Central London has seen a few group bike rides in recent weeks – first, there was the RideLondon festival followed by Dom Whiting’s Drum & Bass on the Bike ride earlier this month, and last weekend’s World Naked Bike Ride.
While much smaller and more low-key than any of those, it was another one taking place last week that perhaps carries more weight in helping shape the future of active travel in this country – the annual Parliamentary Bike Ride.
— APPGCW (@allpartycycling) June 13, 2023
While, as several speakers acknowledged, there is perhaps an element of “preaching to the choir” about it, the event does play an important role each year in bringing together not only members of both Houses of Parliament, but a host of stakeholders looking to make it easier for people to choose cycling, wheeling or walking as a means of travel, and improving conditions for those who already get around by bike or on foot.
Last Tuesday morning saw an eclectic group of upwards of 100 cyclists, led by marshals from the London Cycling Campaign supported by officers from the Metropolitan Police Service’s Cycle Safety Team, head out on a loop from Prince Philip House on Carlton House Terrace, the handsome late Georgian range of white stucco buildings on the north side of the Mall, overlooking St James’s Park.
Besides MPs and peers, as well as local politicians and active travel champions – Chris Boardman, commissioner of Active Travel England, was here, as was his successor as active travel commissioner for Greater Manchester, Dame Sarah Storey – participants came from organisations spanning the active travel spectrum, including cycling, walking, disability and environmental campaigners, cycle hire scheme providers, logistics providers, urban planners, among others.
There were also several members of the media present – besides the writer, those included journalist and road.cc contributor Laura Laker plus the broadcaster Ned Boulting, with whom she co-hosts the Streets Ahead podcast together with Adam Tranter, the West Midlands cycling & walking commissioner, and whose PR firm Fusion Media works with the APPGCW.
A relaxed ride of around an hour or so on a glorious mid-June morning – those riders wearing shorts or summer dresses getting envious looks for those of us less appropriately dressed for the weather – took us past St James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace and through Hyde Park before heading back to the start point, giving plenty of opportunity to move up and down the group renewing old acquaintances and making new ones and gauge the temperature, as it were, of people working to promote active travel at a time when the budget for cycling and walking in England outside London has been slashed.
The bike ride itself may have provided the centrepiece of the morning, but there was much more to the event than just an excuse to get out and pedal for in the sunshine for a while, pleasant as that was.
Before setting out from Carlton House Terrace, Boulting – who will be heading out to Bilbao next week to commentate on the Tour de France for ITV – was compere for a short introductory session which included a welcome from APPGCW co-chair Selaine Saxby, the Conservative MP for North Devon, as well as Hanno Wurzner, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the UK, which has sponsored the event for a number of years now.
He emphasised that it was getting beyond active travel being seen as a party political issue that led to the explosion of cycling in his country, with the number of bicycles there outnumbering people and the Dutch now racking up a collective 15 million kilometres in the saddle each year – but pointed out too that the fact the Netherlands has been governed by a succession of coalition governments makes it easier to build consensus on the issue among lawmakers.
Boardman, appointed Active Travel Commissioner for England last year, emphasised how cycling provided an answer, at least in part, to a number of issues dominating the headlines recently – “the cost of living, the cost of the NHS and the climate,” emphasising that “it works – pick a crisis, the more people trundling around under their own steam makes it better.”
He said that Active Travel England was “ready to tackle all of those things,” but – with Transport Minister Jesse Norman sitting alongside him – underlined that investment was needed to provide a strong foundation for the agency to carry out its work.
Norman, in his second stint at the Department for Transport, described cycling as “the single biggest intervention any human being can make to improve their help their wealth, their health, and their well-being” but – addressing the elephant in the room – insisted that cuts to funding were unavoidable given the impact of the conflict in Ukraine (no mention was made of last autumn’s ‘fiscal event’ by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, which cost the country tens of billions of pounds, making slashed funding across government departments inevitable).
He maintained however that “the movement compared to where we were four, five years ago, it’s been astounding,” and that “a different culture is starting to take hold” within both central and local government.
Following the ride, which was also supported by the electric bike hire scheme operators Lime, Dott, Tier and Human Forest, which made available bikes to those participants who had been unable to bring their own, it was back to Carlton House Terrace for a panel discussion – in fact, a series of presentations – chaired by Ruth Cadbury, the Labour MP for Brentford & Isleworth in west London, and co-chair of the APPGCW.
First to speak was Sophie Edmondson, principal inspector at Active Travel England, who explained how the York-based agency, which operates independently of government, was taking shape since being established last year, outlining the work it is undertaking in inspecting and reviewing infrastructure and advising local authorities on compliance with national standards and the role that factors such as training and capturing data at national level can play in that.
Next up was Xavier Brice, chief executive of the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, who spoke about its origins as a grassroots organisation set up initially to turn the disused railway line from Bristol to Bath into what is now one of the country’s best traffic-free cycle routes, and how the charity had been transformed by winning £43.5 million in Millennium Lottery funding in 1995, enabling it to establish the National Cycling Network (NCN).
It's fair to say that the NCN has attracted a lot of criticism and even derision in comments to articles on road.cc over the years, and the poor state of much of the network, and how Sustrans is working to change that, formed much of the subject of Brice’s presentation as he outlined the charity’s “new vision” and how it plans to execute it – including removing on-road sections that have seen increased motor rendering it impassable to anyone with in a wheelchair or pushing a baby-stroller, or riding a trike or cargo bike or other non-standard bicycle.
Dame Sarah Storey, who like Boardman followed the route from gold-medal winning athlete to active travel commissioner – first in South Yorkshire, and now in Greater Manchester after he left to take up his role at Active Travel England spoke about how the city-region’s Bee Network is evolving, as well as its recently adopted Vision Zero to eliminate road deaths, saying that “Vehicles are weapons when used in the wrong hands.”
She outlined how Greater Manchester’s Bee Network, initiated by Boardman alongside Mayor Andy Burnham, had “started out as just the active travel network, but has now incorporated public transport, and the vision is that we have a London style public transport system where active travel is integrated within that.
“So if you’re going first mile and last mile, you can do that on foot, wheeling, on a bike and also in between modes, as well through the city centre of your connecting through to a journey to make a longer journey potentially out of the region.”
Storey underlined the importance of inclusivity and “universal accessibility” as key elements of the plan to take the vision forward, “so whether you're walking, wheeling or cycling, you have a space that is there for you.”
She said that the creation of Active Travel England plus the introduction of the national LTN 120 standards “provided us with an opportunity to really, make sure that what we see on the ground and start seeing on the ground is of a standard that will be fit the future and for the micro mobility modes that we maybe don't even know are going to be invented because we need to future proof the network.”
Storey pointed out that “every year, there are over 250 million journeys that are a mile or less,” not all of which need to be done in a private vehicle, highlighting the case for integrating active travel with public transport.
She also highlighted “three other key areas that I wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose sight of” – one, looking at how public transport can provide an alternative to cars for the school run, secondly the introduction of the Bee Bikes hire scheme, now a year old, and third, how to make cycling accessible to all, including loaning e-bikes and trikes which she says has “opened up a number of opportunities for people with long-term health conditions and people with disabilities.”
Speaking about Greater Manchester’s recently announced Vision Zero strategy, she added that “being able to push that message out that vehicles are weapons when used in the wrong hands is so, so, important.
“So I'm really hopeful that alongside the infrastructure that's been built the support that and we have proactive travelling, to make sure it's the right standard, the other things that happening around home to school travel and access to cycles, we can actually make the environment feel and be safe and that will ultimately contribute to a place that feels safe – when you have that infrastructure and you have that understanding that people are expecting to see bikes, then it feels like you have a safe environment to be in,” she concluded.
The final speaker was Shelley Bontje of the public-private organisation the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which aims to export the country’s experience and expertise to others looking to expand their active travel networks, and who outlined how the Netherlands had transformed itself over the last half-century into the “cycling paradise” it is widely perceived as being nowadays.
There were some arresting statistics along the way. “84 per cent of all Dutchies own a bicycle compared to 42 per cent of all British citizens,” she explained – no surprise there, but the subsequent revelation that car ownership in the Netherlands is higher than in the UK certainly was, although of course the development of a comprehensive cycling network encourages many to avoid short trips by car and use a bike instead, which also boosts local economies and creates vibrant town and city centres.
She also underlined the importance of the independence children gain when it is made possible for them to use safe routes to travel to school or make friends, highlighting UNICEF research that found that “Dutch children are the happiest in the world, so we are already talking about joy of cycling.”
“If people meet up, if they're friends and one destination or gathering spots and travel together to cycle to secondary school, it gives so much freedom and independence and also for yeah, meeting with friends from school.”
While the Dutch experience shows what is possible with political will, on a day in which APPGCW member Baroness Jenny Jones’s ‘fatal motion’ against the Public Order Bill and its curtailing of the right to protest was debated in the House of Lords, it seems strange that there was no acknowledgment of the role that popular protests in the Netherlands in the 1970s played in forcing the country’s political classes to rethink their transport policies.
The Stop De Kindermoord (in English, Stop The Child Murder) movement, launched after more than 400 children lost their lives on Dutch roads in 1971, is widely credited along with other groups such as the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Union) as well as the 1973 oil crisis with prompting the change in attitudes among both national and local politicians that resulted in people being put above motor vehicles in urban planning.
As outlined on its website, the APPGCW’s vision is to see “More people cycling and walking in the UK, more often,” adding that its mission is “To use our role as Parliamentarians to promote all forms of cycling and walking.”
It brings together 38 MPs and 20 peers from across the political spectrum, with its members regularly raising relevant questions in both chambers, as well as speaking in debates on a wide range of topics related to active travel – including, beyond transport, health, criminal justice, the environment and planning, for example.
Besides that, the APPGCW periodically holds question and answer sessions with ministers from the Department for Transport, giving its members an opportunity to grill the government on issues surrounding active travel, and its predecessor, the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, or APPCG, was also responsible for the Parliamentary enquiry that led to the publication of the landmark Get Britain Cycling report in 2013, which was subsequently the subject of a House of Commons debate.
All pictures courtesy of APPGCW
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.