This government is neglecting cycling – Labour would change that


Andy McDonald

MPs must stop prioritising cars over people if we are to stand a chance of meeting climate goals

Cycling commuters leave work outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London.
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The UK is among the worst countries in Europe for cycling participation, and the government is predicted to achieve just a third of the 800m extra cycling trips by 2025 it had aimed for. What’s more, much of the growth so far has been restricted to London.

This is why Tuesday’s debate among MPs on government support for cycling and walking – or rather, the lack thereof – is so important.

The government’s attitude towards cycling was summed up when the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, complained that cycle lanes “cause too much of a problem for road users” – before knocking a man off his bike outside parliament just weeks later.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling knocks over cyclist as he opens car door

This neglect doesn’t just risk the safety of cyclists but jeopardises our planet. The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change warned that the world has 11 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum rise of 1.5C over pre-industrial levels, yet the UK is way off track to meet its own climate change targets and is further still from meeting its commitments under the Paris climate agreement.

This failure is being driven by a rising trend in emissions caused largely by increased traffic growth, which has left transport as the UK’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the worst-performing sector when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

For too long, transport has been put in the “too difficult” box as far as climate change is concerned. If this is to change, a transformation in the funding and priority given to cycling and walking is needed.

This failure on transport emissions is the result of deliberate government policy encouraging traffic growth through an ever-expanding multibillion-pound programme of road building. At the same time, public transport subsidies have been slashed and campaigners are warning that spending on England outside London is set to fall to 37p per person per head in 2020-21.

Climate change should be the number one priority of the Department for Transport (DfT), with focus and resources directed towards sustainable modes of transport. It is hugely under-appreciated how big a part cycling and walking must play in this.

This government is neglecting cycling – Labour would change that

A family riding bikes in Amsterdam streets Photograph: Alamy

Were the UK to achieve the same cycling culture and levels of infrastructure as the Netherlands, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from car travel by as much as a third. That’s not to mention the many social and economic benefits, such as tackling the air pollution crisis and reaping health benefits that could save the NHS up to £9bn per year.

Encouraging active travel will also breathe new life into our towns and cities by reclaiming the urban realm, creating public spaces that are freer from traffic and accompanying pollutants, and fostering environments that are pleasant places in which to live and work.

This is a significant task, but we have the benefit of international examples to guide us on how this can be achieved. Cities in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark experienced steep declines in cycling until policy changes in the 1970s put them on a trajectory to become the most cycle-friendly places in the world. We must have the same ambition in the UK.

We should follow these examples and make a massive step-change in funding to match the most successful towns and cities in Europe. There must be significant investment in cycling infrastructure to develop dense, continuous networks of cycle paths that are physically separated from traffic, including building cycling and pedestrian bridges or tunnels. Cycling should be for the many, not the brave.

People must also be encouraged and given the confidence to cycle, so there should be training and support for all who need it, including affordable access to bikes for all. Support for e-bikes could be vital for encouraging older people to change their travel habits.

Cycling and walking ought to be a priority at every level of government, meaning an end to developments planned around car use to the exclusion of sustainable transport, and the DfT must understand the strategic importance of cycling in driving down emissions.

We know that roadbuilding begets traffic, which in turn begets emissions. The government’s colossal roadbuilding programme is environmentally unsustainable and will drive traffic growth and worsen congestion, failing even on its own terms. This is one of the rarely mentioned but most serious failings of our blundering transport secretary.

In Tuesday’s debate, MPs should accept nothing less than a radical change in transport policy. Labour understands that cycling and walking are an essential part of our plan to save the climate, and the next Labour government will give them the backing to play that role.

• Andy McDonald is shadow transport secretary and MP for Middlesbrough


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