Although the bicycle's simplicity and efficiency were a source of great marvel when it was first created, few could have anticipated that, almost 200 years later, it would provide such an elegant solution to so many modern social problems. The obesity epidemic. Air and noise pollution. Transport poverty. Rampant congestion. Heart disease. A loss of community. An overstretched NHS. Any journey made by bike or on foot rather than by car, every press of the pedal by those riding a bike, each new cyclist pushing off from the kerb by their house is a fresh dent in each of these sizable problems. And, in times like these, when the budget needs rebalancing and cuts are being made, every pound we spend on cycling returns many more in saving to the national purse.
So with such great potential benefits at stake, just how do we Get Britain Cycling? That's the question being asked in the Houses of Parliament over the next few weeks. Experts from across the world of cycling, transport and beyond are descending on Westminster for six sessions with a panel of MPs. Things kicked off last Wednesday, with Sustrans amongst those giving evidence and helping to provide answers.
Given the bicycle's graceful simplicity, it is unsurprising that these answers are themselves uncomplicated. The consensus among the cycling organisations, experts and journalists is clear: speaker after speaker highlighted the basic need for political leadership, improved infrastructure and consistent funding.
Obtaining support from senior members of government is certainly not an objective unique to the cycling lobby, but - given the passionate and increasing interest in the bike, helped along very nicely by the heroics of Wiggo and Co last year, and the immense, universal benefits more cycling delivers - such demands are perhaps uniquely well-reasoned, and meeting them would both empower and please an ever-more vocal, influential and growing group. As pointed out during proceedings, both the prime minister and the Mayor of London were both very keen to be seen on bikes before their elections to demonstrate how thoroughly modern and grounded they were. There seem to be plenty of people in positions of power who 'get' cycling. But, as was also pointed out during the session, 'getting' something and doing something about it are two very different things.
Funding is another quite typical political demand, but cycling is again in an unusual position of being able to point to occasional, disparate and short-lived episodes of funding, boasting of resulting, prolific successes, then lamenting their demise and the loss of substantial achievements. The Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which has seen ground-breaking projects delivered to communities across the country and is rightly held up as one of the successes of the coalition government, is due to stop in two years without any guarantees of continuation. Similarly, there are hundreds of men and women helping to train cyclists young and old across the UK that do not know whether their work will continue beyond the next few years. It would be considered madness for our road or aviation strategies to rely on such short-term and sporadic funding. To grow the numbers of people cycling permanently, government must provide funding and vision beyond merely the next few months or years.
The desire for better infrastructure is perhaps more specific to cycling, particularly compared to the needs of car users. UK transport policy has revolved around the demands of motorists for decades. Speed limits, junctions, road layout and signs all marginalise cyclists and pedestrians and make the roads more dangerous. It is this lack of safety - real and perceived - that prevents people from cycling, particularly women and older people. While many contributors spoke up in favour of segregated bike lanes, there was also a recognition that they could not be built between every doorstop or find space within our crowded cityscapes. As much as anything, we need to change the culture of our roads, slowing down speeds, changing the balance of the law in favour of those on foot or bike and developing a culture of mutual respect where speed, might and belligerence do not rule supreme.
Leadership. Money. Infrastructure. It all sounds quite simple when spelt out. As you might expect, there are a million ideas on how leadership should be applied, how money would be spent and how infrastructure might be build or redesigned. Much of the detail will be explored in the next five sessions. But these basic three objectives are now well agreed among the representatives of cycling, members of the media, academics and many politicians themselves. The task now is to make sure that members of government act.
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