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UK government's dismissal of cycling four decades ago contrasts with Dutch decisions of same era...

Did the UK miss an opportunity to ‘Go Dutch’ in the 1970s, just at the time that across the North Sea the Netherlands began prioritising people on bikes, putting policies in place that four decades on have resulted in the country becoming the envy of campaigners around the world?

Conservative politician Lord Young, who held cabinet posts under Margaret Thatcher, this week gave a glimpse into the views on cycling of the Labour Government in the mid-1970s as he opened a debate on cycling in the House of Lords.

As David Hembrow notes in this post on his View From The Cycle Path blog, the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan 1999 acknowledged that “from 1950 to 1975, the bicycle was almost entirely excluded from the government's vision."

That the situation was turned around is in large part due to the Stop De Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) road safety campaign launched by grass roots activists in 1973, a year in which 450 children were killed on Dutch roads.

By putting the focus on children, Hembrow explains, the campaign struck an emotional chord that resonated with the public and politicians in a way that lobbying for more money to be spent on cycling infrastructure can’t achieve on its own.

The result was a commitment to reduce road casualties partly through building separated cycle paths and engineering out conflict, improving the safety of not just children but adult cyclists too.

Opening Wednesday’s debate, Lord Young – once nicknamed the “bicycling baronet” and now, following his elevation to the peerage, the “pedalling peer” – referred to an earlier debate he had tabled in the House of Commons on 11 July 1975, when Labour were in government under Harold Wilson.

“The Minister who replied was Denis Howell—the Sports Minister—indicating that the then Government regarded cycling primarily as a form of recreation,” Lord Young recalled.

“I presented him with a cyclists’ charter: a bicycle unit in his department; cycle lanes through the Royal Parks; proficiency courses for children; a requirement that in all new developments provision should be made to encourage the cyclist by separating his journey from that of the motorist; the identification of cycle-priority routes; mileage allowances for cyclists; and better provision for bicycles on trains by British Rail, with more covered parking spaces at stations.

“My suggestions were either summarily dismissed —such as the cycle allowance, the bicycle unit in the department and the directives to British Rail—or described by the Minister as ‘interesting’. This was before Yes Minister but, as a former civil servant myself, I knew that by ‘interesting’ he meant absurd.

“The very first point he made was that cycling was dangerous, and I am afraid that coloured his whole response. As it was dangerous, he thought we should be careful before encouraging it. But that argument should be stood on its head. Cycling of itself is a benign and safe activity. On health, environmental, energy conservation and congestion grounds, it should be encouraged by making it safer by, among other things, reducing the interface with danger, primarily traffic.”

Acknowledging that “will be decades before we catch up with the Dutch,” Lord Young noted that “In the Netherlands, 27% of journeys are by bicycle, compared with 2% here.”

Recalling his own trip to the Netherlands in 2009, he said “it made a deep impression. For the Dutch, cycling is like walking, but on wheels. In other words, it is done in ordinary clothes, without sweat, by the same people who walk.

“Here, by contrast, cycling is predominantly male, white, youngish, fast and often in cycling gear. It will take time for this cultural shift to take place, until more people use their feet for journeys up to say half a mile; the bicycle for longer journeys, of up to, say, three or four miles; and then public transport or a car for longer journeys.

“Nearly everyone in this country can ride a bicycle and there are bicycles in most households. After school, college or university, however, two wheels are abandoned, and resumed only if the Tube drivers or tanker drivers go on strike.”

Four decades on from that earlier debate, there is a feeling among cycling campaigners that things are finally improving, but progress is painfully slow, and it’s still unclear when exactly the Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) will be implemented or how much money will be allocated to it.

Morever, funding is short-term and, across the country as a whole, woefully short of the £10 per person per year that campaigners such as the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group have called for.

National cyclists’ charity CTC, which covers last week’s debate here, told road.cc: “It is significant in that it is the second debate in a week on cycling right at the time the Government is considering the funding implications for the CWIS.

“The good news is that it is initiated by a Lord who understands cycling and has championed it throughout their time in parliament, Lord Young.”

> Opinion: Do cycle? Go Dutch!

Concluding his speech on Wednesday, Lord Young said “much more needs to be done,” and quoted Prime Minister David Cameron, who wrote in the government’s CWIS vision document that he wanted  

to create an environment which encourages walking and cycling, where cycling and walking is the norm for short journeys or as part of a longer journey. Our ambition is for streets and public places which support walking and cycling.

Lord Young said: “That admirable vision needs to be backed by the necessary investment to make this form of transport safer and more popular.

“It needs to be dynamised by more ambitious targets than the modest ones currently adopted by government, and it needs to be achieved by a genuine partnership with the many people who want to see two wheels realise their true potential in a 21st century transport system.”

For now, however, cyclists here will continue to look wistfully across the North Sea and reflect on the impact of the different approaches of the Dutch and British governments 40 years ago.

Here's a video of that 2009 trip to the Netherlands uploaded to YouTube by cycling author and BikeBiz executive editor, Carlton Reid.

 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.

12 comments

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HarrogateSpa [332 posts] 3 months ago
10 likes

All good stuff from Lord Young.

“Here, by contrast, cycling is predominantly male, white, youngish, fast and often in cycling gear."

It's fine to point this out, but we should be quite clear what the problem is: not enough other people in ordinary clothes riding bikes. The problem is NOT the young, white males in cycling clothes who do ride bikes - in fact, we're leading the way, and making the argument for more cycling and more investment.

It may be a fine distinction, but it's an important one. We need to encourage more people onto bikes, not get rid of the people who currently ride bikes.

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samuri [59 posts] 3 months ago
4 likes

Youngish, fast males in cycling clothes are a symptom of the problem. These are mainly the group of people who feel confident enough to take to the roads. There is little other indicator needed that a cycling plan has failed or does not exist. I agree that we do not want to lose this group of users but they would look just like everyone else in a place there has been succesful investment in cycling. 

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graham_f [184 posts] 3 months ago
4 likes
HarrogateSpa wrote:

All good stuff from Lord Young.

“Here, by contrast, cycling is predominantly male, white, youngish, fast and often in cycling gear."

It's fine to point this out, but we should be quite clear what the problem is: not enough other people in ordinary clothes riding bikes. The problem is NOT the young, white males in cycling clothes who do ride bikes - in fact, we're leading the way, and making the argument for more cycling and more investment.

It may be a fine distinction, but it's an important one. We need to encourage more people onto bikes, not get rid of the people who currently ride bikes.

Spot on! I had a holiday in Copenhagen last summer, and there were plenty of (most often youngish, white, male) cyclists in lycra on road bikes participating in cycling as a sport. The reason they don't stand out as they do here is that there were so many other people, in normal clothes, going about their normal business by bike.

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dafyddp [347 posts] 3 months ago
3 likes

There was a really sad posting on the AudaxUK Facebook page yesterday from a female cyclist who had been riding for 40+ years, but after one too many near-misses/confrontations had decided to quit leading groups. The final straw came when she was clipped by a horsebox. I think the problem has less to do with infrastructure, and more to do a need for greater mutual-respect and a legal system that comes down hard on careless motorist seriously.

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jasecd [388 posts] 3 months ago
2 likes
dafyddp wrote:

There was a really sad posting on the AudaxUK Facebook page yesterday from a female cyclist who had been riding for 40+ years, but after one too many near-misses/confrontations had decided to quit leading groups. The final straw came when she was clipped by a horsebox. I think the problem has less to do with infrastructure, and more to do a need for greater mutual-respect and a legal system that comes down hard on careless motorist seriously.

I've been saying this for years - no-one in any position of authority speaks out about driver attitudes. Either they're genuinely ignorant of the large minority of dangerous or aggressive idiots who see us as an obstruction, or they're too scared of losing votes to condemn them. Either way it's pathetic and combined with ineffective and unenforced laws fails all of us ride and anyone who might want to.

I do think we need infrastructure in towns and cities and we need to get kids cycling - make it the norm for the next generation.

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Flippa [38 posts] 3 months ago
1 like

The problem isn't young males in lycra. It's the people who use the roads without any consideration of how their actions affect anyone else. That includes people on bicycles who are usually young males who ride how and where they like, and drivers whose only thought appears to be to get in front of the vehicle in front of them. Infrastructure will not change people's attitude towards each other, people who cycle without consideration of others will still do that even if the infrastructure provides a safe route for them.

 

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oldstrath [580 posts] 3 months ago
3 likes
Flippa wrote:

The problem isn't young males in lycra. It's the people who use the roads without any consideration of how their actions affect anyone else. That includes people on bicycles who are usually young males who ride how and where they like, and drivers whose only thought appears to be to get in front of the vehicle in front of them. Infrastructure will not change people's attitude towards each other, people who cycle without consideration of others will still do that even if the infrastructure provides a safe route for them.

 

Yes, bad people on bikes will still bad people on bikes regardless of the infrastructure. But good infrastructuire would keep us all safe from the bad (or careless) people in cars, and I'll happily take my chances with the odd 'bad person on a bike'.

I suspect this is what the Dutch realised lots of years ago - you cannot fix peoples' attitudes, and "let's everyone play nice" is just a dream. So instead you engineer for as much safety as possible, and leave the behaviour change to those who believe in such stuff.

 

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P3t3 [244 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
dafyddp wrote:

I think the problem has less to do with infrastructure, and more to do a need for greater mutual-respect and a legal system that comes down hard on careless motorist seriously.

 

I just don't see how you are going to re-engineer human nature and engender a brand new "mutaul resect and understanding" that is going to make the roads safe.  The vast majority of close passses, near misses etc are made by drivers who didn't think or empathise.  

Beefed up laws and tougher penalties are not going to change things becase there wasn't a concious decision to put the cyclinst in danger in the first place - there was just unconsious carelessness.  I think in the vast majority of cases if you asked them afterwards they wouldn't even realise they did anything wrong.  Of course there are a limited number of people who do deliberately set out to harm but they are definately in the minority.  

Even if you did manage to change human nature, the average mother still isn't going to look at a road full of cars and think its a good idea to ride to school with the kids on it.  At best your idea makes things slightly better for existing cyclists but it really isn't good enough to make any difference to the cycling modal share.  Its a distraction.  

 

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kraut [103 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
P3t3 wrote:

Beefed up laws and tougher penalties are not going to change things becase there wasn't a concious decision to put the cyclinst in danger in the first place - there was just unconsious carelessness.  I think in the vast majority of cases if you asked them afterwards they wouldn't even realise they did anything wrong.  

I disagree. Beefed up laws and dramatically more enforcement worked for drink driving and seat belts, and to some extent work for speeding.  They could work for other road crimes, too.

 

Of course the extreme psychopaths don't care, but those are thankfully few and far between.

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P3t3 [244 posts] 3 months ago
1 like
kraut wrote:

I disagree. Beefed up laws and dramatically more enforcement worked for drink driving and seat belts, and to some extent work for speeding.  They could work for other road crimes, too.

 

Of course the extreme psychopaths don't care, but those are thankfully few and far between.

 

Ok there are 2 issues here:

1) I take your point - behavoural policies did make drink-driving largely socially unacceptable.  But it was based on a simple line in the sand, "did you drink? Yes/No?"  How does that translate to "mutual respect"?  Its a vauge principle, you can't breathalise respect, its doesn't come in quantifiable units.   In this example,  I don't think its going to work for drivers that don't realise what they are doing wrong but I can understand your point of view.  

2) But the second point is the biggie and you completely ignored it.  How is taking a road that looks exactly the same but has "respectful drivers" on it going to be more appealing for mum to cycle the kids to school?  Cars are big, fast and scary, and people feel real pressure when they are holding other people up.  How does she know that drivers have suddenly become curteous and respectful when she would never dare ride on the road anyway.  

Like I said, what you are hoping for makes the roads marginally more tolerable for those brave enough to cycle already and no more.  In terms of making a meaningful shift towards more journeys by bike, forget it.  

 

 

 

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ofathens [27 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes
HarrogateSpa wrote:

All good stuff from Lord Young.

“Here, by contrast, cycling is predominantly male, white, youngish, fast and often in cycling gear."

It's fine to point this out, but we should be quite clear what the problem is: not enough other people in ordinary clothes riding bikes. The problem is NOT the young, white males in cycling clothes who do ride bikes - in fact, we're leading the way, and making the argument for more cycling and more investment.

It may be a fine distinction, but it's an important one. We need to encourage more people onto bikes, not get rid of the people who currently ride bikes.

 

But you must admit this might put less confident people—or people who do not fit into this group—off cycling, as when it's predominantly young males in lycra it gives the impression that it is only for them? It gives the impression that you need to be fit and go fast to survive, which is not really far from the truth. As said elsewhere, it's a symptom of a problem rather than a problem. And if you saw every type of person on a bike, including people in lycra, you would truly give the impression that it is for everybody.

More segregated cyclepaths... because f*ck cycling slowly in London at the moment when that means you will constantly be overtaken with an inch clearance.

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onlinejones [6 posts] 3 months ago
0 likes

How come Lord Young didn't manage to get any of this implemented in the  80s. He had a lot of power then. Maggie said that while other cabinet ministers came to her with problems he came to her with solutions so he clearly had her ear.