by Ian Shires on April 4, 2012
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!
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* Donnachadh McCarthy is a freelance journalist and author, and eco-auditor at www.3acorns.co.uk. He is not a member of any political party.