Minister gets on his bike to peddle the case for cyclists

Christian Wolmar joins Steven Norris on a two-wheeled mission alongside London's canals
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The Independent Online
He arrived in a taxi but soon got on his bike. It may not have been the mode of transport he would normally choose, but Steven Norris, the minister who praised the convenience and comfort of the private car, took a cycle trip along a canal towpath yesterday.

Mr Norris, an Under-Secretary of State for Transport, had been invited on the bike ride by the Independent to assess the potential of towpaths for use as cycle routes as alternatives to London's congested roads. For the first time in many months, if not years, the Regent's Canal through London's East End was cleaned of litter by a chap riding a bicycle with a black plastic bag hanging from its handlebars.

However, Mr Norris, in whose honour the clean-up was instigated, was not impressed. "It's the Princess Margaret treatment. I don't know why they bother," he said. Indeed, he was highly critical of the state of the canal: "They don't seem to clear the weeds, and the grass is just worn away because people have no room to walk anywhere else because of the overgrowing weeds."

Mr Norris, who arrived with his bike in a taxi because he was delayed by a previous meeting, is a strong convert to cycling. For the first time there is a pro-cycling ethos at the Department of Transport. He has just announced a cycling challenge offering a total of pounds 2m to groups and local authorities which put forward schemes to boost cycling in their local areas.

By going along the canal, he was entering a lengthy controversy between cyclists and British Waterways. BW, represented on the ride by Mark Bensted, the local manager, has even closed a four-mile section of the canal between Islington and Maida Vale to cyclists because of "conflicts" between pedestrians and cyclists. The London Cycling Campaign is furious at the decision and argues that BW is hostile to cyclists.

Mr Bensted denied that BW was opposed to cycling but said: "We do not want to encourage commuters on to the towpath. It is for leisure and recreation, not for cyclists in a hurry as there is too much source for conflict between pedestrians and cyclists."

As we cycled gently along the five-mile stretch from Islington to Limehouse, Mr Norris said he could not understand the problem. Indeed, all the cyclists we encountered operated the protocol of ringing their bells before entering the narrow bridges where two speeding cyclists would inevitably collide.

Some of the narrowest bridges have signs telling people to dismount under them but these are widely ignored: "That seems a bit nanny state to me. If people want to fall in the canal, that's their business. Why not have a sign telling people to ring their bells?"

Mr Bensted tried gamely to explain why the towpath was so neglected in parts but Mr Norris was not impressed: "We'll have to organise a meeting with British Waterways," Mr Norris told his aide. "I can see enormous potential here and there is very little sign of potential conflict."

He added, having admired the wildlife and the industrial architecture: "That's one of the most pleasant duties I've had to carry out recently. I can see why people want to use it to ride to work and they should be encouraged to do so."

He rode off in the distance, braving the heavy traffic along the Mile End Road back to his department's brand-new offices in Victoria where, at his instigation, showers and facilities for 70 cyclists have been installed.