The case for a better conversation on cycling


The Government's new cycling strategy was unveiled to much excitement and some debate this week. While most people in the transport profession welcomed the plans with open arms there are still some who see cycle lanes as an irritant.

Howard Cox, a co-founder of the Fair Fuel UK campaign, told talkRADIO the divide between cyclists and other road users 'is getting wider and wider'.

He doesn't mean literally, that is just what the cyclists want.

'I have called on Cycling UK, I have called on lots of people, please can we work together to get road usage fair for everyone. I am not anti-cycling but I expect to pay for the privilege of having a free byway. There are 37 million motorists and only 3% of journeys are on bicycle and you can't carry a three-piece suite on a bicycle.'


This is not entirely true or logical. Firstly, cargo bikes with trailers can shift an enormous amount, secondly, you can't carry a three-piece suite on your shoulders but we still provide pavements for pedestrians, who outnumber even motorists. And thirdly all taxpayers pay for the roads. Though it is true drivers pay over and above the road infrastructure costs, that does not factor in the external costs of things like pollution and lives lost through crashes. 

However, to dismiss Mr Cox as being glib could be to respond in kind. He also told talkRADIO that he has had death threats because of his public campaigning and had 'poo through my letterbox wrapped in cycling gloves'.

It hardly needs saying that such criminal behaviour is appalling, unacceptable and helping no one.

There is room for a friendly rivalry between the transport modes. No doubt in the DfT, the rail desk seldom invites the roads division to its pub lunches. But the so-called divide is more a matter of imagination. In reality, the different modes all support each other.

These apparent divisions and the debate around them are amplified, as everything is, on social media. In some cases, this can be good fun. Introducing the strategy, the prime minister said: 'Of course you can't deliver a fridge-freezer on a cargo bike – but you can deliver plenty of other goods that currently come in diesel vans.'

Pausing for a brief moment to remember Mr Johnson's passion for secluded fridges, the response from pedicab company Pedal Me was to release a video showing that in fact you certainly could deliver a fridge freezer on a cargo bike.

But we cannot allow a programme that has the potential to do so much good to get bogged down in juvenile bickering, let alone hate and abuse. If there is too much negativity around the plans the local authorities that have the final say in delivering all of this might back away from making decisions deemed 'too difficult'.

Those who support the Government's strategy must not fall into this trap. Especially when the government has outlined such a compelling case. It does not need self-righteous indignation, it only needs simple explanation.

  • Physical inactivity costs the NHS up to £1bn per annum, with further indirect costs calculated at £8.2bn
  • 20 minutes of exercise per day cuts the risk of developing depression by
  • 31% and increases the productivity of workers
  • Up to 40% increase in shopping footfall by well-planned improvements in the walking environment
  • Meeting the targets to double cycling and increase walking would lead to savings of £567m annually from air quality alone and prevent 8,300 premature deaths each year and provide opportunities to improve green spaces and biodiversity
  • Cycling contributes £5.4bn to the economy per year and supports 64,000 jobs

Those who are against the plans argue, not entirely unreasonably, that drivers who pay so much tax are getting less and less road space and more and more congestion. But better cycle lanes should help tackle congestion.

The prime minister addresses this complaint in his introduction to the strategy document: 'People often think that encouraging bikes and walking causes congestion – but it doesn't if you do it properly.'

The strategy highlights: 'The new east-west and north-south cycle routes in London are moving 46% of the people in only 30% of the road space.'

Another argument is that no one will use these new cycle lanes. The number of cycling journeys is indeed woefully low in this country. In fact Mr Cox is wrong again, as he is exaggerating the UK cycling figures.

'The average distance cycled has been increasing – by 50% since 2002. However, the number of cycle trips has remained flat over the same period. Only 2% of trips are cycled, similar to levels in 2002. In comparison, more than a quarter of all trips made by people in the Netherlands are cycled,' the strategy states.

The counter argument is that more people will cycle once they have better infrastructure. The Government notes that cycling on London’s Blackfriars Bridge rose by 55% in the six months after a protected bike track was installed.

It also points out that: '58% of car journeys in 2018 were under five miles. And in urban areas, more than 40% of journeys were under 2 miles in 2017–1817. For many people, these journeys are perfectly suited to cycling and walking.'

A five-mile car journey in traffic - presumably many of these short trips are to town or the supermarket - can be cycled just as quickly. Surely the Government has a mandate to try to nudge more people into making life easier, healthier and cheaper on themselves and those around them.

Mr Johnson states: 'When I was mayor of London, one of the things I was proudest of was building some of the world's best cycle lanes. It was often difficult and we faced opposition. But when the results of consultations and opinion polls came back, our opponents were often surprised to find themselves in a small minority.'

Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group, said: 'There is so much scope for more of the shorter journeys currently made on four wheels to be made on two wheels or two feet. In the process, we can improve public health, reduce traffic congestion and help decarbonise the city regions.'

Despite fewer people travelling overall during this pandemic, there was a 100% increase in weekday cycling and on some weekends around 200%, so we know there is latent demand of some size.

Even if those who are against the plans are right and people don't want to cycle, it is surely worth councils at least giving it a chance - for the potential health benefits alone. 

There is also, most importantly perhaps, a huge safety imperative here. A desire for a congestion free road does not trump a cyclist's right to life.

Cycling has every right to be engineered to best practice safety standards. We would not accept unsafe rail infrastructure just because you could drive the journey instead.

And if the anti-cycling campaigners are wrong, and people do want to cycle, then everyone could soon see the benefits of less congestion. Time and again transport professionals report that once people see the benefits of controversial schemes, from cycle lanes to congestion charges, people rarely want to go back.

A key point of the Government's strategy is that 'cycles must be treated as vehicles, not as pedestrians'.

This works both ways. Cyclists are a passionate community and their vocal grassroots lobbying has helped bring about an amazing change and positive step forward in transport policy.

They have a major opportunity now, but will have to accept more responsibility because of it.

If Twitter is anything to go by - to be fair, it is often not - drivers and cyclists need to learn to share the road better. And as we are always told if you can't learn to share, you might have it taken away altogether.

After all, people might argue some city streets are much nicer without either of them.

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