Cameron and Osborne need to be held to account
Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON and Chancellor GEORGE OSBORNE should be forced to justify themselves before a Select Committee over the Treasury’s derisory funding for their cycling and walking strategy announced to cries of shame last week.
But that won’t happen. Meanwhile, the cycling and walking strategy is now open to consultation.
This offers campaigners a glimmer of hope that if enough of us respond to the consultation document and protest, so that they may revise the funding upwards from it's lowly £1.39 per had of population to £10 per head!
Cynics will not hold out much hope. The American journalist Ambrose Bierce in the 19th century was famous for being the “most savage newspaper commentator on human affairs…” wrote the late Miles Kington in his a collection of Bierce’s famous expressions published in The Devils Dictionary. In this fine book, Ambrose defined the word consult as meaning: “To seek another’s approval for a course already decided on.”
Government under funding of cycling has a long history. If the cycling movement is to change attitudes, they need first examine that history.
They will then understand that all the fine reports published these past decades in support of elevating cycling to the centre of an integrated cycling policy have not worked.
The campaigners must then decide to find out why.
Somehow they must tackle the institutionalized discrimination which goes back decades but which today, despite the millions of people of all backgrounds cycling, still holds sway in the corridors of power.
Is it because cycling cannot escape it’s working class image?. Cycles are toys discarded for cars as soon as possible. This is a peculiar British thing.
A line in the introduction of the English version of a book entitled, the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan, given to me by a Dutch transport engineer at the 1993 Velo City Conference in Nottingham, says it all.
The book explains how the Dutch transport rationale came to recognise the need to limit car use by encouraging as many people as possible to use a bike for those short trips of eight kilometres and less, which make up, in Britain, as much as 70 per cent of personal journeys made.
In what I took to be a neat dig at British mentality, the writer said: “First of all let me say that in Holland we do not have a problem with the bicycle”!
To me, that was a lovely example of the dry Dutch humour I had come to love from my many encounters with the Dutch racing cyclists in Britain and abroad during my time as a reporter.
It was a clever way of saying they knew that Britain did have a problem with cycling! Insofar as making provision for cycling on the roads.
In Holland 28 per cent of all trips are made by cycle. In Britain it is 2 per cent.
Fast forward some 20 years to the May 8, 2014, issue of Cycling Weekly. Here we find a question and answer interview with Louise Ellman MP, chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee, leading a committee enquiry into cycling safety.
She was asked how committed did she think “we as a nation are to developing cycle and pedestrian-friendly cities?
She replied: “I think, overall, we are still a long way from understanding that concept, even though individually there are some good examples.”
How about that? You see! We, “are a long way from understanding that”. We don’t get it.
But why? Oh dear, don’t get me started.
Let’s stick to what we know about the current impasse.
We’ll begin with a few curious facts guaranteed to make you either laugh or cry. Go for the laughter, because while this curious state of affairs exists in government, very little will be done to make the roads safer for cycling.
Here we go, for starters.
FACT: The mechanics of government do not exist by which the Department for Transport might lawfully demand Local Authorities to follow national guidelines to make the roads safer for cycling.
The DfT can only advise and Local Authorities who have the right to disregard the advice and do so regularly, or they interpret the advice as they wish. This has resulted in piecemeal sub-standard facilities across the nation.
Every MP, every local councillor knows this – or should.
In my view, this odd state of affairs remains the greatest single obstacle to improving cyclists rights on the highway and why the UK remains decades behind other European countries in cycling provision on the road network.
The other thing we need to know is that DfT controls only the trunk road network of England, 4.300 miles in total. Their authority extends no further, not to the near quarter million miles of local authority roads you and I are using.
So that means the DfT have control of about 2 per cent of the English network, which, I understand, carries one-third of England’s road vehicle mileage.
The point to make here is this, the Dft is not responsible for the remaining 98 per cent of English roads – which come under Local Authority control. – Nor is the DfT responsible for any roads in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
So although the DfT might be persuaded to make their 2 per cent safer for cyclists, the much larger problem still remains. How to get the 160 or so English Local Authorities to co-ordinate in the design and build of the road system to accommodate cyclists.
Answer, it can’t be done under the present set up. Each thinks they know best.
So that’s where we are at present, in a nowhere land for cycling.
And yet, guess what? There are in fact, 246,988 miles of cycle routes in the UK. They’re called roads. Snag is, they have been hijacked for the use of motoring.
Many of them have become fast hostile thoroughfares, race tracks in all but name built exclusively to serve the 33 million licensed drivers in the UK, not to mention the many who are unlicensed.
Many drivers are just following the guy in front, aware that if they don’t keep up they’ll get a toot from the one behind.
And then there is too much going on out there for many drivers to take it all in through that windscreen, especially at junctions with traffic flying in from several directions at twice, even three times the speed of the cyclist. It’s pleasing when a driver spots the cyclist, ease off, beckons him forward.
I always acknowledge that, as I do those drivers of vehicles ahead of me in slow moving traffic, who move over to make room for me riding carefully down the inside.
When the sum total of all this energy is on the move, becomes the stream of fast moving traffic, that is when the road becomes hostile!
On top of that there are many driver who just floor it when they can, drive hard when the road ahead is clear, passing cyclists far too close for comfort.
And in amongst all of this there are several million cycle owners having a hard time of it. In fact, many don’t ride at all because they’re scared shitless out there. Not that government, central or local, understand. Or if they do they don’t care enough to do anything really effective about it.
As it is many drivers consider the roads to be motor roads. They don’t really expect come across walkers, horse riders as well as cyclists, who have a legal right to use them safely.
Planners and traffic engineers, swept up on the exciting tide of technological development since the Second World War, think only of motor traffic. As ever more efficient and faster vehicles are produced, so the roads are tailored to suit. Roundabouts, for example, are designed to speedily process traffic.
Unlike in Holland where, as I understood it in the 1990s, they first ask how the moped rider and cyclist would use a junction, and design accordingly.
Whatever thinking directs their design of roundabouts today, one thing is certain, cyclists’ needs are designed into the layout. Dutch roundabouts are much safer to use than roundabouts in Britain.
Traffic islands in the UK remain the most hazardous part of the road network for cyclists and, indeed, for drivers, too.
Bikes were designed out of roads long ago, as the petrol and diesel engine was crowned king. Cycling was over, the transport planners thought.
It was understandable in a way, considering the comforts and freedom motoring has bestowed on people, and the view, still held in some quarters, that you had a bike only until you could afford a car.
Only now are planners being made to understand that many drivers, too, are also cyclists, and that perhaps a more balanced approach to road design is needed if we are accommodate those 20-million bicycle owners.
For despite poor road conditions, cycling is thriving.
Next...the great cycling revival