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Recalling a Commons Debate on Cycling

10th Dec. 1997    

    Mr. Peter Bottomley: Should we not re-examine the question of roundabouts? When the local authority in Cambridge discovered that most accidents to cyclists took place at roundabouts, they removed them, which led to a significant reduction in the number of casualties.

    Mr. Mitchell: I agree entirely. There should also be designated places at traffic lights, so that cars do not suddenly sweep across cyclists to turn left when the cyclists are going straight ahead.

    Bicycles should be better designed. I am tempted to buy a small collapsible bicycle, but I am so tall that when I ride such bicycles they wobble all over the place, because the saddle and the handlebars are so extended. It is like riding a jelly - or perhaps I am the jelly. Nevertheless, portable bicycles are very useful, as are bicycles with facilities for carrying things. When I was cycling from Kilburn, I lost the manuscript of a book that set out the whole case for new Labour. [Laughter.] No, no: it forecast accurately everything that needed to happen to the party. That was in the early 1980s. 

    I sometimes wonder whether the manuscript was discovered in the park through which I was cycling by my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio. Perhaps that was the beginning of his rise to power. As far as I know, the book was never found, despite my desperate inquiries of the police; but its suggestions have certainly been implemented by the Labour party. If proper carrying facilities had been available, the manuscript would not have dropped from my bike and I would now be in a powerful position rather than standing here pleading for cyclists' views to be heard. 

    The case for cyclists has been well put by hon. Members. We need a drive to cycling, a policy that is wider and more powerful than the enthusiasm of those of us taking part in the debate. That means a drive by local authorities to introduce cycling into all traffic developments. Grimsby in north-east Lincolnshire is a case in point and was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South. We have developed effective cycling policies, but the limitation is always finance to build cycleways and install facilities. There should be dedicated finance for local authorities to encourage cycling.

    I was distressed to find that the national network of 6,500 miles will not provide facilities in such beauty spots as the Yorkshire dales, the Lincolnshire wolds and the lake district. It is just a means of getting from one end of the country to the other rather than a facility that will allow people to branch out into beautiful areas. We need imaginative national planning but most of all there must be a drive from the top to encourage cycling, and that means a Minister whose specific responsibility is to promote and develop cycling so that it is included in all considerations and decisions. That Minister would develop a financial framework to promote cycling and reward cyclists. That would bring a whole new enthusiasm to cycling matters and make it a central rather than a peripheral part of transport policy. The simple answer is to do what we have suggested and I call on the Minister to get on her bike.

    Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest): It is an enormous pleasure to speak in this important debate because cycling gives much pleasure to those who are able to engage in it. It is also a great tourist opportunity which is currently undervalued. My wife and I spent more than a year cycling abroad, an activity that enables one to see a country from the bottom up in a quiet leisurely way without making any impact on it. It is a superb way to explore a country, but although this country is ideal for such touring because the key sites are close together and many of them can be visited in a day, our roads system is inherently hostile to cyclists. We are missing a great economic opportunity.

    Some people say that they cannot cycle because they have children. In the year that my wife and I cycled 5,000 miles through California, Mexico and Australia, we had a two-year-old child in a trailer on the back of the bike. If we could do it in our state - we are not quite so portly as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) - I suspect that many people could do it.

    I am especially concerned about children, and primarily those who cycle to school. The statistics are alarming. In 1971, some 80 per cent. of our children cycled to school, and I was one of them. Now only 10 per cent. do that. A recent survey in Bury St. Edmunds showed that fewer than one in 20 of our children were taking the amount of exercise that is necessary to maintain minimum fitness. That is frightening. Nine out of 10 juniors own a bike but only one in four of them are allowed by their parents to cycle on the roads. 

    As 300 children a year are killed on our roads, such parental objection is understandable in the light of a roads system that is inherently hostile to cyclists. Denmark has 10 times the number of cyclists in Britain but as hon. Members have eloquently said, a Danish cyclist is 12 times less likely to be killed or injured per mile travelled. Some 23 per cent. of our children travel to school by car, and that accounts for one in five cars at peak times although the distances travelled are between one and two miles. Over such short distances, catalytic converters do not have time to warm up and, paradoxically, those journeys produce the highest levels of pollution.

    The advantages of a national strategy to encourage children to cycle to school are overwhelming. The first of those is health: we do not want a nation of couch potatoes. We must train children to use their bodies and minds responsibly. The Health Education Authority has asked for cycling to be doubled, and the British Medical Association says that that will make a significant contribution to the nation's health. If children are encouraged to cycle early, they will keep the habit for life. If we deprive them of the opportunity to cycle early, they will not adopt that habit. Cycling provides a great opportunity to teach children independence because when cycling they make limited decisions. It will also cut congestion and protect the environment.

    How are we to reach our goal? The first step is to recognise the benefits and then to invest in cycling routes as part of a rearrangement of our transport priorities. We must overcome the fear of parents and children of cycling. We can take some simple steps. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has said, there should be secure facilities for locking cycles. We must introduce traffic-calming measures and 20 mph zones around schools and encourage road safety and cycle training within schools. Nine out of 10 children have bicycles, and we are failing in our duty if we do not teach them to cycle safely as part of the national curriculum.

    We must build on the excellent work that has been carried out under the safe routes to school project. We need better and safer junctions and car-free routes and we must build on good practice. In areas where cycling to school has been promoted, the effects are startling. Reading and York both promote cycling and now 35 per cent. of children in Reading cycle to school. That is a vast improvement on previous statistics and those children reap the benefit and get into the habit of cycling. 

    As hon. Members have said, what we need most is guidance from the top for a comprehensive and properly funded strategy. The targets in the national cycling strategy are impressive, but without the necessary drive we will fail to reach them, just as the previous Government failed to reach the "Health of the Nation" targets. Labour is in government and I hope that policies will be implemented to make sure that, for everybody's benefit, the targets are met.

Chris Ruane M.P.

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) on securing this important debate. I should like to relay my experiences from my constituency. In the past seven years, two road projects for bypasses were planned for my area - one for Rhyl and one for Prestatyn. The Rhyl project was to cost 17 million and the Prestatyn one 10 million. The terminology is interesting. Initially, they were called bypasses but when the business community found that it was to be bypassed the projects were called relief roads.

    Some 27 million was to be spent on two relief roads that were unwanted and unnecessary. A massive petition was presented and the two projects were knocked on the head. Compare those unnecessary projects, costing 27 million, with the 42 million that the lottery, a charity, gave to Sustrans. What is our priority? Is it to promote unnecessary and unwanted roads, or to promote a strategic cycleway system for the United Kingdom?

    Before being elected to the House, I taught in a large primary school which had 560 pupils. I attended the same school in the 1960s. In the 1960s, my school had bicycle sheds that were filled to overflowing with bicycles. On my most recent visit there, in September 1997, I saw one bicycle chained to the fence. The bicycle sheds had gone, and one pupil out of 560 had cycled to school. That situation is mirrored in towns and cities across the country.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) said that our children are being turned into couch potatoes. It is true. Their parents drive them to their destination, because they believe that the roads are too dangerous. The more children are driven to school, the more road traffic will increase: the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling, and fears increasingly become justified.

    Provision of off-road cycleways specifically for schoolchildren would bring great benefits to the United Kingdom. It would encourage children to cycle and take regular exercise from an early age - which is the critical factor, because children establish patterns for life at an early age. Schoolchildren cycling to school would drastically reduce the 8.30 am and 3.30 pm rush hours caused by school runs, thereby reducing traffic, the number of accidents - especially those involving children -and pollution levels.

    When I served as a councillor in my community, I participated in a project to discover what local schoolchildren wanted. In nine local schools, we asked 600 children, ranging in age from seven to 16, what facilities they wanted in their tourist-oriented town. They did not want more "palaces of culture" - a euphemism for slot machine arcades. They wanted pure and simple things: the first was cycleways and the second was ice rinks.

    All the jigsaw pieces are in place. There is demand for cycling, and people own bikes. Parents, however, are reluctant to allow or encourage their children to cycle because of perceived dangers. The Government should be concentrating their energy on the young, whose attitudes and life styles are still being formed.

    I ask Ministers to listen to the many valid points made in this debate by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I urge the Government to lead the way in promoting cycling by providing finance, co-ordination and - most importantly, as has been said many times in this debate - vision, so that cycling can play its full role in an integrated transport system.

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