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 shadow secretary of state for defence and Labour MP for Garston and Halewood

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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