Monday, 28 March 2016

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

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The marriage of success to failure

STOP PRESS: Since writing this  in 2008, when even the historic  success by British riders in the Beijing Olympics failed to  motivate the British government to improve road safety for cyclists, I occasionally have pause to ask, do I need to reappraise my brutal assessment of how British politics has wilfully failed cycling this past half-century. 

I did the same after the 2012  London Olympic Games, when British riders again scooped a multitude of medals.

During this time no government has ever considered  putting up the necessary funding to put cycling at the centre of the integrated transport system Britain lacks.

The answer is, no, I don’t need to change a thing. The government is still providing peanuts for cycling.

In the November  2015 issue of  Cycle, the magazine of the CTC national cyclists’ organisation, an article postulated that  unless the government can agree funding by April 2016, the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy  they signed up to, will not run.

The report forecast  that investment  in cycling will halve, from the current miserable and totally inadequate £2 per head of population  to £1 per head.  That is10 times less than the minimum funding needed (£500m per annum) to make cycling safer on the roads.

Come March 2016, one week before April kicked in, the government announced their funding.

They had been asked to provide £450m a year for England outside of London, which equates to £10 per head of population.  Instead, the government announced £300m across five years.

That equates to £1.39 per head of population.

So that means everything in this chapter stands.

In fact, funding is now lower than it has been for years.

Why is this?

It is because in the Book of Transport, the bible written by the powerful Motor Lobby, it is written, Thou shalt not fund cycling.

Our cyclists are celebrated multi Olympic and World champions. Two of them have won the Tour de France – Bradley Wiggins once and Chris Froome twice. Some riders have been Knighted or made Dames.

Yet despite this celebration of our elite riders, the prospect remains remote that the roads will ever be made safer for cyclists, be they sporting cyclists or the  tens of thousands of ordinary cyclists, too. They will  remain as dangerous to cyclists as ever.

It has been suggested that the Sir David Brailsford, the guru largely responsible for Britain’s international cycling successes and who in 2015 guided Chris Froome to his second Tour de France victory and Britain’s third following Bradley Wiggins historic first in 2012, should now  apply his logistical brilliance in the pursuit of excellence to the wider cycling cause.

Good idea.

Because the CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation and a bastion of cyclists’ rights for over 100 years, who tirelessly lobby Parliament to improve cyclists safety, are banging their clever heads against a brick wall, bless their saddle bags. They don’t appear to realise that their excellent campaigning is going nowhere.

I have watched them for 40 years and have come to the conclusion that like hamsters in a wheel, they are going round and round and round, in a race to nowhere.

Nothing will change until someone finds a radical new way of tackling the government’s unwillingness to put their money where the mouth is.

Could Sir Dave Brailsford for that man?

 I imagine that in order to provide a solution he would first need to understand the problems.

Look now further, Dave.  It’s all here.

How is it that parliament continues to fail cyclists, he will ask.

Why is it that Britain continues to lag decades behind

other European countries in improving cycling safety on the roads?

How can we move forward?

Well, Dave, here’s your starter, to get you going.

According to the chairman of the now disbanded Cycling England, – scrapped by the Tories – you will first have to address the  institutionalised discrimination against cyclists which exists among Local Authorities.

The same might also be said of central government  which over the course of several parliaments these past five decades that I have been on the case, have very conveniently passed the buck to Local Authorities to improve the road infrastructure for cyclists.  But never provided them with the necessary money – now put at £500m funding per annum - necessary for them to make a start.

London has made a start and and is held an as example for the rest of the country to follow,

But London’s cycling infrastructure is rubbish,

according to a Dutch blogger who rode around it on his bike with  his wife.

He describes the Capital’s cycle network as “abysmal”.

One commentator responding to this blog said London is about 100 years behind the Netherlands in cycling development! He said they could do much to copy the Dutch, but that means asking them how to do it. And they won’t do that.

Why won’t they do that?

I don’t know.

MPs do a good talk, but that’s about it.

Many of them are genuinely concerned and want to help. But they are stymied by …..I don’t know what. By indifference at Cabinet level, at Treasury level.

During my time reporting on the many cycling campaign initiatives I can recall enthusiastically running stories on the promises made by various prominent politicians who have supported the case for improving cycling safety on the roads.

Each time I was convinced change would come. But it  never has, in any meaningful way. There have only ever been small investments which make little or no difference.

I feel we have been conned. Nothing much has ever changed.

I recall the  Friends of the Earth’s “Reclaim the Roads”  campaign in the mid 1970s, and the presentation of a report on how to do this presented to 10 Downing Street.

I thought, that’s it. Things will get begin to improve.

There was the British Medical Association’s report calling for action to encourage cycling to improve the health of the nation. There have been countless number of excellent reports presented Government by the CTC, the national cycling organisation.

One of the most convincing was entitled “Costing the Benefits”,  presenting the the economic case for cycling.

There is a design guide on how to build cycling infrastructure into the road system, endorsed by the Government and sent to every Local Authority in the land.

There is the National Cycling Strategy launched in 1996 without any money.

And each and everyone of these reports is gathering dust on shelves.

Engineers, when they do put in cycling facilities, such as the shared use cycle lanes on pavements – the preferred option – will maybe look at the Design Guide to see what it recommends, then discard what it says and build what they see fit.

Which is generally unfit for use.

The Highways Agency admits its engineers and planners have little experience in planning and designing for cyclists.

The only man attempting to improve the roads for cycling has been Mayor of London Boris Johnson, but even here, the “safety” of his Cycling Superhighways was illusionary. As I write, work has begun with his Cross London cycle route.

Most of the other town centre stuff in Britain, with a few exceptions,  is crap. There is not one town or city with a half-decent cycle network. 

Why – with the all professional expertise, all the expert opinion – has nothing been done on the scale necessary? Even that most impressive campaign in The Times - Cities fit for Cycling, and the Get Britain Cycling Report it inspired promoted by cycling friendly Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert has failed to wrest decent money from the Treasury. Why is this? Any attempt to find an answer will be lengthy.

Where to start?

More next week.