I have been neglecting this blog, both pulled away by other projects and watching with awe the unfolding of The Times‘ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. I will assume that all of the readers of this blog have managed to keep up with those events through other sources, and have signed up and lobbied their representatives.
On Thursday afternoon, of course, the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign reached Parliament, with an excellent turnout of MPs enthusiastic for cycling and an astonishing degree of cross-party agreement about the things that make cycling unsafe and unattractive, and the sort of solutions that should be pursued. Unlike Boris “keep your wits about you” Johnson, the assembled MPs recognised that fast and busy roads are the main barrier to people making journeys by bicycle, and they recognised that Britain’s roads are not a natural and immutable phenomenon but things that we can alter to make less dangerous and more attractive for cycling.
There is, of course, only so much that backbench MPs can do, and the picture of Dutch-style cycling in Britain that one-by-one the MPs painted has so far been ignored by those who actually have the power to make a difference. It is up to ministers to turn the debate into action, and the minister Norman Baker’s response to it all was, of course, embarrassing. Early Day Motions and backbench debates don’t, by themselves, change anything, and as Robert Davis and Cycalogical both point out, we should not be naive and think that the mere fact that this one debate has occurred means that we have received any of the things that were asked for.
But nor should we be too cynical and pessimistic: exciting things are happening. For as long as I’ve been writing about transport, cycling campaigners have tried to tell me that there is no point in asking for high quality cycling infrastructure because there isn’t the political will for it: there aren’t the numbers or the demand. Well the events this past year, and these past few weeks especially — the growing and multiplying flashrides and protests, the rise of cycling as an important London election issue, the Times campaign, and now the remarkably large show of MPs who really get it — have suggested to me that there are the numbers and there is the demand for change. Yes, promises have been made and broken before. But we know much more now — not least, of the alternatives that are possible. Now is the time to learn from those past failures, but not to learn that failure is inevitable. We must make sure that the issue remains at the top of our MPs’ agendas, and we must now set out exactly what ministers need to do, so that they can not fob us off with insufficient funds spent on inadequate things. This could be our “Stop The Child Murder” moment, but only if our efforts are sustained and focussed.
Norman Baker and David Cameron have already claimed their support with many words and few actions. It is, of course, obvious when poor Norman Baker is fobbing us off with a few pennies, barely enough for tiny isolated local incremental improvements; or when our MPs are trying to pass the buck to under-resourced local authorities. It needs to be equally obvious what real activity would look like.
The Times have set out the things that they think should be done in their manifesto. It’s a nice try, and identifying specific tasks for government — so that we can see clearly when they are or are not getting on with it — is exactly what we need to be doing. But The Times‘s list is not quite right. Chester Cycling has set out a better set of objectives for infrastructure, alongside an excellent set of principles for guiding policy discussions and keeping us on track.
My own list of tasks for ministers would place infrastructure at the top — because it’s the biggest, most expensive, and highest impact task — and look something like this:
Norman Baker’s department must get to work revising or replacing the engineering manual for cycling infrastructure — one of the most important promoters of crap cycle facilities and an active impediment to the import of international best practice — and changing the way that highways departments think about building for the bicycle (with the help of The Times‘s suggested “cycling commissioners”, perhaps). The Times are correct to identify junctions as the top priority for rebuilding, but unless we change the engineering manuals and culture, the rebuilt junctions won’t look any different from before. I will go into this in great detail in forthcoming posts.
The Times are absolutely right that funding needs to be redirected to cycling — more, even, than they specify (and taken from out dated relief road schemes). But of course large sums should not be handed out just to be wasted on substandard stuff that will need fixing later. In the first year, while a better engineering manual is being prepared, spending should be focussed on ensuring that we have the right expertise — the sort of expertise that Cycling England was just beginning to build up when it was cut — and that local authorities are ready to spend the money on something that actually sounds sensible and worthwhile when it does become available. Meanwhile, since almost everything that the DfT does is dependent on the Treasury thinking it’s a good idea, I imagine it would be sensible for Baker, Greening and The Times to be specifically working on those who hold the purse strings — making the case for serious and sustained investment.
The Times are right that 20mph should be the default urban speed limit, cycle lanes or not. 20mph is increasingly the urban speed limit, and most authorities would like it to be far more widespread, but 20mph zones are held back by the expense and bureaucracy of implementing it street-by-street. Given that this government is a fan of all that “libertarian paternalism” stuff — the latest being to make workplace pensions opt-out rather than opt-in — they should make 20 the default urban limit. Authorities would then have to go to the expense of opting out, consulting and erecting signs on the few roads where the appropriate limit is 30mph, rather than on the very many where it is 20.
The Times rightly identify big trucks as a problem. They suggest some sensible enough technological solutions to the danger they pose — alarms, sensors, safety bars, and the like — but bizarrely suggest that they only need to be present on trucks “entering city centres”. Vehicle design standards are generally handled by the EU these days, and my guess is that the EP is probably the best place to pursue this. However, there are steps that this government should be taking: standing up to the haulage industry’s relentless demands for bigger and heavier trucks, and pushing those big trucks back out of the city centres and narrow streets that should never have been expected to accommodate them.
There is one thing conspicuously absent from The Times‘s manifesto, given their focus on road danger and the many tragic stories that have been raised both in the newspaper and repeatedly by MPs who had lost constituents. They say nothing about getting dangerous drivers off the road. It is abundantly clear that in recent years we have developed a massive problem with the investigation of dangerous driving. Between us we could compile vast lists of hit and run incidents and near death experiences that have all ended in the police giving up because of lost files, untraceable number plates and the vehicle owner claiming not to have been the driver. Meanwhile, when cases of dangerous driving do make it to court, the sanctions are woefully inadequate. If the government were serious about tackling road danger, ministers from the DfT, Home Office and Justice department would be working on reforms to the policing and sentencing of dangerous driving.
Those are the areas where I think we should be expecting to see action from ministers, and I’ll go into more detail about each in later posts. The other items in The Times’s manifesto? Can’t argue with gathering more reliable stats on cycling: the “audits” that we’ve had in the past have usually been far from robust. Little to say about training: the funding for it is already adequate and protected, as ministers like to regularly re-announce (though I’m not sure why, given that vehicular cycling training has only been developed as a way to cope with their failed roads policies). And sponsored cycleways? A policy championed by Boris Johnson is the last thing cycling needs.