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.”
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.