Bicycle Association exec director Phillip Darnton provides his take on the Parliamentary enquiry ahead of the final report publishing in April

Can we Get Britain Cycling?

The final session of the Parliamentary inquiry Get Britain Cycling took place earlier this month

The inquiry, set up largely as a result of The Times’ ‘Cities safe for cycling’ campaign, has seen the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group take evidence from the media, cycle advocates, transport experts and others over six sessions in the Houses of Parliament, from January to March.

Next month Professor Phil Goodwin will present a report based on recommendations from the inquiry, but before then we asked the Bicycle Association’s exec director Phillip Darnton, who has been at the evidence sessions, for his thoughts…

“The Get Britain Cycling Enquiry is another important new effort to get government engagement with the long-term future of cycling in the UK.

Even before all the public sessions are concluded, or the written evidence assessed, it is very clear that there are a few critical elements which have to be in place if we are serious about achieving a significant shift in the number of trips by bike over the next 20 years.

First of all, we must recognise that this is not a “quick fix”. The behaviour change implied in moving from two per cent of trips by bike to, say, 20 per cent of trips is enormous – in terms of public attitudes, ingrained travel habits, and of our social and cultural norms. We love cars; we design our lives around cars, we take our cars for granted, even for trips under five miles. Such a programme will need a 40 year time horizon and a commitment of continuous funding throughout – and continuity is something which UK politicians are notoriously bad at.

It is clear too that without this profound cultural change, we will never reach “European levels” in cycling. We may, by “doing our best”, make some steady progress, as indeed we have over the past decade, but we will not in any sense transform our towns and cities into places which everyone enjoys and where most people take to a bicycle to make short urban trips.

From all the evidence so far, there is unanimity about the importance of three things:

1. Leadership – “from the very top”.
2. Political will – a cross-party determination to make this happen.
3. Long-term continuity of funding.

This last is probably the single biggest factor which differentiates the approach of the UK from that of the best cycling cities in Europe. Those cities took a decision in 1973 to make cycling a core part of their integrated transport strategy, and they have funded it ever since, and no party or government has ever questioned their original decision. As one European Transport Commissioner advised the UK: “Just start a long time ago, and then keep going.”

There has obviously been a lot of discussion about the dangers – perceived as much as real – of cycling, and that perhaps inevitably focused on segregated lanes for cyclists. This is always cited as a panacea but in reality it is at least in the medium term unachievable. In no country are there separated cycle lanes, from “everywhere to everywhere”, and that every junction where the cyclist need to turn to the right, inevitably he has to join the main carriageway.

There is no getting away from the fact that the issues of danger, for all vulnerable road users in the end have to be the concern of everyone of us. Clearly there are many opportunities to improve the quality of existing infrastructure, and to have far better facilities for cyclists in the planning and design of new road schemes. But none of this can disguise the fundamental need to bring about a profound behaviour change in society with regard to how we see road space and how we behave towards one another – are roads for cars or are they for us all from pushchairs to wheelchairs.

And perhaps that is what Professor Goodwin will also choose to highlight – that this is not an Inquiry about how to increase suburban cycling trips, but rather the start of a recognition across the whole of society that we can choose – and must choose – what sort of place we want Britain to be for future generations. A car-dominated, congestion-clogged, polluting, obese nightmare, or somewhere where we can all enjoy attractive streets, villages and town centres, which are safe and enjoyable to live in. This is not a dream; we could make it happen but that brings us right back to top-level government leadership, political will, courage and determination. Good luck Professor Goodwin.”

Phillip Darnton OBE is executive director (and former president) of the Bicycle Association of Great Britain. Darnton chaired Cycling England from 2005 till its demise in 2011 and sat on the National Cycling Strategy Board. From 2000 to 2003 he was MD and chairman of Raleigh UK.

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