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Let’s take cycling out of the culture wars

Credit: Michael Brooks / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Move more in 2024 – that’s my plan so far. Coupled with a dramatic decrease in ultra-processed foods, it’s working well. The combination of considered inputs and more regular, energetic outputs has certainly contributed to a newly invigorated, two stone lighter, physically and mentally stronger, generally happier me!

My job, like most in today’s Western world, is pretty sedentary. We must find other opportunities to keep moving. Combining exercise with your commute is perfect for fitting it into a busy life. The rewards for putting some effort in – walking or cycling the commute, the school run or just for fun – last for so much longer than the journey. Immediately afterwards our bodies experience mood-boosting effects thanks to the release of endorphins, giving us motivation to keep going.

The trick is to create an environment where active travel becomes an easier habit for more people. To do that requires many mini-habits or actions that eventually culminate in a healthier lifestyle. We can’t let this vital action be ignored as too difficult because of the short-term backlash we might get. The UK has the third-highest European population living with obesity, with an estimated associated cost of £58bn annually. Creating healthier places isn’t easy; it’ll take compromise and political risk. But it’s the right thing to do.

I encourage every candidate standing at the next election to include walking or cycling on their leaflets

And this shouldn’t be seen as a war between left and right. We’ve come far under Conservative governments, mayors and councils. Some of our cities are unrecognisable from ten years ago. Roads on which only those without other options would have cycled now serve thousands a day.

When I was active travel minister in the Department for Transport, I was delighted to sign off on the inspiring new agency Active Travel England, and to appoint its chief executive Danny Williams and the national commissioner for walking and cycling Chris Boardman MBE. They work with councils to spread this progress across the whole country, finding solutions which work for the area. Their role is important, because making walking easier can often be lost within a department as big as DfT.

We also mustn’t make it an argument between rural and urban areas. My Copeland constituency is blessed with lakes, rivers, fells and mountains, being situated within the English Lake District. But just as importantly, people and communities are connected by miles of public paths and bridleways, quiet lanes, coastal routes, and the start of the Coast to Coast, soon to become the 17th National Trail, which I completed with my husband last summer. 

We proudly boast the UK’s most popular challenge cycle route, Sustrans’ Sea to Sea (or C2C) – from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Sunderland, some 138 miles. These networks provide huge financial and social boosts, bringing visitors and business to the area, and are also relied upon by locals for everyday journeys and escaping into nature.

It is often assumed that cycling is divisive. But the recently published, independently researched Sustrans walking and cycling index shows that people want to live in healthier places.

Most people use all modes of transport depending on the journey. Sustrans found that 58 per cent of people support more cycle paths protected from traffic and 62 per cent would like more low-traffic neighbourhoods, while 24 per cent say they want to drive less, with 50 per cent wanting to walk more, and 43 per cent to cycle more. This should reassure us to use the systems set up across government to help more people to change gear and get active.

Let’s be brave and take cycling out of the culture wars. I encourage every candidate standing at the next election to include walking or cycling on their leaflets; it might just attract people who don’t currently feel spoken to. People want to cycle more. We just need to help them do it.

Trudy Harrison, Conservative MP for Copeland 

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