycling, was three times greater than the effect of congestion alone, although those factors are far too often overlooked in transport decisions.

I hope the Minister and the Government will be sympathetic to the need for radical bids to reduce carbon emissions significantly, but I also believe the Department can and should do more to encourage such bids in the first place. The Department for Transport, along with the late Cycling England, produced a so-called hierarchy of solutions, which does an excellent job in establishing a cycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure – at least, it would do an excellent job if it was not virtually unknown among local authorities and widely flouted in practice. The Department should promote awareness of that policy among local authorities, as it is when they ignore it that we tend to see the type of cycle facilities that are often worse than useless. To take an obvious example, many local authorities still persist in creating poor quality shared-use cycle facilities on pavements, creating unnecessary conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. That is contrary to the guidance from the Department, which rightly focuses on reducing traffic volumes and speeds, redesigning junctions and reallocating road space. There clearly is a role for off-road cycle paths, but it must be good quality and not just a cheap alternative to road provision.

I welcome the Government’s guidance, although I wonder whether the Minister can give assurances that it will be put more strongly to local authorities bidding for this important fund. In particular, I take this opportunity to bang the drum for 20 mph speed limits in residential and shopping streets. They make a large difference to safety for children, cyclists and pedestrians but only a small difference to car travel times.

This is part of a wider point: a commitment to reducing road danger is needed. Nearly three quarters of people agree that the idea of cycling on busy roads is frightening, partly because road safety policies have for too long focused on making cycling look dangerous – for example, by excessive advocacy of cycle helmets – when we should be addressing the source of the danger. Slowing traffic is one way to do that; reducing traffic volume is another; and more cyclists lead to safer cycling.

Perhaps the Minister will also consider prosecution, sentencing, liability and awareness issues. In far too many accidents, the ready-made excuse, “I just didn’t see him, guv,” is invoked and too readily accepted. We must encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to be more ambitious in the choice of charges and the decision to prosecute, so that judges and juries can decide whether an excuse is good enough. Driving with a reckless disregard for the safety of fellow road users should be treated very seriously. Will the Minister consider the use of proportionate liability? Putting the default onus on the more dangerous vehicle in a collision would protect cars from trucks, bikes from cars and pedestrians from bikes.

The frequent use of the “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you,” or SMIDSY, excuse also points to a lack of awareness among drivers. Many cyclists must simply feel invisible at times. Even in Cambridge, the lack of consideration shown by some motorists is shocking. Will the Minister consider including a cycling and pedestrian awareness element in the driving test, for example, that goes beyond the occasional video clip during the theory test?

Taking away the stigma attached to cycling by making our roads safer would be a positive step in encouraging those who would like to try it but feel intimidated or frightened. That would accompany the successful attempts by organisations, such as the Cyclists’ Touring Club, to encourage more cycling, particularly to work. Its workplace cycle challenge in Cambridge succeeded in encouraging 132 new cyclists on to the road in just two weeks. The cycle-to-work scheme, which was introduced by the last
Government, deserves genuine praise. I should be interested to know whether the Government have any plans to build on the scheme’s success and to help to resolve the many concerns about what happens to the bike at the end of the scheme.

It is very important to encourage councils and businesses to provide the small essentials that make the difference to journeys, including convenient, safe and sheltered cycle parks at workplaces and town centres and things such as showers and lockers at work, so that people can travel and more easily be fresh for a day’s work.

May I briefly draw the Minister’s attention to problems faced by the cycle-racing community, which has been championed by the hon. Member for Dudley North? Will she support the ongoing work between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and her Department to redraft the outdated Cycle Racing on Highways Regulations 1960? Will she try to facilitate appropriate traffic signs for road cycling? Will she review the anomaly that motor rallies are allowed to take place on bridleways, but cycle racing is not?

The last time that I spoke on transport, the Under-Secretary of State described my speech as something of a wish list. I hope that I have succeeded in reining myself in a little more this time, although my natural enthusiasm for the subject sometimes overtakes me.

I shall finish on a suitably austere note: other cycling enthusiasts have noticed that the Government say in their sustainable transport White Paper that they plan to spend more money on developing their own cycle journey planner. Perhaps in the spirit of the big society, I point the Minister and her Department to the CycleStreets website, which already provides such a service, reliably and efficiently, and without requiring millions of pounds of Government subsidy. The website was developed by two of my constituents, both avid cyclists who are very much involved with the excellent Cambridge cycling campaign, and cost a total of about £40,000 to cover the whole country. I hope the Minister will consider the value for money of supporting and utilising their work, rather than inventing a new wheel. I look forward to her comments.

Transport Theresa Villiers replied:

I strongly agree that cycling generates important social, environmental and health benefits. The role it can play in relieving congestion, improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions is clear and well accepted. Regular cycling has other important benefits, in particular for health, reducing by half many chronic illnesses, including heart disease. Cycling can also help us to address the obesity problems that cost the NHS and wider society around £20 billion annually.

As well as the wider benefits, we should not lose sight of the simple truth that cycling can be a great way to get around – a convenient and low-cost way to make short journeys. The key question is how we can lift the barriers that deter people from regular cycling. The coalition agreement makes a commitment to supporting sustainable travel, including walking and cycling. The Department for Transport will be investing £58 million in cycling over the current financial year. Cycling receives further Government support through local transport plan funding to local authorities and the DFT grant to Transport for London.

In answer to the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge about the relative importance to be placed on creating growth and cutting carbon, the answer is that weight will be given to both, taking into account each scheme’s overall merits. He will realise that in many cases similar actions can both generate economic benefits and cut carbon.

It will be up to local authorities to decide what goes into their bids, but the case for cycling is so compelling that I am certain many councils will want to include cycling projects in their bids to the fund. We therefore expect cycling programmes to attract substantial support from the new fund. We are strongly encouraging local authorities to work with voluntary and private sector partners when putting forward their bids. That will open up opportunities for the involvement of groups such as CTC, Sustrans and the Campaign for Better Transport.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, our first commitment in relation to the local sustainable transport fund is on cycle training. The coalition has confirmed Bikeability funding for the remainder of the Parliament, confounding some of the anxieties created by the abolition of Cycling England. Learning to cycle safely and confidently on today’s roads is a valuable life skill and a key part of our strategy to promote cycling. The national cycle training scheme currently receives funding of £11 million, providing up to 275,000 Bikeability training places. Earlier this week, we announced a further £11 million for Bikeability training in 2011-12.

To get first hand experience of Bikeability, I decided to have a go myself. I very much enjoyed being taught the level 1 and 2 courses by David Dansky of Cycle Training UK. At the end of the lesson, I certainly felt my hand signals had improved and were much more positive.

Recently published research demonstrates how highly Bikeability is regarded by parents and the children who take part in the scheme. Children reported to the survey that, after the training, they generally felt safer and more confident when riding on the road. It is clear that parents feel more confident allowing their children to ride on the road, because the child’s ability to judge risks will have been strengthened by the training they have received.

To complement our education programmes, we will set aside £13 million from the fund in 2011-12 for links to school, bike club and walking to school initiatives, delivering additional cycle parking and infrastructure changes for safer links to schools-something my hon. Friend mentioned.

In preparing their bids for money from the new fund, local authorities might well wish to emulate the approach taken in the cycling demonstration town programme, which has delivered impressive results. Darlington managed to double cycling in four years. In the first six towns that took part, there was an average increase of 27% in the number of people cycling regularly. Assessment of the programme indicates that the congestion, health and other benefits-benefits of the sort that my hon. Friend mentioned, to do with air pollution and the public realm-generated by the programme were three times greater than the amount of money spent on the programme.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about problems integrating cycling journeys with public transport. Again, that could prove another fruitful source of ideas for local authority bids to the local sustainable transport fund. The bike ‘n’ ride demonstration projects running over recent years are a model worth considering for the future. They have improved facilities for cyclists at rail stations run by South West Trains, Merseyrail, Northern and Virgin Trains. Hundreds of additional cycle parking facilities have been provided at stations run by those train operators, together with hire facilities at Waterloo, Richmond and Southport. That project complements wider Department for Transport work to support the establishment of cycle hubs at key rail stations, the hub in Leeds being the first to open, last September.

The announcement that I made earlier this week on a move to longer rail franchises will give train operators stronger incentives to invest in improving stations. That, of course, could include the provision of cycle parking. Chiltern Railways is an example of a longer franchise; it was able to deliver a considerable uplift in cycle parking places, but as we judge the bids coming in for rail franchises, we will certainly look at the ideas that bidders and train operators have for improving linkages with cycling, and for making it easier to integrate cycling into the rail system.

The Department continues to monitor the voluntary station travel plan pilot schemes, which can provide clear benefits to cyclists as part of efforts to integrate rail successfully with other sustainable modes of transport. My hon. Friend highlighted the cycle to work scheme; it continues to provide tax incentives that enable employers to help those who wish to switch to commuting to work by bicycle. A concern here is the judgment in the AstraZeneca case; the Government are currently looking at how that case might impact on the scheme to see whether we can resolve any resulting difficulties.

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