By Peter Walker - photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images
The government needs to show long-term and committed leadership at the very highest level if Britain is ever to become a nation of cyclists, a pioneering parliamentary inquiry into getting more people on to bikes, stated.
The Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers were told repeatedly that if the country was to start catching up to continental neighbors on cycling levels – currently around 2% of Britons use a bike as their main mode of transport, one of the lowest levels of all 27 EU nations – it would require the sort of strategic, non-partisan planning seen on other major transport infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail lines.
"We will not create a cycling culture until we have leadership that makes it clear this is a commitment for the long term," said Phillip Darnton, from the Bicycle Association trade group, who formerly headed the now-disbanded Cycling England quango. "This is not a party-political thing."
The commitment needed to be like that made in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands several decades ago, Darnton said, in that cycling should be treated as an important and integral part of all transport planning. "We need to take that stance so no political party ever questions it again. We could start tomorrow if we wanted," he said.
The inquiry, entitled Get Britain Cycling, was set up by the all-party parliamentary cycling group in an attempt to turn the generalized enthusiasm for cycling following the Olympics and Bradley Wiggins's Tour de France win into an increase in the numbers using bikes as regular transport. Another key impetus for the inquiry was a concerted and energetic cycle safety campaign set up by the Times after one of its reporters was severely and permanently injured by a lorry while cycling.
The first of six evidence sessions saw input from cycling groups such as the national campaign group the CTC, British Cycling and Sustrans, experts including Darnton, academics specializing in cycle use and media including the Guardian and the Times.
Witness after witness told the gathered MPs and sole peer, Lord Hoffman, that cycling levels would only increase significantly with sustained investment in dedicated cycle infrastructure, notably segregated lanes and safer junctions, as well as places for people to store bikes at home, work and public transport links.
Such a joined-up approach was vital, said Roger Geffen, head of policy at the CTC (a National cyclists' organisation). "A cycling journey is only as good as its weakest link," he argued. "If all those things are not in place someone is not going to make a cycle trip. They will take the car instead."
Another key argument was one about the culture of cycling and how it could be seen as an everyday thing – "an enhanced form of walking" in Hoffman's phrase – rather than a sport or a pursuit needing daring and special knowledge. One of the committee, the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, recounted hearing from a group of around 30 local young people that around half currently cycled but only two planned to continue as they all aspired to own cars. Corbyn said: "One of them described it by saying cycling is for losers."
Among ideas suggested to combat this was a cycling element within the driving test and encouraging more women and children to cycle, for example making the Bike-ability cycle training scheme part of the regular school curriculum, as with swimming.
Time and again the committee was told such changes needed commitment from the prime minister and cabinet. Anything else, Darnton said, would be just "tinkering at the edges" and achieving little. Ambitions should be great, he said: "It's not about cycling at all. It's about what sort of streets, what sort of towns, what sort of communities we want to live in."
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