Opposition councillors say roads too risky as council turns to bikes amid budget cuts

Opposition councillors in Northamptonshire have called plans to provide students with free bicycles instead of bus passes, which the county council says will help them assert their independence, “disgraceful.”

Faced with having to make cuts to the £719,000 it currently spends each year on providing free bus travel to 16 to 19 year olds to schools and colleges, the council has said that it will now meet only half the cost for students who have learning or other disabilities, or whose families are on low incomes.

Some of those youths will be given the opportunity to participate in a scheme under which the council will provide them with a free bike, cycle training, and a grant towards the cost of maintenance, according to local newspaper the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.

The criticism of the scheme, which is reported to cost £30,000 a year, appears grounded in a perception that the county’s roads are too dangerous to cycle on, but instead of looking at ways in which safety might be improved, opponents are calling for the initiative to be scrapped altogether.

Quoted in the Chronicle and Echo, former county councillor John Yates, who is described as a long-time supporter of free bus travel, said: "It seems you've just taken on the Norman Tebbit approach of saying 'get on your bike'. But would you be prepared to cycle six miles every day on our county's dangerous roads, which have high accident rates? It's disgraceful."

Politically, of course, we live in the proverbial interesting times with the country coming to terms with a coalition government, and in a reversal of the situation one might normally expect, it is the ruling Conservative group on Northamptonshire County Council that is championing the greener travel option, with Labour voicing its opposition to the scheme, which has now been approved by the council’s cabinet.

Indeed, councillor John McGhee, leader of the Labour opposition group, echoed concerns regarding safety of the scheme: "To say to people get on your bike and cycle to school on some of our dangerous roads is ridiculous,” he said. “After 12 months I would like to see a report to say how many children have actually come off their bikes."

However, the council’s cabinet member for transport, Councillor Heather Smith (Con, Prebendal) disagreed, saying: "We're trying to get people to use alternative ways of moving around the county rather than just getting in the car all the time. We take into account the risks, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working to promote a more healthy and active lifestyle for our young people."

According to Department for Transport figures four child cyclists were killed or seriously injured on the roads of Northamptonshire in 2007 out of a total of 22 cyclists killed or seriously injured, 15 child pedestrians were killed or seriously injured on the county's roads in the same period. In nearby Nottinhamshire 17 child cyclists were killed or seriously injured that year and 32 child pedestrians. The DfT figures would suggest that children on foot are in more danger than those cycling and that while much work could be done to improve road safety Northamptonshire's roads are not exceptionally dangerous.

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.