Getting Serious About Cycling in England Words by Paul Maunder; Image by Chris Auld

Cycling advocates in Britain are cautiously celebrating this week after the government announced a raft of measures to promote cycling. Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans to invest more than £2 billion over the next five years to encourage cycling, with more money to come after that. The plans include free cycle training for anyone who needs it, a £50 voucher towards the cost of servicing a bike, grants to help with the cost of e-bikes and the headline-grabbing proposal for doctors to be able to prescribe cycling on the National Health Service. But it is the acknowledgement, deeper in the detail of the announcement, of England’s woefully lacking cycle infrastructure that is perhaps most important.

The government’s interest in cycling comes after the realization that outcomes for Covid-19 patients who are obese, have type 2 diabetes or other conditions linked with inactive living are significantly worse than the rest of the population. That, and the need to ease pressure on public transport, has led the government to focus on active travel, namely walking and cycling. It has taken the Covid-19 crisis for the politicians to catch up with what walkers and cyclists (and runners too, to be fair) have always known.

The people of England, as usual, are way ahead of their government. Bikes have been brought out of sheds and dusted off. Stocks of new bikes are running so low that some retailers have all but sold out of their 2020 stock. This is the time to capitalize on the nation’s sudden love for cycling, but it’s also important that the authorities recognize the main barriers to more people cycling. Top of the list is the fear created by inadequate cycling infrastructure in our cities and towns.

Historically, cycle lanes have been patchy at best. Some local councils try harder than others. Some understand cycling better than others. None have sufficient funds to do it properly. And the political will from above (that is, from central government) has never been there. The result on the ground has been cycle lanes that are only painted on roads, do not protect cyclists from motorists and often end without warning. At best, England’s cycle lanes are comical, at worst downright dangerous. On Tuesday, the government announced the creation of Active Travel England, a new independent inspectorate with far-reaching powers to govern the quality of cycling infrastructure. This new body will be able to insist upon high-quality design and withdraw funding from councils who don’t take their active travel responsibilities seriously.

London’s cycle lanes are among the best in the country, a legacy of Johnson’s tenure as Mayor from 2008 to 2016. After the boost of the 2012 Olympics, Johnson and his close adviser Andrew Gilligan pushed through a significant cycling programme. Gilligan followed Johnson to Downing St, where he is now an influential adviser, and this announcement bears his hallmarks. Gilligan is a tough political operator and understands the need to drive development through enforcement. Talking about blue sky thinking is all well and good, but sometimes you need to strong-arm local councils to get into gear.

Another significant development this week was the announcement that the Highway Code is to be updated. First published in 1931, the Highway Code is a book that gives road users advice, information and rules. The English have a rather quaint attachment to it and in the event of a minor traffic incident it isn’t long before someone starts (usually erroneously) quoting it.

Now, a hierarchy of road users will be created, with pedestrians and cyclists at the top. Other changes will include clarification on how much room to give cyclists, that cyclists can ride two abreast, and that cyclists can overtake slow-moving traffic. The updated Code may also ask drivers to use the ‘Dutch Reach’ technique to open their doors—where drivers use the hand farthest from the door to open it, which reminds them to look for cyclists before opening it—a method proven to reduce the chance of a cyclist hitting an opening car door. While updating a book that no one has properly read since they passed their driving test may not seem like a big deal, cycling campaigners are hopeful that it represents a cultural turning point. And on a practical level, even if only the police fully understand the rules of the road, cyclists should feel more confident their interests are being protected.

Cycling in this green and pleasant land still has a long way to go, but at least the gradient now seems to be sloping downhill.