Saturday, 21 April 2018

Why the government continues to ignore Cycing UK on road safety

ESTABLISHED wisdom has it that we need to study our history if we are to make any sense of the present to plan successfully for the future.

Not that humankind ever seems to understand this lesson!

This applies to the world of cycle campaigning as much as anything else.

I write this in response to Cycling UK’s latest efforts to get the government off its arse to improve road conditions.

The cycling world needs to wise up and ask how is that successive governments continue to fail to make the roads safer.

If we pay close study to Britain’s haphazard transport development this past century we might begin to understand the current impasse.

But very few people know the facts.

In the recent issue of the national cycling organisation Cycling UK’s flagship magazine, Cycle, chief executive Paul Tuohy worries that bicycle use remains very low.
He says “I don’t want to come across all doom and gloom but the number of people in the UK using any kind of bicycle is still stubbornly low, despite the clear benefits to society on so many levels.”

He says “more has to be done, by government and not just us, if we are to succeed in our mission.”

Strange, isn’t?  Cycling is enjoying its greatest boom for decades, evidence the tens of thousands taking up leisure cycling while in many cities, thousands more people have turned to cycling.

The explanation, we were told a few years ago, was that while cycling use has risen in town and cities it has fallen in rural areas.

As Tuohy says in Cycle, he doesn’t do doom and gloom which is why, I suspect, campaigning news has all but disappeared from the pages of that title, under his watch, and is now generally confined to the website.

But surely it’s not doom and gloom to attempt to figure out what’s wrong and to publish such stories. That is being positive. Cycling needs to understand how we got here.

And in my view, Cycling UK should start the ball rolling by informing their membership.

And then we might figure a way to put it right.

So for Tuohy to admit that the government is doing nothing much to improve cycling conditions must have taken some doing.

I wish him and Cycling UK luck. They are the standard bearers for cycling, always have been. They have run faultless campaigns and published many reports of the benefits of cycling (when they went by the name of Cyclists’ Touring Club). They have won praise for this work from government - but that's all -  and  from those few politicians who badger ministers to have cycling conditions improved.

Through their work, ministers know the basics, that 70 per cent of all journeys are less than five miles and many of them are ideal for cycling. That many people would take up cycling if the roads were made safer for them; that if only 10 per cent of all journeys were made by bike congestion and pollution would ease. The health of the nation would improve, on and on. It’s a win, win situation, as transport journalist, author and cyclists Christian Wolmer would say.

But as we know, this faultless presentation of the facts which few will dispute, has led us up only badly designed cycle paths. Despite successive governments agreeing with Cycling UK’s case at every level, nothing much as ever come of any of it in the past half-a-century.

 I recall when serious campaigning kicked off, in the mid-1970s with Friends of the Earth’s Reclaim the Road rally in Trafalgar Square. That changed nothing and the pattern continues.  

In my view there is nothing Cycling UK can do unless there is a fundamental change in the way the establishment runs this country.

I think a great many people are unaware of the transport cock ups which are the hall mark of successive British governments these past 200 years, from the canal age to the present.  

Every major transport development has taken shape without government imposing a strategic plan to get the best out of it for both the country and the people.

Insofar as cycling development goes, the powerful influence of the motoring lobby has and still does hold back cycling development.

But another important factor is that British government has always maintained a policy of non-involvement – unless it suited them. 
I came across another example of this laissez faire  thinking recently, in Mike Royden’s excellent and  most recent book, entitled “Tracing your Liverpool  ancestors” in which he documents the fascinating the history  of every facet of Liverpool’s development.

In one chapter he refers to the late 18th and early 19th century when streets were allowed to be constructed without any attempt by the town council “to control the character or direction” so as to make the town “healthy or beautiful”.

This policy of non-involvement runs deep. And where they have got involved you might wish they hadn’t. Such as the two greatest cock-ups in the name of transport development surely ever perpetuated. 

The closure of 4000 miles of the national rail network – the infamous Dr. Beeching cuts in the 1960s –   widely acknowledged to encourage car use.

While it is true that the railway network needed to lose some fat, Beeching was overkill.  
For it paved the way for the next trick, plans to run motorways into the every town and city centre in the country.

I haven’t the foggiest idea how Cycling UK is to change attitudes when it is clear Ministerial minds are only ever exercised by huge projects such as these two whoppers.

Except to say that is my belief that if we at least understand the history and make people angry, we can then, perhaps, find away.

Instead of blindly thinking that by simply explaining the bleeding obvious benefits of cycling we are going to effect change.

 I first ran this topic in a review of Christian Wolmers fine book “Are Trams Socialist – why Britain has no transport policy.”

It’s all here, Wolmar’s explanation as to why cycling development has come off worst of all and has, in fact, never happened. But in that review I didn’t mention the chapter on the proposed motorway development of the 1960s, when plans were actually drawn up to run huge motorways smack into all our towns and cities!

So in this blog I’ll take this period as an example of the twisted thinking lying behind so-called transport policy back then which surely remains unsurpassed to this day.

The first thing to note about this is that when it came to private motoring,  government dropped their non-involvement policy by launching a massive “transport” plan; except it wasn’t a transport plan at all but a plan for cars.

Clearly they were currying favour with their voters.  

Nothing else got a look in.

It was a huge failure and it was abandoned, but not before it had done considerable damage.

And if this totally bonkers approach to solving transport issues doesn’t convince you that ministers and planners can't always be trusted to be sensible, nothing will.

Wolmar told me that when he first cast eyes on the archived  1960s plans for the wholesale destruction of town and city centres in the name of the car, he was shocked, flabbergasted.
At the centre of this was  Earnest Marples, Minister of Transport. When I researched this period recently, I discovered there were those in own conservative party who described as a “charmer” and a “rogue”.

However, he did face enormous challenges to solve the problems that came with the sudden and rapid growth in car ownership which was leading to gridlock in the age before motorways.

When Marples introduced parking controls and yellow lines as a means of trying to control road use,  it led to huge public outcry from drivers who have always had a tendency to blame everyone  but themselves for congestion.

There were the whitewashed signs “Marples must go” across road bridges.

His was a thankless task. Not that he did too badly out of it!

For he was the Marples in Marples and Ridgeway, and was a director of the construction company and although it is said they were not directly involved in the building of the M1, Britain’s first motorway, they certainly benefited.

The company built several major highway projects.

As Marples connection with the construction industry was a conflict of interest and in breach of House of Commons rules, he was required to cut his connections with the company. He did so, but it's reckoned he still kept a finger in.
It was Marples who commissioned the Beeching Report to review the railways, closing 4,000 miles of track and stations to make the railways “profitable”.

In France a different view held sway. There the railways contribution to the country’s economy was in facilitating the movement of people and goods, not to insist on every line turning a profit per say.  Of course they were to be accountable, but they would never lack the investment they needed.

But what goes on “over there” has never influenced thinking here.

The Beeching-Marples tandem (an unfortunate metaphor) was widely seen as a move to “injure” the rail system to the advantage of the private car.

Clearly, the country needed a big improvement in the highway infrastructure cross-country motorways fulfilled that need.

But Marples wanted to go much further.

And he followed his drastic rail surgery by commissioning the Buchanan report (1963), saying that the full motorisation of towns and cities was the way to go.  

Wolmar writes it was… “an attempt to adapt towns and cities to the ‘full motorisation’ that he (Buchanan) deemed inevitable...”

It called for a vast network of urban motorways, dual carriageways and feeder in every town and city.

The interesting thing about this is that Buchanan realised the immense damage the creation of such a network would do. Bu they (he and his supporters in Government) felt powerless to deter what was deemed to be the desire of everyone to own a car and to drive where and when they want.

This from Wikipedia:

They were appalled by idea, realising that they were feeding at huge cost a monster of great potential destructiveness, but because they were seduced by this very monster, they thought, we’d better accommodate it, that to refuse to do so would be an act of defeatism….

So, as crazy as it sounds, they felt they had no choice but to go the whole hog and attempt to build hell on earth.

Here’s what the fly on the wall heard (probably) at the Cabinet meeting.

Cabinet meeting: OK, gentlemen and ladies, here’s what we do. 
The car is king,  right? Yes, of course it is. And we need to make drivers happy if we are to stay in government.  Let them drive where they want when they want.

So let’s build motorways not just across the country from town to town, but run them through and around and into every town centre, too.

Cycling? No, no. Cycling is in decline. No money in cycling. Very last century. Everyone drives now.  Nothing needs to be done for cycling. Buggar cycling.

What about the pedestrians?

Buggar the pedestrians.

For London the idea went like this.

If I recall rightly, Tottenham Court Road was to be transformed into a motorway, which would probably have meant widening it and knocking down property. 

The north and south circular road through the suburbs was another for development . In the West End the aim was to destroy Covent Garden to widen The Strand.
I recall the huge opposition to this when I first came to London.
Earlier they actually did take a  swathe of Hyde Park to widen Park Lane.  But by far the biggest idea was to run a inner-city motorway on stilts via Charing Cross smack in the centre.  These plans would require the demolition of 20,000 houses!

This was the general idea for every single town and city!

I discovered that where I live they had proposed knocking down the famous antiques quarter on narrow and beautiful 17th century West Street to widen the A25 which passes through the town.

Sanity prevailed when it was realised that building motorways into town centres would destroy so many homes it would cost then votes in the next general election.  
And then there was undisputed logic which struck home, that providing more roads in many cases simply generates more traffic.  Not always, but usually!

In Liverpool the M62 motorway carved a path through leafy suburbs aiming for the city centre, only to come up short at Broadgreen, by the Rocket, where it met the ring road.  By then the motorway circus suddenly realised the big problem,

They would need to to rip out the hearts of those places people have come to see. It was realised that  our city centres were never designed to accommodate motor traffic on anything like the scale they had envisaged.

So they quietly dropped the idea, but not before work had begun in several towns and cities, as roads were widened and ring roads begun.  They let it slide. Nothing was done for the cars on the scale envisaged.  

It was, it turns out, the only time a “national transport policy” – albeit for just one form of transport only – had ever been discussed in the history of transport planning in the UK.

And it was so it was they realised it wouldn’t work. It was back to piece meal development.  For they had no other ideas, no integrated strategy to get the best  out of all modes -  nothing for buses, nothing for cycling, nothing for pedestrians, although eventually we did see the beginnings of pedestrianised areas in the centres of many towns and cities.

As for Marples,  the bright boy of the conservative party, he fell out of favour and ended up doing a runner on the Night Ferry train to France to avoid prosecution for tax fraud.

How ironic that the Night Ferry was a rail service which Beeching had not closed down!

And he literally did do a runner.  There are stories saying he left his home in such a rush,  clothes and all sorts were left scattered about. His dash took him to Monaco.

Currently, the only change of direction in transport planning is that government is doing a lot more to promote and invest in rail travel, although the vastly expensive HS2 is coming under heavy criticism as being a waste of money.

It does, however, fit the picture of what former transport minister for London, a friend of cycling, Steve Norris, described as “Big Projectitus”…ministers are seduced by big projects.

Wolmar’s book provides a fresh perspective into successive government’s laissez-faire attitude to transport, the unwritten policy of non-interference.

Basically, governments have for decades been under the influence of the motoring lobby and will do nothing to upset them. That means they do not want to see any transport development perceived as a threat to car driving.

That means no integrated transport, no national cycling strategy, whatever they may say to the contrary. 
Wolmar’s book describes in detail the shambolic approach to transport issues by British governments. 

There’s a good chapter on cycling.  Wolmar, who was on the Cycling England board, which created small but effective town cycling development until it was disbanded by the Conservatives, says:  “Nowhere is the failure of coherent thinking on transport more apparent than in relation to cycling.” 

He provides a clear explanation of this. It is entertainingly written but grim reading all the same. And he spells out why British transport policy has been, still is, a mess.

One reviewer says Wolmar “captures the intellectual bankruptcy” of British transport policy. Another calls the book a clarion call for change; for proper funding of cycle networks and describes it as “required reading for any transport minister.”

(Although it should be noted that the only Secretary of State for Transport to plan for an integrated transport policy which reduced the dependency on cars -  Labour’s John Prescott - was swiftly removed from the post.)

Once it is understand what cycling is up against, the Cycling UK will need to recalibrate and expose the great transport lie.

They really ought to inform their membership!  They will need to tackle the PM head on and then go public!

However, doing anger has never been Cycling UK’s style. Even less so, now I suspect, since becoming a charity eligible for government funding for their work promoting cycling.

In which case, it’s back to going round and round in circles, trying to impress on government all the benefits that a healthier cycling nation will bring.

They know all this.  Individual MPs, the good guys, they care.  But they don’t care at Cabinet level.

Here endeth “Doom and Gloom.”

Over to you, Paul.


£8.99 (including free P&P within UK)

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Footnote: Doom and Gloom continued….this last week Paul Tuohy emailed every Cycling UK member with this message:

Cycling UK has told the Government how to make cycling safer, and now they want to hear from you. The Department for Transport also wants to hear your ideas about what will make you feel safer while cycling, because that’s what’s needed to remove the deterrents which put many people off cycling. 

They’ve done this before, many times, asked  cycling what is required and nothing happens.

Remember the excellent Get Britain Cycling report in 2013, sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group?

Praised to the heavens by the prime minister of the time, David Cameron, he nevertheless declined to give it cabinet backing.

Nothing happened.

This what the government does, it pretends to be interested but bounces the ball back into our court to distract and when we respond, telling them again exactly what cycling needs, they will again do nothing.

But we’ve no choice. Support Cycling UK, back Tuohy.

And read Wolmar’s book. You will then realise what cycling is up against.