The Independent View: Why the Lib Dems should put cycling at the heart of their transport policy

More motorways, airports and cities, cried the leader of the “greenest” government ever. The Prime Minister is absolutely right that we need new infrastructure but what we need is not ever wider motorways but a modern cycling infrastructure, to get the ridiculous 50% of journeys under 5km that are currently taken by car, out of the way of essential business traffic.

Millions of UK citizens are too old, young, poor or eco-conscious to own a car. In countries from Denmark to Japan, their governments provide safe cycle-paths. Our roads however are not fit for purpose, as demonstrated when in a recent survey of schoolchildren in Southwark, 30% wanted to cycle to school but only 3% do so, due to parents safety fears, which helps explain why over 40% are clinically obese. Children should not fear death for simply cycling to school in a liberal society.

Across the UK only 2% of journeys are undertaken by bicycle, whereas in Holland 25% of journeys are by bicycle. Their roads are now safe enough for children as young as eight to cycle on. In the 1970’s the Dutch set up a mass campaign called “Stop Murder of Children” and their politicians responded. Holland now spends £25 annually per person on cycling infrastructure. The equivalent here is £1.25, despite the coalition doubling what was spent under New Labour.

So what should Liberal Democrats be doing? They could advocate a step-change in investment by the coalition and local authorities across the country. To match Holland we need to spend £1.5 BILLION annually on cycling. To actually catch up the annual investment needs to be £2 billion. Studies show the cost benefit analyses for cycling average 19:1, compared to a paltry 2:1 for motorways. We must escape the clutches of the antediluvian British Roads Federation and invest instead in an economic stimulus that benefits the economy, health, social justice and the environment, in ways no motorway could ever compete with.

But to create a cycling network fit for purpose, we also need to tackle the destructive underlying UK cars-only culture. The Highways Agency needs to be The Cycling and Highways Agency. The Roads Minister should be Minister for Cycling and Roads. Local and national transport managers need new job-descriptions requiring delivery of a modern European cycle-path network and the expertise to deliver them.

Liberal Democrats could make a National Cycling Network motion as a main debate at Autumn Conference. Get Lib Dem Ministers making speeches about the environmental and economic benefits. Lobby Cameron and Osborne. Get Lib Dem councils to put cycle-paths at the heart of their transport plans and budgets. Put pro-cycling motions to councils across Britain. Make it a part of the coalition deal for the remainder of this parliament. Go on Lib Dems, you showed courage and vision when you opposed the Iraq War. You can do it again on the creation of a National Cycling Network. Let’s make our roads safe for 8 and 80 year olds again! Yes you can!

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Donnachadh McCarthy is a freelance journalist and author, and eco-auditor at He is not a member of any political party.

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  • They could bring back the Cycle to Work scheme.

    Ending that was profoundly anti-cyclist.

  • Cadan ap Tomos 3rd Apr '12 - 11:46am

    I think persuading people is only half the problem. People aren’t going to be encouraged to cycle anywhere if the provision isn’t there for them to do so safely. I’d also think that investing in cycling proficiency schemes for primary school-aged children would be worthwhile – it certainly makes a difference in my local area.

  • james from Durham 3rd Apr '12 - 12:13pm

    You can’t sell it when it isn’t safe. Anyway, cyclists have been sorting out their safety problems themselves, by turning the pavements into cycle paths.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Apr '12 - 12:15pm

    … by turning the pavements into cycle paths, and thereby making it dangerous to walk!

  • jenny barnes 3rd Apr '12 - 2:42pm

    If motorists want to be taken seriously they should always obey the speed limit, and give cyclists sufficient space when overtaking – as it says in the Highway Code “at least as much space as a car”

  • To the risk averse readers, it makes no sense to invest in cycling infrastructure [until it is safe], but others are correct in pointing out that [until it is safe] uptake will not justify the expenditure to car-loving politicians – chicken and egg exemplified!

    It is also true that the number of journeys by bike is on the increase, perhaps as more people are forced out of their cars by the cost of motoring or by making sensible lifestyle choices.

    I agree with wit and wisdom as a cycle-rail-cycle commuter/enthusiast myself – particularly the idea about using more room to build new roads by having a dedicated cycle lane installed nearby along the route. Assert yourself on the roads fellow cyclists of all ages, ride legally (i.e. follow the Highway Code) and respectfully and most of all have fun!

  • Richard Church 3rd Apr '12 - 4:47pm

    Yes to investment in cycling infrastructure, but not by nationally directed funding. I have seen cycle routes put in which make no logical sense to anyone who lives in the area, and as a consequence they are not being used. Well intended money has been wasted because it had to be spent too fast and without proper local consultation.

    Segregated cycle lanes are not the answer in all situations, and to put them into every new road would be nonsensical where the volumes of traffic do not require it. In many cases proper traffic calming to create a safe environment in which cyclists can share the road safely with other road users is the most appropriate solution. One of the biggest complaints in my postbag as a councillor is cycling on pavements. The safest place for cyclists should be on the road, not on the pavement where they can cause a danger for themselves and for pedestrians. Dedicated cycle paths and lanes should be used where there is no alternative, but they are not the only answer.

    Equally important is proper provision for cyclists when they reach their destination. Planners should require the provision of bike storage facilities in new places of employment and housing developments as well as shopping centres, public buildings etc.

    While we are at it, let’s invest in pedestrian facilities too. On some new developments the provision for pedestrians is dire, and for short journeys the foot is as important an alternative to the car as the bike.

  • Matt Hemsley 4th Apr '12 - 9:29am

    Lib Dem-led Edinburgh Council has recently taken a bit of a lead on this, ring-fencing 5% of their transport budget for cycling investment. It’s going to take our councils to commit to similar levels of funding if we are really going to make a difference.

    Cycling is a fantastic way to get about for a variety of reasons, mainly benefiting health and the environment. It should be at the heart of our transport policy for journeys under five miles, about a 30 minute cycle.

    It’s not just about routes though – as important as they are – it’s about providing information to people on just how easy it is to get about by bike, 20mph speed limits and on-road cycle training, especially for school children.

    And I agree with Richard Church, secure cycle parking, showers at offices and putting cycling at the heart of new developments is also crucial. We could do so much with what is really a tiny fraction on what we spend on roads.

  • Jonathan Hunt 4th Apr '12 - 11:32am

    Yet again, Donnachadh presents an excellent case for cycles as a cheap and non-polluting means of mass transit in cities and beyond. Having also witnessed his taking his life in his hands and feet at the Elephant & Castle roundabout I admire his commitment, but lack the courage to join him.

    i would appreciate your views, Donnachadh on some form of licensing-cum-insurance scheme, ringfenced to provide some funds to local authories to make cycling easier and safer. Give money to bureaucrats and charge them to use it for a speciefied task, and they will begin to find out that a lot more is required to do it properly.

    Am afraid I must agree with you about our regime in Southwark, as well as the current council.

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