Friday, 16 August 2013

David Cameron and Patrick McLoughlin's 'Cycling Announcement': amount pledged is pitiful, but politically striking to see them directly associate themselves with cycle advocacy and the segregation of cyclists from pedestrians and motor vehicles

On Monday 12th August 2013 David Cameron and Patrick McLoughlin (Minister for Transport) announced a total of £148 million 'new' funding for cycling between now and 2015 (that's £77 million per annum). It was heartening to see this get such substantial, in-depth coverage from the BBC, especially the comment from Chris Stewart, their Look North Chief Reporter who castigated authorities for building 'cycle lanes' alongside 70 mph dual-carriageways that forced those on a bike to risk their lives crossing 70 mph slip roads at right angles.

However, as Christian Wolmar (who is seeking the Labour nomination for 2016 mayoral election) and Mark Ames of the ibikelondon blog have pointed out, the total funding we're getting is only getting about £17 million a year more than we got every year until 2010 with Cycling England, a quango that distributed £60 million per annum to cycling projects. Why was this money cut off in 2010? David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and the Coalition immediately cancelled it, of course, when they came to power. So the government now is, in fact, woefully trying to make up for three years, and £180 million, of missed investment in cycling with a pitiful £77 million a year. That's a joke, if you ask me.

So, the total funding announced for cycling by our national government is, we can all admit, an insultingly small amount. There are, however, are a few rays of light for cycling advocacy in the UK. The first is the language that this new spending announcement is couched in. In the government's own press release the word 'segregated' occurs three times, including 'a new segregated Super Highway from east Leeds to Bradford City Centre'. This is a substantial improvement on the situation even three years ago, and will hopefully prevent large amounts of government money being wasted on schemes that do a negligible amount to promote cycling (such as the £500,000 travesty that is Scotland's Nice Way Code). Moreover, the use of the key word 'segregated' will help stop local authorities getting away with putting blue paint in the middle of a general traffic lane which Boris Johnson choose to use for most of his largely useless 'Cycle Superhighways' (which were even lambasted by his political ally and new Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan).

Given that there are still significant numbers of 'cycling advocates', especially in organisations like CTC (The National Cycling Charity), who neither understand nor support the segregation of cyclists and motor traffic – nor cyclists and pedestrians – it is in many ways remarkable that a largely Conservative government is in a small way helping establish segregated cycle lanes as the 'gold standard' that local councils should be aiming for. The fact the government has embraced segregation (at least in name) is a testament to the effectiveness of The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (which formed partly in response to the ongoing opposition to segregation in existing cycling advocacy groups like CTC), the London Cycling Campaign's 'Love London, Go Dutch' campaign, The Times' 'Cyclesafe' campaign, and Andrew Gilligan and Boris Johnson's 'Cycling Vision for London', published in March 2013, which implicitly established segregated routes as the ideal road-layout to ensure cycle safety and high rates of cycling.

Another significant element of Monday's announcement is the extent to which David Cameron and Patrick McLoughlin have publicly associated themselves with cycling. (Patrick McLoughlin even wrote a comment piece for The Times in support of it! Hard to imagine Philip Hammond, the previous Minister for Transport, doing the same.) This public association of key politicians with cycling not only helps further normalise it as a majority mode of transport, but also makes the government more accountable for future cycling deaths. When someone dies because of using a form of transport which you have actively 'sponsored' and encouraged, you are more responsible that if someone dies using a form of transport you have completely ignored for the last 3 years (as the Coalition has done). With Monday's announcement the Conservative majority of the Coalition has started a conversation about cycle advocacy which they were refusing to engage in, even last year. This is surely a good thing.

David Cameron cycling in opposition. He's largely ignored it since. As has the rest of his party, excluding Boris Johnson and Dr Sarah Wollaston MP. Might this be about to change?
The personal contributions of specific politicians and parties also opens the arena for cycling to become a truly political issue, in the sense that different politicians may well begin to actively compete with each other to show they are representing the interests of those that cycle better than their competitors. This hasn't happened an awful lot in this country yet. But we got a taste of what could become quite common with Maria Eagle's (Shadow Minister for Transport) spot-on comments following the announcement:
No amount of cynical spin from David Cameron will make up for the fact that, immediately on taking office, he axed Cycle England, the Cycle Demonstration Towns scheme and the annual £60m budget to support cycling that he inherited. 
Since then he has axed targets to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads, reduced traffic enforcement, cut the THINK! awareness campaign and allowed longer HGVs. 
Only last month the prime minister set out plans for Britain's roads that failed to include a single commitment to the investment in separated cycling infrastructure that is the best way to boost cycling and make it safer.
I couldn't have put it better myself. Admittedly Maria Eagle's actions in office might not match up to her comments in opposition, but she is bang-on the money here, especially in regard to the government's £12 billion a year road building scheme that makes a few million spent of cycling pale into insignificance. The fact that David Cameron is attempting to spin himself as being pro-cycling opens up 'cycling' as an area of competition between Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dems which will hopefully create an 'arms-race' (if you will) on cycling policies as each party seeks to capture the ever-increasing cycling vote. Similarly, in terms of the London Mayoralty, Boris Johnson has been largely unchallenged by any major politicians over his cycling policies (though Jenny Jones AM [Green] and Caroline Pidgeon AM [Lib Dem] have been fantastic over the last few years on the London Assembly). Nor has Boris had any challenge from within his own party as a 'cycling-champion'. I believe this political wasteland is what has allowed him to push through policies that are extremely damaging to cycling (such as blue-paint cycle superhighways or scrapping the pedestrianisation of Parliament Square) without losing his image among the wider-public as someone who does his best for cycling because he's got no competitors in terms of promoting it. Hopefully this will change, and awful policies will be exposed for what they are not only by cycle campaigners, but by politicians and political parties looking to gain an advantage on rivals (e.g. Cameron vs. Johnson, etc.).

Ultimately this announcement by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Transport is a recognition of the political strength of cycling advocacy in this country (especially following the recent and impressive sports success in cycling). However, in their championing of 'segregation' this government is helping to unify advocacy groups on the issue, thus making the cycling voice stronger and more uniform. Moreover, by entering into a dialogue about cycle safety the government have made themselves far more accountable for cycling deaths in the country, as Boris Johnson is increasingly finding himself to be for anyone killed on a bike in London. It's an insultingly small amount of money, but the announcement itself is big news.