Andrew Vine: Honour our golden Olympians – by building more cycle lanes

Cycling's golden couple Laura trott and Jason Kenny would trade honours for greater investment in cycling.
Cycling's golden couple Laura trott and Jason Kenny would trade honours for greater investment in cycling.
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GETTING Britain on its bikes was a Conservative manifesto commitment at last year’s general election, but it’s fallen as flat as a punctured inner tube.

A “cycling revolution” for commuters was promised by David Cameron, with the target of a doubling of the number of journeys by bike. That has not happened – for the simple reason that insufficient resources were made available.

How embarrassingly short they fall of what is needed is revealed by the Government’s own figures.

This year, outside London, Britain will spend £2.07 a head on cycling. By 2020/21, that figure will have fallen to a derisory 72p. Not even enough for a slab of Kendal Mint Cake to boost flagging energy levels after grinding up a Yorkshire hill in the lowest gear on the cog.

Just how paltry a figure even the current £2.07 amounts to is shown by comparison with the Netherlands, where everyday cycling is a way of life for virtually the entire population.

There, the equivalent of £24 a head is spent on cycling.

And it’s no coincidence that levels of heart disease and obesity in Holland are way below ours.

That’s why if she wants to boost Britain’s general health and wellbeing – and win friends across the political spectrum – Theresa May would do well to pay careful attention to a letter from our golden Olympic generation.

It landed on her desk last week, signed by the cycling world-beaters of Rio, among them Jason Kenny and Laura Trott, with the added clout of support from Olympic legends Sir Chris Hoy and Chris Boardman.

The suggestion it makes is simple – that five per cent of the transport budget be allocated to providing more cycle lanes on the roads.

The letter is not shy of harnessing national jubilation at Britain’s trouncing of every other country on two wheels at the Olympics to ramp up the pressure on Mrs May, saying “the best way to honour the achievements of our athletes would be a legacy of everyday cycling in this country”.

Amen to that. Lasting legacies that ripple out through the wider population are among the noblest aims of elite sport, and their call for practical measures to get the country cycling does the star Olympians much credit.

More cycle lanes are a must if greater numbers are to be persuaded onto the roads. Volumes of traffic – and poor driving – are simply too intimidating for many would-be regular cyclists.

The section of the Highway Code that instructs drivers to give cyclists the same space when overtaking as they would another vehicle is one of those passages that seems to fade from memory the moment they pass their test.

Even given the expansion of the network of cycle lanes in recent years, it can still be an unnerving ordeal negotiating traffic, especially during rush hour, and a frighteningly close shave can be enough to make novice riders put their bikes away except for weekend jaunts along off-road routes.

Considering that she has just returned from a holiday of strenuous hiking in the Alps, Mrs May might be expected to be sympathetic towards a drive to get more people out into the fresh air exercising as part of a regular routine.

And if she needs a test bed to gauge the effectiveness of expanding the network of cycle lanes, the Prime Minister should have Yorkshire in the forefront of her mind.

We have become Britain’s spiritual home of cycling. The millions who turned out to watch Le Grand Départ saw to that, and the subsequent success of the Tour de Yorkshire has confirmed it.

And if, in three years’ time, the cycling UCI Road World Championships take place in Yorkshire – the bid to bring the event here is being backed by Mrs May – then our county will have cemented its place on cycling’s world stage.

What a feather in our cap it would be for a massive international audience to arrive and find a county where mass cycling is on its way to becoming a way of life, just as it is in Holland.

This is not a fanciful objective. There are more cyclists on Yorkshire’s roads since Le Grand Départ, but there still needs to be a step change if commuters and shoppers are to be coaxed over their perfectly understandable reservations about competing for space with traffic and impatient drivers.

The key to that is the additional safety offered by cycle lanes. The elite Olympians who whizzed so dazzlingly around the Rio velodrome know that, and Mrs May would be doing the country a favour if she acted on their letter.

Cycling has to be worth more than £2.07 a head to Britain. Getting more people on their bikes is an investment 
in the future, since the outlay for more cycle lanes would eventually be far outweighed by savings on healthcare because general fitness levels would rise. And that’s a worthwhile investment in anybody’s terms.

Sarah Champion MP

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