It’s time to end the stop-start approach to cycling

Labour's shadow secretary of state for transport gives her plan for Britain's cyclists.

Cyclists deserve better than the spin they were subjected to from transport ministers this month. A promise of £148m turned out to be an average of just £38m a year until 2016, with the rest to be found by local authorities. From a Tory-led government that axed Cycling England and its £60 annual budget, this was too little too late after three wasted years.

This is a wasted opportunity considering the positive benefits that would flow from a greater priority being given to cycling.

When nearly a quarter of all car journeys are less than a mile, making cycling a more attractive option has a huge potential to cut congestion and boost the economy. With families facing a cost of living crisis, making more journeys by bike is a good way to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs on the household budget. And as a cost and time effective way of staying fit, cycling has real health benefits. Switching to cycling also cuts emissions, reducing transport’s contribution to climate change.

The good news is that these benefits are increasingly recognised, with the number of people cycling up by a fifth in the past decade. However, we will have to really move up a gear if we hope to catch those countries which have set and met impressive targets to increase levels of cycling.

I am clear that the only way this can be achieved is to end the stop-start commitment to cycling that prevents greater progress being made. Ministers recently set out annual budgets for rail and road investment up to 2020/21, but failed to do so for cycling infrastructure. That means a £28bn commitment to roads, but a one-off £114m for cycling spread across three years. It’s time for a serious rethink of priorities within the roads budget, with a proportion reallocated to deliver a long-term funding settlement for cycling infrastructure. The evidence from countries such as the United States is that a commitment to smaller scale transport improvements, alongside a "fix-it-first" approach to roads, delivers jobs and growth more effectively than a list of controversial road schemes of questionable value that may take years to deliver.

The priority for investment to support cycling must be dedicated separated infrastructure to create safe routes. In the past, the focus has too often been on painting a thin section at the side of the road a different colour. Genuinely separated cycle routes are vital to improve safety, but also to build confidence and encourage those not used to cycling to make the switch to two wheels.

A commitment to new infrastructure cannot become an excuse not to improve the safety of cyclists on roads where there is no separation. The priority should be redesigning dangerous junctions, where almost two thirds of cyclist deaths and serious injuries from collisions take place. There must also be much greater use of traffic light phasing to give cyclists a head start. To ensure we do not repeat these past mistakes I have proposed that all future transport schemes be subject to a Cycling Safety Assessment prior to approval, in same way that economic and equality impact assessments have to be met.

Local authorities will be central to devising, prioritising and delivering a new commitment to cycling infrastructure. Councils should be provided with a best practice toolkit for boosting cycling numbers, based on what we learnt from the wrongly disbanded Cycling City and Towns programme and evidence from abroad. They should be supported to deliver 20mph zones, increasingly becoming an effective default in most residential areas. The Labour government in Wales has taken forward Active Travel legislation, setting out clear duties to support cycling, and we should assess the very likely potential to extend that approach to England.

As well as getting the right infrastructure in place to support cycling, we need to reverse some of the reckless decisions taken by Ministers since the last election.

It was wrong to axe national targets to cut deaths and serious injuries on Britain’s roads and downgrade THINK! road safety campaigns. Ministers should restore targets, alongside new goals for increasing levels of cycling, and urgently assess any connection between these decisions and the rising number of cyclist deaths – now tragically at a five year high. The Government should not have ended long-term funding certainty for the Bikeability scheme, nor axed the requirement for School Travel Plans. And, instead of weakening the obligations on train companies, they should have toughened obligations to provide facilities for cyclists. With HGVs involved in around a fifth of all cycling fatalities, despite making up just 6 per cent of road traffic, it was wrong for Ministers to have permitted trials of longer lorries. Instead, the £23m set to be raised annually from the HGV road charging scheme should be used to support the road haulage industry to equip lorries with safety equipment, such as side under-run protection and blind spot mirrors, and improve driver training and awareness.

Cycling has the potential to be a huge British success story, but it needs a new approach and a shared commitment across government, councils, schools, employers and public transport providers. Most of all, it needs Ministers to cut the spin and instead give cycling infrastructure a greater priority within existing transport investment plans. It’s time to end the stop-start approach that is getting in the way of progress and agree a cross-party, long-term commitment to cycling.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of pieces on transport and travel.

Photograph: Getty Images

Maria Eagle is the Labour MP for Garston and Halewood and the shadow environment secretary.

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.