Chris Boardman at the launch of the Mayor of London’s “Vision for Cycling ” (Photo: The Times)
“Cameron climbs aboard cycle revolution” announced The Times (April 25th 2013) to describe the statement of the Prime Minister in response to the “Get Britain Cycling” (GBC) report. But describing his response we see that while he “endorsed the report”, he “stopped short of committing himself to forcing through change”. Chris Boardman, the former Olympic and World champion with years of experience in supporting cycling as a form of everyday transport, criticised the Prime Minister’s lack of ambition: “It is the kind of statement that is incredibly frustrating and even makes me angry”. Is Boardman right to feel this way?
Let’s look at the PM’s response:
In Prime Minister’s Questions on April 24th , Julian Huppert MP the co-chair of the AAPCG asked the Prime Minister, David Cameron MP, whether he will “look at the report, will he make sure he produces a cross-departmental action plan, [and] will [he] give his personal commitment to leadership to get Britain cycling?”
The Prime Minister replied,
“I don’t always agree with what the honorable gentleman says, but on this occasion he is absolutely right and the House should heed what he says, we should be doing much more in our country to encourage cycling, I think the report has many good points in it, I would commend what the Mayor of London has done in London to promote cycling and I hope local authorities can follow his lead in making sure we do more.”
According to the same Times report, he said: “We should be doing much more in this country to encourage cycling”, although actually – so far – when it comes down to it, he won’t be.
As usual, the responsibility is shoved down to local authorities under the “localism” excuse. What this means is that the buck is passed to bodies with no significant extra funding and practitioners either untrained in supporting cycling and/or unsympathetic to it.
Worse still, modeling and appraisal guidelines – set by the government – based on maintaining or expanding highway capacity for motor vehicular traffic will tend to work against any moves to reallocate road space from motor vehicles to cycling. Properly measuring danger to cyclists – a key point we have drawn attention to and raised in Professor Phil Goodwin’s full GBC report by, for example, John Dales– won’t have happened. There will be no financial incentive for highway authorities to properly provide for cycling, nor disincentive for not doing so.
As one of the few progressive highway engineers puts it : “So, there we have it, Cameron is not bothered about leading on what is a national issue which touches far more than just transport. He essentially thinks it is down to local authorities to deal with this issue, using the Mayor of London as the example of best practice; and they have all done so well up until now!”
What about Boardman’s frustration? Now, I have a history of scepticism concerning Government activity with regard to cycling. Over the last twenty eight years I have seen successive Ministers announce how there is going to be far more cycling and that this will happen because of their various initiatives. With possibly some limited local exceptions, these somehow fail to materialise into much in the way of significant efforts delivering widespread and permanent change in travel behaviour. We have had the National Cycling Strategy, Cycling England, the London Cycle Network, the London Cycle Network Plus – and cycling’s modal share is more or less where it was.
One learns to avoid frustration by not expecting a link between fine words and meaningful action. After all, as I said in analysinging the GBC report “At some stage progressing the pro-cycling agenda means coming up against the institutions and ideology of car culture and a car-centred society. We will see what happens to the recommendations of the GBC report when government responds. And of course, that is the big question: how will government actually respond? Watch this space.”
So much for frustration – what about anger?
Don’t forget that this Government (with the full support of the opposition) in its last budget, refused to implement a paltry 3p per litre increase in the price of petrol. Delaying this planned increase means continuing a policy of cheap motoring , in this case giving motorists (in an age of supposed austerity) approximately £500 million per annum. All to cut a cost that could be recouped by driving some 40 fewer miles a year or simply driving more fuel efficiently for a few journeys. That £500 million for cycling could be a move towards the annual spend recommended by the GCB report.
There is, however, a glimpse of hope. According to BikeBiz “The Government’s response to the Get Britain Cycling report has been less than effusive so far but perhaps ministers are keeping their powder dry for the expected launch of a new cross-departmental body that could be announced in June? BikeBiz has learned that the new organisation may be called OAT, the Office for Active Travel. It will have an initial budget of £1bn”.
So the next date to watch out for is in June, and we may all be happily surprised. Otherwise it will be time, yet again, for justifiable anger from Chris Boardman and also all those of us committed not just to cycling and a healthy and sustainable transport system, but to a decent and civilised society.