Chris Boardman says he doesn’t believe any of the three main political parties is providing the kind of top-down leadership on cycling that would transform it into an everyday activity carried out by “normal people in normal clothes.”
Boardman, the former world and Olympic champion turned policy advisor at British Cycling, was speaking to road.cc following a debate hosted by The Times newspaper in its offices at London Bridge.
Chaired by broadcaster John Humphrys, the debate involved Conservative transport minister Robert Goodwill, shadow counterpart Lilian Greenwood of Labour, and Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert for the Liberal Democrats.
The latter is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG), which in its Get Britain Cycling report in 2013 called on the highest levels of government to take the lead on cycling.
However, Boardman said he didn’t believe that is happening.
“Not yet, no. The fact of who’s in the room and who’s chosen not to come tells you something.”
He said he was “a great fan of” Dr Huppert, whom he believes “has a lot of integrity.”
But he pointed out: “He’s not campaigning for cycling, he’s campaigning for his local community to be a better place for people to live. And cycling is just part of that, which is a point that was made today.
Speaking of the Liberal Democrats’ view on funding, Boardman said: “They might not be one of the biggest parties, but they have all made the commitment – here’s this much money, here’s our targets, here’s our timeframe – they’re the only ones to have done that.
“Everyone else is still at the position of positive noise, really nice positive noises, but [there is] nothing behind it to back up or to deliver it.
“They can’t necessarily make commitments off the hoof in this room but clearly nobody’s been given a mandate to even say we’ll make it part of our national transport spend we’ll make a long-term commitment, a percentage of the budget will go into making cycling and walking viable choices.
“So if they haven’t gone that far it shows you what level of thought this has been given; and [as for] ‘We haven’t had time to look at DfT’s figures,’ well this isn’t a new topic, it’s been there for a while, but you haven’t looked at them – that tells us something as well,” Boardman added.
In January, an amendment tabled by Dr Huppert hto what is now the Infrastructure Act means that the DfT has to set targets and investment for cycling and walking. At the time, Boardman described it as a “massive shift in thinking.”
Today, he told road.cc it was one of the reasons he believed there should be a centralised body focusing solely on cycling, similar to the role Cycling England played until it was tossed onto the Bonfire of the Quangos by the coalition government in 2010.
“I think you’ve got to have a body to deliver [targets and investment],” said Boardman. “It is now in law that you must provide these – it doesn’t say how much the target will be but it says by law you can’t do nothing any more. It’s absolutely massive.
“So somebody has to deliver something so there needs to be a body that delivers it. Cycling England could have done that, but it’s gone.
“There needs to be a body, but what that body needs to function is a mandate, it has to be in place to deliver something. Right, you’re in place, here’s your money, here’s your target, here’s your timeframe, off you go.”
While some have expressed disappointment that current investment in England is focused on specific places – besides London, principally the eight Cycle City Ambition cities and certain national parks – Boardman said he was in favour of targeting investment that way to showcase what is possible.
“I’m actually a great fan of doing it that way round and in a sense I would take all the money that’s available, put it all into those places and do them absolutely properly and show what this can be,” he told us.
“Properly, properly funding £20 plus a head for a local authority, a town, that said, we really want to do it, here’s our plans, fund it, make it work, show people. Because people get examples.
“Unfortunately, people have forgotten about Cambridge, it’s like ‘Oh yeah, that’s just Cambridge,’” he went on.
“It’s just an example that has existed too long. Within a 10-year time frame create something people can see. I’m a great fan of that, and then, rather than just doing lots of things half-heartedly, do a few things properly, show people what it can be and go to the next step.”
The Times newspaper, whose parent company News Limited hosted today’s debate, launched its Cities Fit For Cycling initiative three years ago, shortly after its journalist Mary Bowers suffered life changing injuries as she was crushed by a lorry while riding to work.
At the time, Boardman was working on technical aspects of the equipment used by Team GB’s cyclists at London 2012, but since then he has focused on advocacy as policy advisor at British Cycling, where he has proven himself a passionate campaigner - indeed he would be many people's first choice for national cycling champion.
“It’s been quite a learning experience for me because I’m used to working in sport and in business and in both of those areas if you don’t perform, you’re just gone,” he told us. “If you’re not making a profit for your shareholders, you’re gone. It’s as simple as that. It’s clear cut what the rules are.”
Contrasting the worlds of commerce and sport with that of working with national and local government, he told us: “There is so much bureaucratic whirl, it is so slow to get anything to change. It’s quite infuriating to get something so logical to happen.
“There’s so many examples. Utrecht was the one I was using, it’s 250 miles from here, 50 per cent of kids ride to school on bikes, one third of all journeys are made on bikes.
“There’s no logical argument against it but it’s so hard to get people to do it,” he continued, before revealing how his viewpoint had shifted somewhat due to someone else who had attended the debate.
“One politician who was in this room, said it’s one of the beauties of our country that it’s so hard to get things to happen,” he said.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well we can’t do stupid things and we can’t do short term things and we can’t react to public opinion; if that’s outraged, we change the law and divert the cash to another direction.’
Boardman went on: “I’ve never thought about it in that way. And in a sense it just gives me hope in all of this, that it takes a long time, but it would also take a long time to unpick it and we do get change.
“When you’re talking of a national culture, it is going to be painful, it is going to be slow, but that’s okay for me so long as we’re going in the right direction. Quicker would be better, but do it, do it properly, and do it right.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.