Why Britain, more than ever, needs the bicycle

This week saw the start of a cross party parliamentary enquiry looking into how to make riding bikes a normal and common part of British life. I heartily commend this and am pleased to see that some very well informed people and groups have either submitted evidence or will be asked to attend and participate in some sessions. I have not been invited, nor asked to contribute but I thought I’d put down a few of my own simplistic thoughts on why this is the beginning of an extremely important phase in British transport policy. There is much more that could be written but I think this is a good and hopefully thought provoking start.

Firstly, why the bicycle:

1)       Almost anyone is able to ride one from the age of 5 to 85 making the bicycle a highly inclusive form of transport (alongside walking)

2)       They are cheap to buy and to run (a factor of growing importance in Britain as we face a decade long recession or period of minimal economic growth and austerity. Less money spent on transport is more money for food, fun etc). Transport is one of the biggest costs most British families face. Running a car costs thousands per year.

3)       Zero emissions – no pollution of any kind, including noise pollution. Have you walked along a busy road lately? It’s a horrible experience, noise pollution as well as emissions impact both health and quality of life. Air quality is poor and below EU safe levels in many towns and cities in Britain already thanks to road traffic levels.

4)       They take up virtually no road space and make no impact on road infrastructure. They are also extremely easy to park and again take up almost no parking space. People on bikes rather than in cars could eliminate congestion in most towns and cities.

5)       People who ride bikes for their transport will easily get their weekly exercise needs and thus the more people riding bikes then the costs of running the NHS could be demonstrably and significantly reduced or channelled into other health provision. Riding bikes reduces stress too, so as well as reducing obesity, bikes will reduce stress related illnesses and quite possibly also respiratory illnesses both from the exercise and lowered emissions.

6)       Bikes are an even more compelling solution when you integrate them with other methods of transport e.g. trains and buses. Combined with public transport, bikes can solve the last mile issue. This would need more bike provision on trains and bike racks on buses. Solutions that have already been proven to work in other countries.

7)       Many more people on bikes will significantly reduce road deaths by simply taking cars off roads. Every road death should be a national tragedy as families and friends lose someone they love not to mention the significant costs involved in each crash.

8)       Bicycle infrastructure is far, far cheaper than other transport infrastructure, pays back on the investment faster and boosts spending in local communities (something all of them need). Infrastructure needs to include parking as well as segregated bike lanes.

9)       Global best practice on how to create an environment truly suitable is simply just over the Channel in the Netherlands and Copenhagen. I hope that some of these experts from the Continent will be presenting to the parliamentary enquiry. There is very little best practice to draw on in the United Kingdom.

A reality check

Britain has had over 50 years of prioritising private motor transport as the sole practical transport solution for the man or woman in the street. We have generations of people who now think a bicycle is simply a childs toy and who can’t even begin to contemplate it as a mass transport solution or an alternative to driving (from teenagers through to the elderly). We have a congested and hostile road environment as a result. Public transport has been scaled back since the 1960’s when the Beeching report cut many train lines effectively removing the rail system as transport solution for all and forcing the majority of the population to need to have a car.

As a result, roads have got more and more congested and planning and design of roads became more and more about solely motorists and less a resource for all that they had been for centuries. Pedestrians have been almost completely marginalised and cyclists ignored or given infrastructure so poor it is generally unusable/unsafe because in Britain only the car/motorist has mattered for decades. Britain must be kept moving – but only if you drive. This policy has been a failure though, congestion is high, pollution is high, roads deaths are too high (and seemingly not a matter to be concerned about), road rage is common and the roads are not policed effectively (especially now that Police forces are being cut due to the current climate of austerity). The average British citizen (remember Tony Blair’s Mondeo Man) seems to just want to drive around in their BMW, Audi or Land Rover without a care or concern for anybody else believing that they’re a great driver and everyone else on the road is congestion rather than themselves. British transport thinking, policy and planning appears to have become completely one dimensional.

An inquiry like this is an opportunity to take a step back and look at transport afresh. The private car is not and should not be the only solution – they have their place and probably will for some time, (I own and like owning a car but hardly use it as it’s a slow, frustrating and expensive way to get around a town), but they are not a workable or sustainable solution for a healthy and thriving Britain as the sole mass transport solution.

What we do need in Britain is a transport solution that has a range of compelling and equally well-provisioned choices. At present road provision, road laws, road design guidelines appear to be solely focussed around driving and motorists. This is neither healthy nor sustainable. Other countries are talking about car use peaking, about making cities more liveable, about cities with less cars and are increasingly investing in the bicycle as a core transport platform and reallocating road space from cars to bikes and pedestrians. In London today 60% of households now don’t have a car – but road space is still almost entirely provisioned for cars. Based on current car ownership levels at least a third of London’s roads should be reallocated to bikes and pedestrians. The younger generation across the western world is increasingly choosing not to own cars or to acquire a driving license. The baby boomer generation and that immediately after it appears to be the global peak demand for the motor car. Britain’s government, the Department for Transport and the Department for Health has yet to make this realisation, as do TFL and the local authorities across the country who operate the road networks.

It is the perfect time for the UK government to make the analysis and consider how our road use needs to change and be re-engineered for a future less dependent on motor transport. A future where the public has safe, well designed and maintained transport choices.

This is a moment to look to the future and begin reorganising our road transport system, take a leadership position and set some big goals with ambitious timescales backed by appropriate investment levels of the medium to long term (say 10 years).

For such a review to be as holistic as it needs to be, public (and particularly rail) transport needs to be revisited as part of this transport review as does road freight transport and public health. Looking at cycling in isolation, is a great start but the bigger picture is vital too.

Back to cycling, at present the road and cultural environment in Britain is sufficiently hostile and victim blaming that many cyclists feel compelled to don protective gear to ride a bike and can be castigated by motorists if they don’t – helmets and hi-vis clothing reflect the gladiatorial experience of riding a bike on the road and scare normal people away. This focus also deflects the responsibility of motorists in not running over cyclists in the first place of which the best defence in our courts seems to be “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. If you look at photos of environments where cyclists matter, you’ll not see a helmet or hi-vis in sight. They’re a red herring in the search for better transport. However the legal environment needs an urgent and significant review to fundamentally change the approach to deaths and injuries, which at present fail victims by not punishing killers.

Motorists typically consider the roads have been provided for their sole use and that they alone have a right to use the roads thanks to a planning, legal and cultural environment that reinforces these incorrect beliefs and this extends through the media and the criminal justice system. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists need to be given equal importance and resource allocation to reshape our transport system if we wish to change the current one dimensional state of affairs.

How might we move forwards?

The crux of this is making roads demonstrably safer for everyone: pedestrians, cyclists, children, the elderly, families and to re-engineer them for the future that will better serve the needs of the entire population not simply those who have or prize a drivers licence.

For the bicycle to become an integral part of the British Transport system some large and small changes have to be made. The expertise is there waiting to be engaged once political will and an appropriately significant budget is allocated (think £1bn plus per year for the next decade, which is about 10% of the transport budget) and the big picture needs to be looked at and joined up.

Approximately half of all private motor journeys in Britain are less than 5 miles. An easy distance to cycle for the majority of the population. About a 1/3 of motor vehicle journeys are less than 3 miles. The vast majority of these could be converted to bike journey if the right environment and infrastructure were to be put in place.

1)       Road design guidelines need to be fundamentally changed to the extent that bicycle only roads can be created and enforced. Segregated infrastructure of the highest quality needs to be the norm and road design guidelines and regulations need to be fundamentally changed to give pedestrians, cyclists and motorists equal rights to road space. These then need to be cascaded through to local authorities and going forward all road work needs to be to these new guidelines and regulations. There must be no exceptions. Good design that prioritises bicycle use in towns and cities that is safe and well designed will get people on their bikes. We need to provide REAL alternatives to using a car. Infrastructure design must be safe for people from 8-80 or it is simply not fit for purpose. For riding a bike to be as normal as using a toothbrush a completely different standard of infrastructural design will be needed. Bike routes must be more direct than car routes or people will not use them. The same applies to the quality of design – if this isn’t first class, people won’t use them. It’s a completely different approach and it will make an enormous difference to making our towns and cities safer and more inviting for children, families, the elderly i.e. making life much more inclusive and pleasant.

2)       There needs to be a significant, consistent and long term investment in cycling infrastructure including redesigning and rebuilding all of the awful infrastructure that Britain currently has.

3)       The road code needs to be thoroughly reviewed. Rules like rule 77 need to be eliminated and motorists need to be held to a much higher standard (https://www.gov.uk/rules-for-cyclists-59-to-82/roundabouts-76-to-78)

4)       Parking regulations need to be thoroughly reviewed and have much fiercer enforcement. Parking wheels (or entire vehicles) on pavements must become illegal. Parking in cycle lanes must also be banned.

5)       There needs to be a thorough updating of the legal system and criminal justice system as it almost completely failing cyclists and pedestrians at present. If someone is found to be at fault for someone being killed on the road, (whether they be a pedestrian, a cyclist or a motorist), they should lose their licence for life. No questions, no excuses or mitigating circumstances. Killing anyone on the roads must be totally unacceptable and harshly punished. When a larger vehicle hits a smaller vehicle, (right down to pedestrians being hit by a bicycle), the driver/rider of the larger vehicle must automatically be at fault. To drive a vehicle should come with great responsibility simply because you can take a life when you drive. Drivers need to be held to a much, much higher standard than ever before with severe consequences. The number of points for minor offences should be doubled or tripled and fines increased to four figures per infraction, especially as lower Police numbers mean traffic policing is lower than ever before – stiffer penalties may alter behaviour on the roads.  If you injure or kill you should never be able to drive again as you have failed in your fundamental duty of care to your fellow human beings. As well as much, much longer and automatic driving bans for anyone seriously injuring someone else on the road. Licenses should need to be re-sat when a ban expires without exception. Road rage must be punished harshly with long licence bans. Video footage should be considered admissible and actionable evidence. Fatal road traffic accidents should be investigated with the same thoroughness of aircraft accidents as they kill far more people each year and changes to road designs and road laws made whenever remediable causes are identified within a 12 month period following a fatal or serious accident. We need to become far, far more serious about this to make it clear to everyone that the safety of everyone on our roads is of paramount importance. Britain has one of the highest fatality rates in Europe for both children and pedestrians.

6)       Policing on the roads needs to be increased with a zero tolerance. We all, myself included, need to sharpen up or face consequences.

7)       We need a lot more 20mph urban speed limits. There is no logical reason why 30, 40 or even 50mph roads are needed along residential roads. Pleasingly the Department for Transport have just released new guidelines making it much easier to reduce speeds in our towns and cities.

8)       Drivers licences should expire every decade and require a full test again and the driving test should include both a significant cycling element and pedestrian awareness. Drivers of all motorised vehicles should have to prove competence to continue to be on the road much like pilots need to prove they can continue to fly. Overtime, vehicle technologies, tyre technologies and general road conditions change and drivers should need to update their knowledge through re-sitting a regularly updated driving test.

9)       We need to reconsider road transport as well. What sort of vehicles we want in our cities and at what time of the day or night. HGVs in our suburbs are not welcomed by most residents, so alternatives like hub and spoke delivery systems should be investigated. Due to privatisation of the rail system and massive subsequent increases in prices, rail transport is currently not economic and neither is water transport. If we wish to re-invigorate these or other types of transport, subsidies or incentives must be put in place to enable commercial (or public) operators to utilise them. At present, transport operators also have little alternative but to solely use the road transport network. However it should also be noted that if we could convince say 25% of private motor journeys to be made by bike a huge reduction in congestion would occur making it much easier for deliveries to be made, especially if we move cyclists onto dedicated infrastructure. The road transport industry should be fully encouraging the development of segregated cycling infrastructure as they stand to be a key beneficiary

How to pay for this?

One of the many fallacies in modern Britain is that motorists pay for the roads and therefore have a greater right to their use than any other segment of society (pedestrians and cyclists in particular). This is not true. Road transport funding is provided out of general taxation and is not related to either Vehicle Excise Duty or Fuel Duties, contrary to popular belief. In fact a recent EU study showed that every motor vehicle in Europe creates an unfunded loss of €600 per year. So every car on the road actually costs society as a whole (http://www.ecf.com/news/car-users-pollute-but-do-not-foot-the-bill/)

Road infrastructure including cycling and pedestrian provision should continue to be paid out of general taxation as it is of benefit to everyone.

What should change is that transport funding we have in place should be reallocated to include significant investment in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

Public transport costs also need to be driven down and analysis of the true cost of motoring on British society would be an excellent project to undertake.

So what happens if we don’t change anything?

Cycling provision will remain as appalling as it currently is. Cycling will also remain largely the domain of men aged between 20 and 50 who are happy to dice with traffic. Women, children, families and the elderly will continue to rightly shun the bike as transport. Bikes will probably never rise much beyond 2% modal share. Pedestrians and cyclists will continue to be outcasts in the British transport system – considered a nuisance at best. Congestion will slowly get worse, there will be call for more road building which never actually solves the problems of congestion (not anywhere in the world). Pollution will increase, road rage will increase, road deaths will remain unacceptably high (2,000 deaths a year is 2,000 too many). Cyclists and pedestrians will continue to be killed and seriously injured in larger numbers (generally with little more than a slap on the wrist). The British of all ages will continue to get more obese and less healthy as they continue to sit in cars rather than be active. Health costs will continue to spiral. Britain will be left behind as other countries work hard to make their society more liveable, less polluted, healthier and safer.