Friday, 6 July 2012

Of course cycling is political, but it should always be above party politics



 One of Coventry's city councillors has asked me about my political affiliations. I can make no secret of the fact that as an individual, I am conservative leaning, at least within the British political spectrum. However, the reason for setting up the Manifietso website and blog was to create a platform for better cycling, both here in Coventry, and in any other city that wants to become bike friendly.

Any campaign which is asking for government and other organisations to do things, and every now and then to spend a little bit of money, is always going to have an inherently political element, but there is no need for cycling to be caught up in party political squabbles. 

Consider some of the main schools of thought which drive each of the main political parties, and it is clear that arguments to promote cycling should be able to satisfy all camps:

Labour / Socialist

  • The Labour Party has traditionally been interested in helping disadvantaged groups, and when it comes to road safety, cyclists are amongst the most vulnerable of all road users. 
  •  In terms of social inclusion, cycling is completely free to the participant at the point of use, and the costs of owning an entry-level bike are also extremely low, especially when compared with the cost of buying and running a car. 
  • Car dependent cities create considerable barriers for anyone who is unable to drive -- not just because they are too old or too young, and also not just because of the costs of learning to drive and then of driving itself. There are also many people who are excluded from driving because of medical or other reasons, but who may be able to ride a bike. I write as one of these people myself - I have previously had a driving licence, but surrendered it for medical reasons. Even though these means I qualify for a free bus / Centro rail pass, having a bike means I still have far greater mobility than a pass can ever provide.

Conservative (traditional)

  • Many traditional conservatives have often favoured a planning approach which is skewed towards the private car. Increasingly, they are seeing that this approach is not just out of date, it also makes little economic sense. The economic arguments for encouraging cycling are extremely persuasive, given that bikes cause next to no wear and tear on the roads.
  • Every journey undertaken by bike instead of in a fuel burning car is helping to reduce the balance of payments deficit. 
  • Mile for mile, it is always going to be cheaper to provide high-quality, well used cycling infrastructure than it is to subsidise rail and bus services. 
  • Conservatives often like to talk about personal responsibility, and this is extremely important when it comes to health and fitness. No other form of transport can also provide such a huge physical and mental health benefit, and this far outweighs the risk from accidents. Cycling provision should be developed in tandem with improving the pedestrian realm, as walking and running also convey huge health benefits.

Anti-cycling Drivers

  • If there is any political group which presents the biggest challenge to advocate of cycling infrastructure, it is the driver who insists that motorists are already the victims, and that cyclists are the ones who "pay no road tax" and constantly flout the law. Perhaps we should start by pointing them to what Jeremy Clarkson has to say about cycling in Copenhagen! 
  • The road tax argument is completely spurious -- pedants will point out that there is no such thing as road tax anyway, as Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) is a tax based on the pollution a vehicle causes, not a right to use the road. Cyclists would be zero rated anyway if they did have to register their bikes for VED, as cycling causes no local pollution. 
  • Bikes, together with cycling-equipment and sports nutrition are all subject to VAT at 20%, and given that the average UK council expenditure on cycling at less than £1 per person per year, it is easy to see that cyclists actually make a net direct contribution to the Exchequer. This is before any calculations are made about the external costs per mile of cycling as opposed to motoring (See I pay road tax link above more more on this).
  • However, there is no doubt that we do still have a serious problem with discipline amongst cyclists in the UK. Any pro cycling campaign and who pretends otherwise is deluding themselves. This still needs to be kept in perspective -- by far the biggest offence caused by cyclists is riding on pavements. Why do so many cyclists ride on pavements instead of on the road where they should be? A lot of the explanation for this stems from bad road design.
  • Another very legitimate gripe made by motorists is that cyclists regularly jump traffic lights, and that they are very rarely stopped. My observations from the time I spent in the Netherlands are that pavement riding there is completely non-existent, and that traffic light jumping is also extremely rare. This goes to show that if the right facilities are provided, together with appropriate training and enforcement, cyclists will stick to the rules.


Liberal/Libertarian

  • There is a libertarian school of thought which might ask what business a city has in encouraging more people to ride bikes. Isn't this simply a question of individual freedom of choice? 
  • This argument might be completely valid in the private realm, but transport always requires interaction between different users. Even the richest individuals who own high-performance cars or private jets still rely on public roads and shared usage airports to get around. The libertarian viewpoint simply is not relevant when it comes to strategic planning -- the amount of land available for transport is finite, and the best way to make use of that land is to encourage those forms of transport which take up the least amount of space. Cycling is one such mode. 
  • Any plan of action to encourage more cycling within a particular city must be focused on providing the best quality infrastructure, together with training and promotion programmes to support that development. Although in some cases, road space previously given over to cars will need to be surrendered to cyclists and pedestrians, most of the time, there is enough space for all road users. If the right facilities are provided, then people will naturally choose to ride their bikes -- there should never be any need for coercion!

Green

  • Green politicians will naturally say that they have always been in favour of cycling, although it is by no means their exclusive realm. 
  • The two major environmental benefits of cycling come from reduced local air pollution, together with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, when a trip by bike is compared with an equivalent journey by another means of transport. However, any argument aimed at encouraging individuals to cycle more must start with the most fundamental argument of all -- and that is that cycling is fun! After that, tell people how much money they can save by cycling instead of driving, and then talk up the environmental benefits. This is not to belittle the importance of combating climate change, it is simply a way to engage people by focusing on the "what's in it for me" element first. The rest follows naturally.

Naturally, I can only cover a few elements of the political spectrum, but it is safe to say that the pro-cycling lobby is very much a cross-party campaign. 

This doesn't mean that a blog like this won't inevitably be accused of political bias -- this is unavoidable, considering that I am often going to be highly critical of the current state of cycling infrastructure in Coventry, and that the current administration is Labour - controlled. 

However, I am only interested in having a go at what is there because I passionately believe that things can be made better. It is up to the politicians - of any colour - to fix that.

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