Parliamentary cycle safe debate; the start of something special?

MPs from all political parties squeezed in to Westminster Hall for today's back bench debate on cycling safety.

Prompted by The Times' Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, member after member stood to say how many of their constituents had been in touch, and how they wanted their constituencies to be fairer and more equitable places to get about no matter your choice of transport. Tragically one after another paid tribute to scores of constituents who had been killed whilst riding a bicycle (In the small rural constituency of Devon, Totness, 11 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured in just 5 years.  Population: 67 thousand, of which cyclists, 2% at most. Can we stop toeing the "we mustn't talk about how dangerous cycling can be in case it scares people off cycling" line now, please?)

Many MPs spoke of their own love affair for the bicycle, others joked that if it they could just find a way to make it a little safer they might even consider riding a bike themselves.

As cycle campaigners we have a heavy emotional investment in cycling issues.  Too often we know the people who make the fatal headlines personally.  Sometimes, we are so clued up and deep in to the issues that it is hard for outsiders to even begin to comprehend our passion and intensity.  We come across, to be frank, as somewhat strange.  Andrew Gilligan recently described us as "shrill" in The Telegraph and I totally understand where he is coming from with that.  It would be easy for us all to pick holes in a lot of what was said during the debate.  There may have been a paucity of imagination from some of the members and others still may have had a strange and unfounded belief in the power of "louder bike bells", and subsidised high vis and helmets.  But we should all of us remember that this is an incredible start.  Cycling as a serious political issue has been in the wilderness for many, many decades.  Even MP Ben Bradshaw admitted that Labour just didn't get up to speed on the issue.  So our MPs are only just commencing their journey down the path as to what is good for cyclists - and those who would like to ride - and what is not.

Rather than picking holes in what has been said, or laughing at certain members lack of understanding of the issues, now is the time for us all to encourage them to remain focused on the issue and to show them with examples what it is we would like to see.  Politicians aren't interested in people who moan and moan and moan without offering any alternative solution.  What they are interested in are demonstrations of ideas which could improve the lot of their constituents.  It's time for us to show them all that cycling can be that.

The important thing is that the letter writing, protesting and lobbying has had an effect.  The Times campaign has pulled cycle campaigning by the scruff of it's neck from the long grass firmly in to the main stream.  We may all be impatient for change as we wistfully look across the North Sea to our cycle-friendly cousins, but if anyone wants a reassurance that we are taking our first, bold, tentative steps in the right direction then this should be all the reassurance you need:

The House of Commons today, at the same as the cycle safe debate in Westminster Hall.  We have our MP's attention, let's work with them to turn it in to action.

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Anonymous said...

Very well put.

Whatever else comes out of today one thing is sure: the game has changed.


Jez Andrews said...

Looks like a room of ministers discussing what could just be hollow promises. Sceptic? Yes. Is the money even there for the changes?

adf said...

I guess what you need to ask is what happens next, what is the political process and how can I help. That's much more fun than being a skeptic. Thanks Mark for your part in getting us this far.

CiarĂ¡n said...

@Jez Andrews,

The money is there billions is spent on transport every year. The perception is that this money must only (or predomently) be spent on facilities for motor traffic.

Cycling must be seen as viable transport that needs to properly included in planning and road design.

If a roads going to be built or re-built there is no extra cost to implementing proper cycling facilities.

Monchberter said...

I'm holding out hopes for this, despite most ministers attending seemingly clueless and poorly briefed, aside from a pile of tragic letters from constituents.

There have been huge numbers of incredibly comprehensive reports written on cycling over the past decade, maybe they should have read some of them.

Then they may be banging on more than they did about changing the entire culture of road use instead of encouraging training (good, but not the answer) and infrastructure (reports show that if you insist on bike lanes, you just encourage drivers to insist cyclists stay in them - not a great result).

So what should have they been discussing? Well, perhaps the root cause? A lack of respect on our roads? To tackle mass cycling, we really need to make all road users recognise that cyclists have an equal right to the road. Before that happens and in engrained, people are continue to say they feel too scared to ride where they are not respected.

Where to start?

Insist on cycle training for any road user prosecuted for an incident involving a cyclist.

Incentivise motorists to learn about why and how cyclists behave through cheaper insurance premiums for those with Bikeability Level 3.

A very visible media campaign encouraging safe, legal road use and motorists to respect cyclists. Base it around the Highway Code and Bikeability training.

adrian said...

The shameful thing is that, as you say, we are just starting out on the first tentative steps. This is possibly the bottom of the dip in the boom bust cycle, but we have had huge numbers cycling in this country. There were more people cycling in the 50s in Britain than there are now in any of the progressive continental cities.
Part of what is required is the cultural change, and it was refreshing to see unanimous support for cycling.

amoeba said...

While we're at it, we need to press for serious penalties for driving offences.
I suggest:
Immediate automatic bans for drivers who KSI. It seems reasonable that a significant proportion of drivers who cause death should be banned for life.
Driving licences to be returned to those who are banned temporarily, only after passing the extended driving test.
Driving whilst banned must be made an imprisonable offence.

Hit and run offences permanent ban.
Both Mobile phone use hands-free and hand-held must stop. Whether talking, texting, surfing etc. There's sufficient evidence to show it's as bad as driving under the influence.

The Police need to presume that a road death is the result of driving culpably / deliberate, and pursue their enquiries accordingly.

You may or may not have seen the Bus Driver attack a cyclist

Now read the book that has already described this: Driven to Kill: Vehicles as Weapons.
University of Alberta associate professor of Public Health J. Peter Rothe researched just this topic for his book Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons. He writes about intentional violence of all types aided by automobile. A central theme of this book, according to Dr Rothe, is that “police investigations are not engaged on the assumption that a driver deliberately uses his vehicle as a weapon for maiming or killing a pedestrian, cyclist, or other roadway users.”
“Stress! Vengeance! Impatience! Entitlement! Aggression! Mood! are prominent factors,” in traffic crashes, says Rothe, but accident investigations still focus on engineering and mechanical factors rather than the human element.
He has a chapter on violence against cyclists in particular, violence which is motivated by a motorist’s feeling of entitlement to the road and irritation that cyclists don’t pay a mythical “road tax” amongst other imagined sins and shortcomings. “A ‘might is right’ mentality erupts in some drivers,” Rothe writes, “that pushes them to discipline [cyclists], to teach them a lesson, which sometimes means steering their cars into bikes, pulling into the bikers paths, or purposely swerving into marked bike lanes.” [page 112]

Rothe covers much more than just car vs bike and road rage incidents in his book. He has a section devoted entirely to what he calls the “Immediate Zone” — the murderer plans and uses his car as the murder weapon. “The car,” he prosaically writes, “makes direct contact with a victim.”
Rothe doesn’t set out to demonize automobiles in his book, but to point out that automotive violence is a reflection of our violent culture. Instead of seeing vehicular violence as a normal, naturally occurring part of our transportation infrastructure, he wants to reframe it as a public health issue.
Book: Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons by J. Peter Rothe. 2008.

Matthew said...

A telling comment for me came from Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East. He said, "This has been a great debate. Let us ensure that it is not only a worthy venting of concern and aspiration, but a catalyst for action to make cycling in this country as good as it could be." (I disagree with him about what constitutes a great debate but otherwise spot on.)

From all the statements made there was remarkable coherence about cycling being an important form of transport and recreation, delivering a wide range of benefits. Credit to our cycling organisations, individuals and the all parliamentary group on cycling for drumming this home to so many of our leaders. It was also evident how much further we still have to go before we'll get the policies for mass cycling.

"I think this is the beginning of a big conversation rather than a one-off debate." Jane Ellison MP Battersea

Matthew said...

For those who haven't found it yet, you can watch or read the debate here

How about a few follow up letters to continue the debate?

patrick field said...

You ask, "Can we stop toeing the "we mustn't talk about how dangerous cycling can be in case it scares people off cycling" line now, please?"

Who is "we" and who do you imagine drafts 'our' line?

You're free to express any opinion on this subject.

Public-heath statistics are hard to collect and harder to interpret but there's no evidence that cycling is especially hazardous in comparison with walking.

It's not a cycling problem it's a problem with motor-traffic.

The first step to solving a problem is daring to name it.

ibikelondon said...

Hi Patrick, thanks for stopping by.

Two responses for you: with regards to the "who" I've been told on a number of occasions that 'we' must not talk about "cycling being dangerous" by full time professional cycle campaigners, or indeed to talk about people on bikes being killed in case it puts other people off riding a bike. This seems to me pernicious in the extreme; how can "we" realistically lobby for improvements without first making a clear case that there is a problem in the first place?

I don't, of course, mean to say that the act of riding a bike is in itself dangerous. I do, however, believe that riding a bike and indeed walking in our current urban environment *is* unnecessarily dangerous. You say "it's not a cycling problem, it's a problem with motor traffic" but I disagree - compelling people to cycle on fast and busy urban main roads is willfully exposing people to that risk. And sadly people on bikes will come off worse in the case of any mishap every time. This is the core reason why most people don't ride a bike. Now, we can fix this with speed or volume reduction, or we can fix this with sidepath separation as per the Dutch model. But just telling people to increase their cadence and take the lane is not going to help.

Anyway, we're getting distracted. The core message of this post is that we ("we") should be pleased with how the Parliamentary debate went, and should be looking to build on it for something solid for the future.

patrick field said...

Hi Mark thanks for your reply,
please forgive me for stating the obvious;"fast and busy urban roads" is euphemistic. Roads don't move. Ignoring astronomy and earthquakes, they are always still.

Where roads are busy any four-wheeled motor-traffic will be travelling - door-to-door - slower than cycle-traffic. If the speed limits on roads in this category are adjusted to reflect this, the capacity of the network will be increased. Burst of high speed waste space.

Danger doesn't come from roads, it comes from people. In a suburban context it may be useful - and there is more likely to be space - to separate mechanical modes. In cities why not be bold enough to name the dangerous behaviour and address it at source?

Most people in England don't need a "core reason" not to cycle. They never consider it as possible. Their choice has more to do with fashion and identity than any risk assessment.

As for full-time professional cycle-campaigners feel free to disobey them.