Yesterday in parliament I gave evidence at the 'Get Britain Cycling' inquiry. The MPs - and a peer - present in committee room 13 asked lots of sensible questions of myself, journalists from The Guardian and The Times, and experts from British Cycling, Sustrans and CTC, but the answers (and, of course the questions) have all been heard before. In fact, many times. And still nothing much gets done to improve Britain's roads and streets for cyclists and pedestrians.
Perhaps the 'Get Britain Cycling' report - to be written by Professor Phil 'peak car' Goodwin - will be the straw that breaks the camel's back? As the Bicycle Association's Phillip Darnton said, without leadership from the very top, this is unlikely. Maybe, just maybe, things could be different this time? For a start there's a major national newspaper on 'our' side. The 'cities safe for cycling' campaign by The Times has made it OK to talk about providing infrastructure for cyclists. Times journalist Kaya Burgess made the point yesterday that when he's interviewed by TV stations and radio programmes the level of questioning has improved over the past year: when he started appearing as the cyclists' champion in the media he was asked about 'red light jumping' and 'compulsory helmets' but now he's quizzed about design standards and other, much more in-depth topics.
While the support for cycling from The Times is important it remains to be seen whether it will be transformative. When the 'Get Britain Cycling' report is published there will be a debate on it in the House of Commons. Fine words will be said. Fine words have been said before.
In December 1997 a very similar debate was secured by Charles Clarke, the portly Labour MP for Norwich. He was, at the time, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. The year before the then Tory Government had published the National Cycling Strategy "a major breakthrough in transport thinking." The goal for this strategy - never given teeth or cash - was to double cycle use by 2002 and double it again by 2012. It failed.
Charles Clarke (who was later Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006) said the parliamentary debate was to "stress the need for the Government to have a co-ordinated and coherent strategy to promote cycling in all areas."
He said: "cycling must be regarded as a vital part of the Government's overall transport policies."
No doubt similar sentiments will be voiced in parliament by the current co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, Cambridge LibDem MP Julian Huppert and Labour's Ian Austin, MP for Dudley. Their speeches welcoming the 'Get Britain Cycling' report may wish to refer back to the lost opportunities of the past?
Here are some extracts from what was said at the 1997 debate.
"The number of people who cycle is not simply a matter of geographic convenience but depends on whether respective Governments have focused their policies on making such journeys work. The scope for…an increase in bicycle use in Britain exists if local and national Government apply themselves to introducing policies to put cycling at the core of an integrated transport strategy.
"We could attack the problems of danger if the Government committed themselves to creating an integrated high-quality network of cycle routes throughout our cities…In every town and city we need an integrated transport route strategy to ensure that people can conveniently and safely cycle from home to school or to their place of work or wherever.
"We need a high-quality integrated network of cycle routes throughout the country. The Cyclists' Touring Club has estimated that it would cost £130 million a year over 10 years to establish such a network. Compare that with the expenses incurred in my region, the eastern region, on motorway building. The estimated cost of projects and schemes in preparation for the widening of junctions 10 to 14 of the M1 – as recorded in the Government's roads review, so the work may not go ahead – is £228.5 million. Compare that with the £130 million needed to develop a national cycle network. The M1 junctions 6 to 10 widening will cost £105.9 million, and the A14 improvement, £122.3 million. The cause of the nation's health and the environment would be advanced if, in the Government's roads review, they tried to put that integrated high-quality cycle network in place throughout the country, rather than widening a few bits of motorway and adding sliproads here and there."
MP for Norwich
"The debate is fascinating, but the case for encouraging cycling is so obvious that we should not have to put it in such a little debate; it should be
central to Government policy…Given the strength of the argument for cycling, it is amazing that so little is being done. Other countries do much more.
"A dynamic drive from the top downwards is needed to push the case for cycling, and to bring it into all transport considerations. Pious words and endless deference – which, it is fair to say, we do hear – are not enough.."
MP for Great Grimsby
"At present, the car is not only over-used but literally pushing everything else off the road. At present, funding for cycling is simply not adequate. Research by Transport 2000 shows that just 2 percent of local authority transport capital spending goes to cyclists. By contrast, the German environment department recommends that its regional governments spend £20 per head on cycling, 100 times that spent in the United Kingdom, where local authorities are able to spare only 20p per head to turn motorists into cyclists. However much it may be argued that local authorities can transfer things, with that gap, we need to consider the overall funding system. A lot of funding could be found from the tax incentives and other incentives that are given to motorists to drive."
MP for Truro and St. Austell
"To increase the percentage of journeys that are made by cyclists, we are looking for a safe and attractive infrastructure – with traffic-free routes and traffic-calmed roads, where often the speed limit should be only 20 mph – and for a clear lead from central Government, local government and the media to sustain cycling as a modern form of transport that should be encouraged."
MP for Bristol, West
"Our encouragement of the greater use of cycles is part of our integrated transport strategy. Not only on this but on all issues connected with cycling, we must work out how we can disseminate best practice. We need to recognise the bicycle as a serious transport option for going to work, to the shops, to the bus or train station, or to school. That means focusing on infrastructure as well as attitudes."
Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions