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Make our cities fit for cycling

4 min read

The government’s cycling strategy has a target of doubling cycling trips by 2025. But current policies fall well short of that ambition, writes Ruth Cadbury 

The Clean Air Strategy, the Prevention Vision for public health, the need for solutions to town and village centre regeneration, the realisation that transport is now a greater contributor to carbon dioxide emissions than any other sources: what could government be doing which could help solve all three challenges?

One step, greatly overlooked in strategies for these problems, would be to encourage a shift so that more of us could take short urban trips by cycling and walking. 68% of trips are under five miles, yet half of these are still made by car.

So where does government policy stand on cycling? The latest indication comes from a year-long review into cycle safety completed last year. Correctly, this identified the fear associated with cycle safety as the biggest barrier to increasing cycle use – we know that 62% of adults in England agreed that is it too dangerous to cycle on the roads, a figure that is even higher amongst women. The report outlines a few policy measures that may help, many of which are responses to the recommendations we in the All Party Cycling Group have made going back five years or more.

Most significant of the commitments made by the Department for Transport is to undertake a full review of the Highway Code. The Code is over 11 years old: the design of cycle infrastructure has significantly changed in that time, yet new drivers aren’t being told what to expect.

Worse still, current rules lead to ambiguity on where and how to overtake cyclists, or to turn into side roads when cyclists and pedestrians are crossing. A re-write of the Code, together with a national roll-out of police enforcement of close overtaking and lower speed limits, will go some way to making the roads feel safer.

Even then, however, there are clearly too many roads which are far too busy for most people to feel safe on. To really start changing behaviour we need an overhaul in the designs of these roads. Doing so will improve our cities, not make them worse. Acres of newsprint and misguided commentary claiming cycle tracks breed congestion are false: as the London Assembly found, the cause is more due to the huge increase in delivery vehicle traffic (11% in 3 years) and a 72% increase in private hire vehicles. Uber, not bike lanes, is a major source of snarled traffic.

Building better cycling infrastructure will require dedicated investment. Since 2017, the government has had a ‘Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy’ which has some reasonable ideas, but, despite its name, zero additional dedicated funding. Despite claims that £2bn is being spent on walking and cycling, none of this is new money. Outside London, only Greater Manchester now has a truly transformative programme of cycling measures planned. Under Olympian Chris Boardman, Manchester is addressing the major roads that put off not only those on bikes, but pedestrians too, with dozens of new crossings for both modes planned. Elsewhere, local authorities have support to prepare long-term plans, but without the security of knowing there will be long-term funding available, ambition is likely to be low.

Although the government strategy has a target of doubling cycling trips by 2025, the latest review of cycle safety acknowledges that the current policies will only achieve a third of this goal. Just 2% of trips are made by bike in Britain, in Denmark that figures is ten times greater, and in the Netherlands, greater still: there, funding is sustained at €20-30 per person, per year. Here, we have just a fraction of that – between £5-8 using for both walking and cycling, using the government’s own, somewhat generous, figures.

Only significant increases in funding to redesign urban streets will make them safer for all, whether that’s children getting to school, adults to work, or shopping and other short journeys.

We know cycling schemes generate significantly higher returns than major transport schemes, with the health benefits alone regularly exceeding scheme costs by 20:1. This is far more cost effective than the return proposed from the £56bn on HS2 or the £30bn being spent on the major road network. I was hugely disappointed that the cycle path that was to be incorporated along the HS2 route has now been deleted, despite its far greater cost:benefit ratio.

We need the government to go beyond the small stuff and, in partnership with local authorities, embark on truly making our cities fit for cycling. 

Ruth Cadbury is Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, chair of the Cycling APPG and member of the Transport Select Committee

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