The Chris Boardman Interview: Ending the culture war around cycling
“I want to see normal people in normal clothes, doing normal things – just doing it less with cars”
Three decades on from winning Olympic gold, cyclist Chris Boardman has a new national challenge – getting us out of our cars and onto our bikes.
Chris Boardman is frustrated that what has been described as a “culture war” around cycling shows no sign of abating. “I’m trying to stop it being a culture war,” the Olympic champion turned government tsar tells The House.
“It’s packaged as a war but it’s two per cent of people against 98 per cent of road users. It’s not really much of a war, is it?”
Boardman has spent much of his life obsessing about bicycles. After a famous win at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a career in professional cycling saw three stage wins at the Tour de France and world hour records. He then launched his own bike brand and has become a high-profile advocate for two-wheeled transport.
Now, 30 years since winning Olympic gold, he is again hoping to make an impact on the national stage. Last month, the 53-year-old was confirmed as the government’s first national active travel commissioner, after initially doing the role on an interim basis. His job involves heading up a new agency, Active Travel England (ATE), which is operating within the Department for Transport but is based in York. ATE’s remit is to deliver a new “golden age of walking and cycling”.
Boardman was the obvious choice for the job. For the four years prior to his appointment, the Cheshire-born father-of-six was fulfilling a similar role as Labour Mayor Andy Burnham’s cycling and walking commissioner in Greater Manchester. But Boardman spotted an opportunity to have a wider impact.
Was it not a wrench to leave the Manchester role? “It’s only about 10 per cent done [in Manchester], but this is me finishing off the job,” he says.
“I’m taking that experience and scaling it up. It’s in Westminster that legislation actually gets changed.”
Another factor that persuaded him to take the leap was the ambition shown by the government. A strategy paper published in 2020 entitled Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking left an impression. “It was one of the main reasons I agreed to do the role,” he says. “That document is incredibly robust.”
The 52-page document, published amid the first wave of the pandemic, talked of making cycling a “mass form of transit”. A renowned cycling fan himself, Boris Johnson’s foreword stated: “I want bicycles to be part of an effusion of green transport, of electric cars, buses and trains, because clean air will be to the 21st century what clean water was to the 19th.”
So, how will this all work in practice? At ATE, Boardman helps preside over a £2bn budget this current spending term, to encourage councils to embrace walking and cycling. This will involve handing out funds for investment in active travel projects. In the first round in May, £161m was awarded to 134 projects across England, outside of London. It will allow 16 million extra cycling and walking journeys to take place each year, according to the government. ATE will also inspect and publish reports on highway authorities for their performance on active travel. ATE will perform an Ofsted-style role in “raising standards and challenging failure”. The agency will also be consulted on major planning applications, to ensure the biggest new developments properly cater for pedestrians and cyclists.
ATE is relatively small at the moment, consisting of around 30 staff. “But that’s OK because councils are our delivery agents,” says Boardman. The number of staff is expected to rise to 98 by 2023.
Boardman says there are new standards that will “genuinely create behaviour change”. He explains these standards. “We won’t build anything that isn’t usable for a competent 12-year-old, and to give their parents the confidence to let them use it. If you don’t meet that standard [as a council], then you don’t get funded.”
A more positive way of looking at it, according to Boardman, is focusing on championing local authorities that are succeeding. “That encourages councils who aren’t doing much, as local residents tend to go ‘where is ours?’ And then it becomes positive political pressure for change.”
Not everybody, however, welcomes this change. Returning to what some have identified as a rise in ill-feeling towards cyclists, Boardman is not afraid to tackle the issue of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). The concept, involving cutting off car traffic on local streets to make them safer, has become a touchpaper for some, leading to an increase in anti-cycling feeling.
In one notorious incident over a forerunner of the widespread introduction of LTNs, protesters in Waltham Forest in 2015 carried a coffin marked “RIP Walthamstow village” over the feared impact that closed roads and potential traffic build-up would have on local businesses. And in 2020, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told councils they must “balance the needs of cyclists and pedestrians with the needs of other road users, including motorists and local businesses”.
Boardman has clearly had to argue this one a number of times. “There’s no such thing as a low-traffic neighbourhood, because it’s not a neighbourhood if it’s full of traffic running through it,” he says. On the same issue, he argues his point another way. “Saying ‘LTNs: are they good or bad?’ is like saying ‘roads: are they good or bad?’ If we had one bad road, should we stop doing all roads?”
More generally, he says: “The overwhelming and consistent evidence is that the vast majority of people support [the concept of LTNs]. We’re just ignoring the silent majority.”
Away from these battles, Boardman points to plenty of current issues – the cost-of-living crisis, particularly petrol prices, and the creaking NHS – which play into the promotion of walking and cycling. “There’s nothing it doesn’t touch,” he says.
He’s also keen to hold on to one of the positives that came from the pandemic. “People went out on bikes, and they did it in their droves. And they liked it.”
He acknowledges that many have returned to their old habit of jumping in the car. But he is encouraged that a revolution is happening in “patches”. He says: “I was just on the phone to my wife this morning, on the way to the Department for Transport, and I said to her ‘I’m struggling to cross the road as I’m looking for a gap because of the amount of bikes’.”
Nevertheless, he clearly has plenty on his hands. Up until now he has taken solace from the fact that this drive to promote active travel comes from the top of government.
Johnson, who was often seen on a bike during his time as London’s mayor, owned a Boardman bike for a while before it was reportedly stolen. Last year, he was gifted a bike by United States President Joe Biden.
“He [Johnson] is massively passionate about this,” says Boardman, who says he bumped into the now-outgoing Prime Minister at an event a few months ago. No doubt he hopes Johnson’s successor will be just as keen (this interview took place before he announced his resignation). What would success for the ATE and Boardman look like in 10 years? “Success would be that there is no Active Travel England,” he says, clearly unafraid about the prospect of being out of a job. “You make this into genuine culture change.”
Returning to the theme of culture wars, he adds: “We’re not different tribes. I want to see normal people in normal clothes, doing normal things – just doing it less with cars.”
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