Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner Chris Boardman recently asked why the Tories hold cycling and cyclists in such low esteem. But this is an issue that doesn’t seem to be class-bound. I have been abused by ramblers for being too quiet on a country lane and by a fat bloke who stepped out in front of me and abused me as a “fat bastard in lycra” when I whistled a warning. And I wasn’t even in lycra!
I accept that the reason cycling is held in such disdain in Britain dates back to World War 2. Prior to that conflict cycling in Britain had progressed much as it did on the continent; indeed, under transport minister Leslie Hore Belisha (1934-1937) many new roads had associated cycleways were built and, in that respect, we could be said to have been in advance of elsewhere.
Then came the war and on continental Europe the invaders controlled the petrol supplies. For this reason the bicycle was seen as a Godsend, not just for the romantic underground fighters with rifles over shoulders and dynamite in their saddlebags, but for the benefit of the way of life in general. In Britain the cycle was the vehicle of last resort when the petrol coupons ran out or were not available.
Then in come the Americans who all drove around in Jeeps and our love of motor cars was born. After the war in Europe the population returned to their Godsend while in Britain we all desired to be motorised.
That was the situation until about 25 years ago when a Tory government at last realised that we can’t build our way out of motorised congestion. The 1996 National Cycling Strategy was the result but it was largely ignored: although all 141 English highway authorities signed up to it, its targets have yet to be reached. They’re only 20 years overdue.
It’s not just the Tories – during that time we’ve had governments of all hues and one has to look deeper for the reasons for this abject failure, not just in government but society as a whole.
The country is not making the inroads on pollution we had all hoped for and this is not for want of trying, but this needs to be made a priority in education. In this I don’t mean at school, I mean everywhere and everyone because we have lost three generations. It’s this lack of knowledge that is behind the current downer on cycling and the perceived need for new legislation to curb excesses of cyclists (‘DfT consults on new laws to combat dangerous cycling’ LTT 17 Aug).
Politicians don’t understand that it is the cult of irresponsibility that is the problem. Cyclists riding bikes without brakes and pedestrians walking into the carriageway while on the phone are examples of irresponsible actions but what about drivers without insurance/licences, driving vehicles that are unroadworthy, and driving at excessive speed and in a manner that is likely to cause an accident?
Given that accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians rarely cause death, it is my belief that tighter controls are needed for those driving motor vehicles and, for society as a whole, this would be more valuable than tinkering at the edges of cycling and walking.
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