Get Britain Cycling: Improving road conditions

Rural areas focus of inquiry evidence

At the fifth session of the Get Britain Cycling inquiry, held this week, the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group turned their attention to cycling infrastructure and the role of local authorities in providing roads more fit for cyclists, particularly in rural areas.


Anyone who regularly cycles in the countryside knows that riding on narrow, winding roads where motorists routinely exceed the speed limit is highly dangerous.  Roughly half of cycling deaths happen outside cities, despite bicycle use being relatively low in rural areas. 

Ralph Smyth, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, called for lower speed limits on rural roads and highlighted that the Dutch speed limit of 50kph (31mph) on country roads has been more cost-effective than their 30kph (19mph) limit in towns. He also requested that the power to take civil action against careless drivers, granted to local authorities under the Traffic Management Act 2004 but to date not implemented, be brought into force. 

Smyth pointed out that cycling in the countryside isn’t just about sport or leisure. Public transport in rural areas tends to be sporadic and expensive, so many people would like to be able to use bikes as a cheap and convenient mode of transport. The potential benefits would be as great for low-income households as for the environment and the economy. 

The ideal, of course, would be better integration between public transport and safe bike routes, so that cycling could be an important part of longer journeys and rule out the the need to maintain a car.

Attitudes to the importance of cycling vary widely from one local authority to another. Leicester and Manchester were presented as “good news” stories, Leicester having increased cycling numbers by 1,000 per year since 2005, and Manchester seeing a 25 percent increase in people cycling to work between 2001 and 2011. Several London boroughs, however, including Barnet, Newham, Westminster and the City of London, were criticised for not having done enough for cyclists.  

Caroline Pidgeon, chair of the London Assembly’s Transport Committee, whose bid to double Transport for London’s budget allocation for cycling to 2 percent was voted down, was one of the final witnesses. Her committee’s report, Gearing Up, also called for a cycling commissioner to be appointed and for road space to be reallocated from motor vehicles to bikes.

The first government minister to give evidence to the inquiry, Anna Soubry of the public health department, described herself as “wildly enthusiastic” about cycling but admitted that she wouldn’t let her own children cycle on the road because of worries about their safety. 

Soubry agreed with many previous speakers that the government need to show leadership and take a joined-up approach across education, health and transport. Like speakers at the fourth session, she suggested that cycling be part of sport in schools. She confirmed that she felt it would be sensible for local authorities to spend some of their public health money on getting more people cycling, but stopped short of giving a commitment to issuing guidance.

Again, this week’s inquiry heard sensible suggestions from witnesses passionate about getting Britain cycling. The tone of the evidence being given is starting to feel familiar: essentially, despite it being clear that public money spent on cycling is money well spent, the sums are inadequate and things need to change. 

I look forward to the final session next week, when the topic will be the crucial question of leadership from government. Witnesses will include transport ministers Norman Baker and Stephen Hammond.  

For Simon Edwards’ take on the previous session of the inquiry, see Get Britain Cycling: Health benefits of cycling


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