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Does the British Government have a problem with cyclists?

Peter Stuart
11 Sep 2018

The uptake of cycling is stagnant and poor bike sales worry the industry – we consider whether the Government is partly to blame

Walk into Westfield London today, slap down £72,600 on a brand new Tesla Model S and the Government will hand you back £4,500. Similar, and sometimes even larger, grants are on offer for any electric car, van, taxi or motorbike. Why not? Electric vehicles are green, and the less air pollution the better.

Buy an electric bike today at any bike shop, though, and the Government won’t give you a penny. It is the only electric vehicle to receive no plug-in grant.

Even an electric motorbike would grant you a £1,500 payout, but as soon as you put a set of pedals on that two-wheeler and limit its speed and wattage, you can forget about it.

A recent study by Ovo energy showed that 20% of workers would be more likely to buy an e-bike if they were priced within the cycle-to-work scheme, which tops out at £1,000 while most e-bikes cost at least £1,500. But no budge. 

It’s an important indication of how the Government views cyclists versus motorists. Motoring is the great lifeblood of British transport and society. Cycling is seen as an afterthought at best, and a nuisance at worst.

Even niceties toward cyclists can be tough to come across. Consider that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling car doored a cyclist, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond was rumoured to want the Cycle Superhighway torn up, and the House of Lords regularly hosts debates where false claims that cycling increases air pollution are repeated time and again.

Whether it’s law, infrastructure, investment or simple encouragement, there’s been little effort to improve cycling or bring about a revolution that could change our towns and cities for the better. It has impacted the uptake of cycling, and now even the health of the industry itself.

The safe option

Cycling really isn’t all that dangerous, no more dangerous per mile travelled than walking. However, there’s a significant perception of danger amongst cyclists and those who don’t.

A recent survey suggested 64% of motorists consider cycling in traffic ‘too dangerous’. One of the best proven changes to perceptions is infrastructure – world-class segregated cycle paths. Outside of London, though, the progress has been stagnant. 

‘In the UK we’ve been providing little bits of disconnected cycle planning where there’s been bits of spare space and a bit of spare cash without thinking about how this is ever going to expand into a network,’ says Roger Geffen, policy director for Cycling UK.

'In the Netherlands, for instance, cycle use was higher in the past than even now, and it declined steeply through the 1960s and 70s just as it did over here,’ Geffen says. Infrastructure investment reversed the tide, though. ‘They picked it back up again and we’ve never done that. That is a failure of political leadership.’

In London, where segregated cycle paths have been an unmitigated success, with the Embankment cycle superhighway registering more than 10,000 users each day through much of the summer, there has been little encouragement or applause.

Lord Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer said cycle paths were ‘doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz’. The Blitz, for the record, killed 25,000 Londoners.

Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer is rumoured to have told London Mayor Sadiq Khan that if he had them demolished that central government would cover the cost.

The Cycle Superhighway has been an unparralleled success, yet is compared to the Blitz by Lord Lawson

Ten years ago, ministers would eagerly be photographed in high-vis en route to Parliament. Indeed, David Cameron promised ‘a cycling revolution’. In the last few years, the cause has been so unfavourable that not a single cabinet minister, save for Boris Johnson, has been pictured riding along the custom-built cycle superhighway that leads directly to their place of work.

Andrew Gilligan vented his frustration when he appealed to the Government to pass a law that would make it illegal to drive in a cycle lane, and he hit a metaphorical brick wall. 

‘We wanted the DfT to allow us us to enforce mandatory bike lanes; to give fines for people who drove into mandatory painted bike lanes,’ he says, describing his time as Cycling Commissioner under Boris Johnson. ‘That’s a power we already have on bus lanes. There is such a power in the 2004 Road Traffic Act but it hasn’t been commenced. All it would have taken is a minister signing a piece of paper saying "I commence this power". We argued for years and I must have had four or five meetings myself and the answer was basically: no.’

Laws, and their power, bring us to one of the most important and universal issues for those who cycle: the justice that governs how people use the roads together.

Dangerous cyclists

The failure of the law to serve justice for cyclists who have been injured or killed has long since been a problem, where often deaths by the most negligent and dangerous driving results in no conviction.

Cycling UK has been arguing for a full evaluation of the road laws for many years, as has a group of politicians who form the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. They managed to get the promise of a full review into road safety back in 2016. So far, there's been no sign that such a review will take place, but as for the laws about cyclists themselves…

It was top of the news agenda when a young man named Charlie Alliston was on trial following the tragic death of pedestrian Kim Briggs. He was charged for causing bodily harm ‘by wanton and furious driving’ after colliding with Briggs.

The wording of the charge was hugely out of date, but the charges of Careless Cycling and Dangerous Cycling (which don’t carry prison time) were considered too soft on the young cyclist. The reaction by the Government was to fast-track a review into whether there needs to be a new law of Causing Death by Dangerous Cycling, with current consultation proposing whether it’s appropriate to carry a maximum sentence of 14 years. 

While Cycling Minister Jesse Norman promises that the review will be even-handed, a tweet by the Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters claimed the review ‘would protect the most vulnerable road users’ from cyclists. 

Jesse Norman MP successfully argued for the Conservative tweet to be removed

The result of the review won’t be clear until November when the consultation ends. However, lawyer Martin Porter QC tells us that such a new law ‘would not be remotely likely to save a single life’. He argues, ‘I would prefer that limited resources are put into enforcement of existing law especially against those who present the greatest danger, as exemplified by the West Midlands police force close pass initiative.’

The much-praised West Midlands project of stopping drivers who pass cyclists too closely to re-educate them is, of course, a local and not national programme. Indeed, while new and more specific recommendations within the Highway Code could make cycling far safer, there’s been no action to update the Code, despite it being technically out of date.

Other recent legal reforms affecting cyclists have been equally concerning. The Government planned to lift the minimum limit for injuries on the roads from £1,000 to £5,000 to tackle ‘whiplash culture’ and push down insurance premiums. It would have meant that 70% of cyclist who currently claim compensation for injuries that aren't their fault would be unable to recover legal costs. The Government was talked down from including cyclists in the rule after 18 months of campaigning by Cycling UK.

At the same time as cyclists have little new legislation to help them and new laws to improve safety, the Government has announced it will rush to rethink road rules altogether by 2021 so that autonomous vehicles can legally use the roads, and that road laws are built around them.

Fall and rise

It seems that the Government has great ambitions for an electric, automatic future of travel, and continues to at best ignore cyclists, and at worst antagonise them. However, there are glimmers of hope.

Chris Boardman is now Manchester Cycling Commissioner, and campaigning for greater infrastructure and laws nationwide

Cycling Minister Jesse Norman does seem to genuinely believe in the cause, and argues for subsidies for e-bike purchases. He also hopes that the review into cycling laws will turn up results that improve cycling safety, rather than punishing cyclists. 

Andy Burnham in Manchester hopes to prove that local politics can make a bigger difference than Westminster, and has recruited Chris Boardman to follow in the footsteps of Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan in created an urban cycling network in London.

Perhaps there will be change for the better. But the official DfT reports suggest that despite Britain being handed an open goal of six British Tour de France wins, and countless Olympic medals, this has all resulted in a decrease in cycling. Between 2002 and 2017, cycling trips went down by 8%.

Perhaps it’s for the Government to decide whether it wants that downward trend to continue. 

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