How pro-cycling are the Liberal Democrats?

The last post gave some detail on how anti-cycling this Government is. Of course, we are aware that the current government is a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in it. But the Liberal Democrats have now officially adopted the Get Britain Cycling report recommendations as Lib Dem policy , and it is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats have, on the whole, tended to be more positive on the cycling front. Indeed, they may well have been a corrective force against some of the worst of the Conservatives’ efforts  on transport policy. Let’s look in more detail at the Liberal Democrats and cycling.

Some Liberal Democrats, in particular the excellent Julian Huppert MP (Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group) have said many good things about supporting cycling – although so have individual MPs of all parties. The issue is: what can we expect from the Liberal Democrats as a party?

The Get Britain Cycling recommendations were officially adopted as Lib Dem policy at the 2013 party conference, including £10 per head cycling spending and 10% of journeys being by bike by 2025, rising to 25% by 2050. The Lib Dems are the first major party to adopt these recommendations, which also include research into tougher penalties for dangerous and careless drivers and strict liability, and a requirement for local authorities to provide for cyclists in planning.

At the party’s conference in Glasgow, the motion, proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group chair Julian Huppert, was also supported by Cycling Minister Norman Baker.

It’s worthwhile quoting further from the Cycling Weekly report on the comments of the NGOs in response to this:

Sustrans Policy Advisor, Matt Hamsley, said: “Cycling Minister Norman Baker urged the conference to support the recommendations, and should now put pressure on his coalition colleagues to do the same.


CTC’s Chris Peck added: “It is really good that Julian Huppert has pulled the party towards the important part of it, which is a round of money, because that is the hardest for parties to stand behind. [Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Transport] Maria Eagle showed some pretty good leadership by putting forward her 8-point plan, but the weakest part of that was the [lack of pledged] money.”

He added that the hard part in the short term it is to transfer Get Britain Cycling into coalition policy and into the Lib Dem manifesto for 2015.

So we have some kind of formal commitment from the Liberal Democrats. The problem is, as the CTC say, to have that in the official manifesto for the election, and – above all – a willingness to impose the requirements upon a coalition partner, since everybody accepts that the Lib Dems will not be the next government on their own. Assessing the prospects of this happening should involve looking at the record of the Lib Dems so far, particularly the Minister, Norman Baker.


Norman Baker (Photo: Department for Transport)

I consider his views in three episodes here:

 1.     How much money is this Government spending on cycling?

His response to an official question was: “The Coalition Government’s level of funding for cycling compares very favourably with other European countries” and has been effectively rubbished here:

Of course, Ministers tend to talk up what they do, and/or repeat what their civil servants tell them. It may also not be politic to criticise the coalition government of which his party is the junior partner. But he could have argued along the lines of “we are spending a lot, and more than previous governments, but could spend a lot more if we are to get up to European levels”. He doesn’t. And his arguments are full of very obvious holes.

2.     How does the Government measure cyclist safety?

This statistical sleight of hand brings to mind the embarrassment caused when he and his then fellow Minister made complete fools of themselves  when they argued that Britain had a better road safety record for cyclists than the Netherlands . As I argued at the time, this nonsense was actually based on a fundamental feature of how the “road safety” industry measures safety, which inherently impedes attempts to increase the amount of cycling – as this will be seen to oppose “road safety”  This is absolutely critical to an understanding of “road safety”, and I would urge you to read this post again.


3.     Does this Government want cyclists to feel safer?

The London Assembly’s transport committee December 2012 report   suggested the Government consider adopting the practice of what is referred to as strict liability (actually it is presumed liability) in civil law for drivers where cyclists or pedestrians are in collisions involving motor vehicles. Baker opposed this in a letter to the Committee reported in Local Transport Today (LTT 620 19 April – 02 May 2013), although this seems to go against what  has been suggested in the “Get Britain Cycling” report, which his party now supposedly endorses – although of course the wording is about “research” into it, rather than anything more concrete

Baker, I think, got a lot of his response wrong in opposing a measure which is commonplace in other countries. But let’s focus on a key sentence in his letter opposing presumed liability:

It (presumed/strict liability) would also remove the incentive for road users to act responsibly, which could have an undesirable effect on road safety

Actually he means pedestrians and cyclists, rather than all road users – motorists would have more of an incentive to act responsibly, which is a key reason for bring the measure in.

What he is suggesting is that road users – specifically pedestrians and cyclists – change their behaviour in response to their perception of risk, or what we call “risk compensation” or behavioural adaptation. We hope he has taken on an understanding of the work of John Adams, including shorter works showing the lack of evidence for beneficial effects of “road safety” interventions.

It would also be good if he could announce – if we are talking about cyclist safety – how at least one key “road safety” measure adversely affected (to put it mildly)  cyclist safety.

This is not incidental. As with his nonsense about measuring cyclist safety, he is making a fundamental mistake and promoting a barrier to supporting cycling. He is doing nothing less than opposing a measure on the basis that it might make cyclists feel safer.

I suggest that hese three episodes do not inspire confidence in the Liberal Democrat Minister with responsibility for cycling.

In addition, what are the Liberal Democrats prepared to do when it comes to road building programmes? Why have they not spoken up against the additional subsidy to motoring involved in talking away the (minimal) fuel tax increases? These are key issues to address if we want to achieve modal shift from car use.

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