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‘Cyclists’ charter’ mooted by Sir George Young in 1975 version of Get Britain Cycling parliamentary debate

Replying to a request from Sir George Young MP for better facilities for cyclists, the Minister for the Environment said: “I hope…local authorities will look at the question of special cycle lanes. Although, obviously, with our present economic difficulties and with a cut-back in many local authority services imminent, this is hardly the time for Parliament to be urging local authorities to fresh expenditure.”

The Minister for the Environment of 1975, that is. Denis Howell was the transport-related minister to respond to Sir George Young’s adjournment debate on cycling. The answers from the minister weren’t terribly encouraging.

“I can think of no better time to initiate a debate on improved facilities for the cyclist than at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon as London’s traffic congeals into an immovable mass,” Sir George had started.

He continued:

“I raise this subject on the Adjournment on behalf of the 80,000 Londoners who cycle regularly to work every day, on behalf of the tens of thousands of other cyclists who would like to do so and also on behalf of the 18 million cyclists in this country.

“As an example of the potential if adequate provision is made, in Stevenage where a grade-separated system of bicycle routes has been constructed between one-third and one-half of all journeys are made by bicycle. Therefore, the potential exists and is a prize worth grasping.” [these stats are different to census figures on cycling modal share in Stevenage at the time].

“In 1968 the then Mr. Ernest Marples, himself a keen cyclist, said “There is a great future for the bicycle if you make the conditions right. If you make them wrong there isn’t any future.”

Sir George’s words from 1975 could very well be re-used in the three-hour debate on cycling due to be staged on 2nd September 2013, when the House of Commons (or, at least those MPs who can be bothered to turn up after their hols) will vote on the recommendations contained in the Get Britain Cycling report. Just change a few dates…

“Up to 1971 bicycle usage declined mainly because the conditions were wrong and the planners assumed that the car would ultimately displace other forms of personal transport. They were misguided, but unfortunately their prophecies were fulfilled because inadequate provision for the cyclist was made in the transport plans drawn up during that period.

“Although the Government have not lifted one finger to help the cyclist, there has been a dramatic growth in cycling since 1971. The proposition I wish to put to the Minister this afternoon is that if the Government’s attitude where to change from one of cautious indifference to one of positive encouragement, the benefit to society in terms of energy saving, of a better environment and of the improved health of the British public would be enormous.

“The bicycle is pollution-free and the least offensive of all transport modes. On behalf of cyclists I have drawn up a short shopping list, or cyclists’ charter, to put to the Minister this afternoon in the confident expectation of provoking a positive response from him.

“I would like to see a bicycle unit within the Department of the Environment whose job it would be to collate and disseminate information on provision for the bicycle. There are 1,700 civil servants within the Department, many working on road schemes which the country can no longer afford. Surely a dozen or so could usefully be transferred to a bicycle unit which could advise local authorities, British Rail and others on measures to encourage cycling. It could start by looking at the positive measures taken overseas to help the cyclist.”

By this Sir George meant the cycling facilities being installed in the Netherlands. At a time when Britain was spending billions on motorways, some of them slicing through cities at huge expense, almost nothing was spent on facilities for cyclists. In fact, cycling was often positively discouraged. In his speech, Sir George remarked that parking a car in a railway station cost 22p a day. The much smaller bicycle ought to cost 1p a day, he reckoned. It cost 17p a day: yes, there was a time when bicycle parking at rail stations was charged for.

Sir George then turned to the separation of cyclists from motorised traffic:

“Next I turn to safety. The major deterrent to the cyclist and potential cyclist is the risk of an accident. Many parents today are somewhat reluctant to allow their children on the roads on bicycles because of the risks of accidents. Some other recommendations, namely the segregation of the cycle from the car, would overcome the worst fears. But we still need more proficiency courses for children and more training schemes for adults and children alike to increase knowledge of the use of the cycle. The motorists must also be educated to allow for the cyclist since careless driving by motorists is the most frequent cause of accident.

“My next point deals with advice to local authorities. I am sure that the day is not far off when the Minister will feel impelled to send yet another circular to local authorities. In it he could include a section on the provisions they should be making for the bicycle. He should stress that in all new developments, particularly town centre schemes, provision should be made not just to cater for today’s bicyclist but to encourage the bicyclist of tomorrow by separating his journey from the motorist and seeing that there is adequate parking provision.

“The bicycle has the potential to provide the majority of the British people with a quiet, cheap, clean, healthy and flexible form of transport. With the measures that I have outlined, the potential can be achieved…We all look to the Government to give a lead.”

Naturally, no such lead was forthcoming in 1975. The Minister replied:

“There is something to be said for traffic lanes. I believe that these can be provided better in new towns like Stevenage where they are starting from scratch. It is difficult to provide separate traffic lanes in the middle of Birmingham, Manchester or London, although it would be helpful and interesting to have some experiments in that direction.

“I cannot accede to the request that my Department should set up a separate cycling advisory unit. We are being asked to cut down on the numbers of civil servants. We already have a traffic advisory unit. I believe that traffic should be looked at as a whole. It would not help to have an advisory unit for cycling and to divorce cycling from other traffic considerations and advice. I think that it would be sensible for the traffic advisory unit to turn its attention more to the possibilities inherent in cycling.”

The Minister made a serious error when he talked about deaths of cyclists in 1973: “Cycling is much the most dangerous method of travelling around this country. In 1973 alone there were 4,757 deaths, of which 2,041 were of children.”

In fact, there had been under 300 deaths that year.

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