Politicians and cyclists

Judged by its actions, anyone would think this Government is anti-cycling, argues David Prosser
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Is David Cameron doing cyclists a disservice by taking every opportunity to be filmed or photographed riding his bike? While the leader of the opposition's support for cycling should be an example to us all, it seems that it has riled Gordon Brown and his colleagues at the Department for Transport. At least that's the only explanation I can come up with for this Government's abject failure to support cycling.

In last week's Budget, Mr Brown championed his determination to cut the nation's carbon emissions. Yet while the Chancellor unveiled further generous financial incentives for drivers with cleaner cars, support for the humble emission-free bicycle was notable by its absence.

It's a familiar omission. This year's total budget at the Department for Transport is a whacking £21bn. How much of that will be spent on delivering the Government's National Cycling Strategy (it may come as a surprise to many cyclists that there is such a thing)?

About £63m has been handed over to local authorities to cover schemes aimed at promoting cycling. Add in another £15m or so allocated to various one-off projects, and you still end up with a figure that represents less than 4 per cent of transport spending.

That includes the meagre grant awarded to Sustrans, the charity that is doing such great work building the National Cycle Network, a "UK-wide network that is providing high-quality, safe and attractive routes for walkers and cyclists".

Last year, the charity received less than £9m from the Government, which is why anyone who spends any time riding on off-road cycle paths is likely to come across a team of Sus- trans fundraisers.

Perhaps cycling will do better when it claims its share of the funding announced ahead of the 2012 Olympics. After all, with British cyclists performing so heroically at the Commonwealth Games, our elite riders should be well-placed to help the Government achieve its aim of securing a fourth-place finish for the British team in the 2012 medals table.

But don't bank on a major award for tomorrow's cycling stars. This year, the Department for Education is spending a very underwhelming £45,000 via Sport England to increase the links between schools and local cycling clubs.

Even where there is money available, the Government does little to let people know about it. In last week's Budget, Mr Brown canned the home computer initiative, a scheme that enables people to get tax-free loans from their employers in order to buy their own PC.

While this scheme has been a victim of its own success - the Treasury has apparently become concerned about the mounting cost of the tax break - take-up of an almost identical scheme enabling employees to buy bikes has been low, because the initiative has received little or no promotion.

Still, if the Government is not prepared to spend big on encouraging cycling, no doubt we can rely on it to at least protect those riders who already take to the roads. The Road Safety Bill, the first for 40 years and currently going through Parliament, is a golden opportunity to make the country's road safer for cyclists - and pedestrians for that matter.

It's a pity then, that the Government has not heeded calls from road-safety groups for automatic 20mph zones in residential streets, and for the introduction of stiffer penalties for motorists convicted of dangerous driving.

Then there's the proposed revision of the Highway Code, which suggests that cyclists should "use cycle routes where practicable and cycle facilities where provided".

At first sight, that sounds a like sensible suggestion. But not so, warns the CTC, the national cyclists' organisation. It is so concerned that the provision could leave cyclists open to legal attack from motorists if they are involved in an accident while not using an available cycle lane, that it has launched a campaign against the new Highway Code.

"If a cyclist was injured and there was a cycle facility nearby, of whatever kind, the driver's insurer would have all the pretext they needed to argue that any compensation due to the cyclist should be reduced on the basis of 'contributory negligence'," says Yannick Read of the CTC.

"The threat is not just an academic nicety - other existing rules in the Highway Code are already being used against cyclists in this way," adds Read, "and cyclists have already lost thousands of pounds after crashes that have not been their fault for fear of facing what can be a traumatic challenge through the courts."

The CTC's campaign clearly has some MPs rattled. After thousands of cyclists e-mailed their MPs to complain about the new code, the CTC received a furious letter from an anonymous Labour MP's researcher. On House of Commons notepaper, the researcher complained that the parliamentary e-mail system was grinding to a halt such had been the volume of messages from cyclists.

Naturally, forcing cyclists to use cycle lanes would not be so unreasonable if these facilities were properly maintained - or simply designed with cyclists' safety in mind.

Unfortunately, that's far from the case. In cities at least, cycle lanes are routinely littered with broken glass and other debris, or rendered completely useless by parked cars.

More seriously, there have been a series of accidents around the country resulting from poorly sited cycle lanes. In one high-profile case last year, a leading road-safety campaigner lost her life while riding in a cycle lane on London's Blackfriars Bridge that had thoughtlessly been sited between a bus lane and two lanes of fast-moving traffic.

How can adults be expected to give up their cars in favour of a bike - let alone ask their children to ride - when the odds are so dangerously stacked against the greenest mode of transport of all?

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