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Do We Have the Political Ambition to 'Get Britain Cycling'?

08/03/2013 11:45 GMT | Updated 07/05/2013 10:12 BST

The success of British cyclists in 2012 thrust the two-wheeled pursuit (notice how I didn't say 'sport') firmly into the spotlight and there has since been a huge expectation, or perhaps hope, that we can build on this legacy to create a step change in how we support everyday cycling in Britain.

It was under this premise that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling conducted a detailed inquiry entitled 'Get Britain Cycling'. The six-session investigation started in January and concluded this week (on 4 March). The titles of each session revealed just what a complicated issue this is and pointed to how much work might be needed - it included sessions on safety, legislation, planning, health, local approaches and it concluded by looking at the role of government. And appearing at each session was a who's who of organisations and individuals that are already actively engaged in trying to drive forward precisely the changes that are needed - including Sustrans, CTC, British Cycling, News International and Cyclenation.

Levels of cycling in Britain are amongst the lowest across Europe - only 2% of us use a bike as our main method of getting around. In the Netherlands, 20 times more journeys are made by bike by people under 17 than in the UK. And the main reason for this is the perceived lack of safety.

Safety improvements urged at the inquiry included incorporating cycle safety into the driving test and National Curriculum, reducing speed limits in urban areas and banning HGVs from town centres unless fitted with sensors. The inquiry also heard some rather worrying findings that the police are not enforcing 20mph limits and the courts are displaying an apparent inability to punish drivers who injure or kill cyclists.

Fundamentally - and in addition to the important task of retro-fitting safety changes at junctions - minimum standards of cycling safety needs to be built into infrastructure planning law. This is something that has been adopted in Copenhagen where a third of all commuter journeys are made by bicycle. Authorities there have calculated that society makes a net profit of around 13p for every kilometre cycled whereas it makes a net loss of around 8p for every kilometre travelled by car when you consider such factors as time saved, reduction in congestion and car crashes, and the health benefits.

And those benefits are considerable. As well as resulting in less congestion and pollution, the chief medical advisor says cycling regularly can help prevent cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and mental health problems.

Health and transport specialist, Dr Adrian Davis, said: "For every £1 pound spent on cycling initiatives they can generally return up to £4 in saved costs to the NHS and value to the economy. The health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20 to one."

To really change the culture, we also need to engage schools - the attitudes taken vary widely across the country. Giving evidence, Olympian Chris Boardman said his children were told that they couldn't cycle to school because "what would happen if everyone started doing it?".

Boardman said cycling is a less popular form of transport today than it was more than 60 years ago: "The last time the Olympics was in London in 1948, 15% of journeys were made by bike - compare that with just 2% today. A true Olympic legacy would be to get back to that."

With so many experts at the Get Britain Cycling inquiry already actively engaged in these issues, much of the 'evidence' was not necessarily new. However, it is the first time such a breadth of insight had been shared in such a formal setting. There is a sense that something must now come from this. The APPG will now digest all the information and present its findings to government on 24 April. For those mindful of the fact APPG's rarely provide the bite needed for change, it was encouraging that Norman Baker MP told the inquiry this report would be treated "as if it was coming from a Select Committee". This news will go some way to counter the discovery that Mr Baker admitted he had not yet met David Cameron in person to discuss cycling, despite being the minister for cycling.

Co-Chair of the APPG, Ian Austin MP, said the ambitions of the group would never be achieved without "a concerted and co-ordinated effort strategy from central and local government."

Broadcaster and CTC President Jon Snow summarised the sentiment neatly: "Whatever political leader nailed his/her colours to the revolutionisation of cycling would leave a legacy that would live for many generations. The dividends are far greater than we know."

Some of those leaders can be found in Wales. The inquiry heard that the new Active Travel Bill would require local authorities in Wales to build a "fully integrated" network of traffic-free routes and cycle lanes between key places such as schools, hospitals and shops. The Bill was launched last month and will now be scrutinised ahead of a further vote.

But it is London that is already leading the charge and it may be Boris Johnson who secures that legacy. London invests more per capita in cycling than anywhere else in the UK, currently £10 per person (it's about £1 nationally), and there are plans to increase this to £18. And whilst this is still far short of the €37 The Netherlands spends per person on cycling infrastructure, Johnson and his new Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, announced (on 7 March) a £913m plan to make London 'more Dutch', to 'de-Lycrafy' cycling and make it normal for everyone.

The major programme will include improvements to junctions, separate cycle paths and 'Quietways' networked across the capital. It includes a 'Crossrail for bikes' - a 15 mile east-west route across town, including a segregated cycle route along Victoria Embankment - and three 'Mini Hollands' in the suburbs where bikes will aim to largely replace cars for short journeys.

Johnson obviously has the ambition to improve things, and a large part of his direction has been shaped by the constant pressure from bloggers and journalists. Even if we don't have the political ambition nationally to Get Britain Cycling yet, the progress being made in London could be the impetus needed and blueprint required to inspire other parts of the country to act.