WHAT a year for British cycling – the first British winner of the Tour de France, Olympic success, and to cap it off the news that the 2014 Tour de France will begin here in Yorkshire.
But amongst all this it’s easy to overlook the good news for cycling closer to home and much more day-to-day. In Sheffield, the city I represent in Parliament, cycling rates have doubled over the last 10 years. Despite our hills, this rise in cycling is comparable to the increase in London and is a real local success story. If the Government and our local authorities learn the lessons of what has happened in Sheffield, we could see cycling rates increase across Yorkshire and the country.
Last summer, I visited Tilburg in the Netherlands, and was struck by a completely different culture, with more people using bikes than cars to get around. As a cyclist, it was an extraordinary experience to be in an urban environment geared towards bikes, with dedicated cycle lanes and cyclist-friendly junctions everywhere.
It’s easy to see how this would lead people to view travelling by bike as a real option for them. Of course, this is a result of years of planning, in which cycling has been completely designed into the city infrastructure. It would be great to see Yorkshire’s towns and cities transformed like this; it may be a long-term aim, but we can start now by planning cycling into every new road scheme. That’s why I pressed the Government on the issue recently in Parliament. But there are other faster and cheaper ways of encouraging cycling too.
The Government could start by investing in cycle training schemes. In Sheffield, training adults to learn how to ride and to feel confident and safe on the roads has played a massive part in increasing cycling rates and it costs a fraction of infrastructure changes.
Since 2004, a not-for-profit organisation in my constituency called “Pedal Ready” has provided free one-on-one training, funded by Sheffield and Rotherham Councils, for nearly 2000 people. More than 90 per cent of the adults they’ve trained have gone on to become regular cyclists which is an incredible success rate. But this kind of free cycle training for adults doesn’t exist across all of Yorkshire or the country.
Last week David Cameron welcomed the Tour de France announcement. My message to him is that if we want to have a real cycling legacy then before the Tour sets off in Yorkshire in 2014, let’s see the Government provide funding so that any adult who wants to learn how to ride is able to access free training.
Cycle training helps people to become confident when on the roads. This doesn’t mean becoming more aggressive, as some cyclists can be, just confident in their right to use the road alongside cars. It can be intimidating when cars whizz past at close distance but, for example, training can help cyclists to recognise that they don’t need to stick close to the kerb at all times.
As a cyclist using the road in a confident manner makes motorists more considerate towards you, makes you safer and helps to blur the unhelpful distinction we have on the roads between motorists and cyclists, a perception which the media often perpetuate.
Making cycle training available to all would make cycling safer and reduce the perception that urban cycling is a dangerous activity. But alongside training there are measures that the Government could take to help make cycling safer. These include requiring lorries that enter city centres to have extra safety features, setting the ambition of 20mph becoming the default speed limit in residential areas where there aren’t cycle lanes, and facilitating the redesign of the most dangerous junctions in the country.
Labour is signed up to all of these policies and I hope the Government follows suit. In addition, whenever a road is built or redesigned a mandatory cycling audit ought to be completed to see how it can be improved for cyclists.
If a road surface is being ripped up then lets aim to put it back down with cycling built into it, and at the very least the road shouldn’t become harder for cyclists to navigate.
As an MP, I’m very encouraged to see cycling firmly on the political agenda, to see my constituents and campaign groups lobby me about cycling, and above all by the rise in the number of people cycling.
With the benefits that it provides to individual health (and public health in general) and to people’s wallets, investing in cycling is a no-brainer. The more we can encourage cycling now, the more embedded it will become in our towns and cities, so future generations will see cycling not just as a great recreational pursuit, but as a cheap and easy way of getting from A to B, freeing up our roads and improving our environment.