A Scottish Conservative MSP for Lothian has come in for criticism after she claimed that a school bike bus was set up simply to score political points, as a public consultation over Edinburgh’s much-debated Spaces for People scheme draws to a close.
Writing in the Edinburgh Evening News earlier this week, Tory politician Sue Webber argued that “even primary school pupils are being drawn into divisive and sometimes intimidating arguments” surrounding the City of Edinburgh Council’s active travel scheme.
Funded by Sustrans and constructed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the pop-up scheme – now known as Travelling Safely – aims to “create more space for people walking, wheeling and cycling” in the city.
The largest of the three roads covered by the scheme, the Lanark Road, has traditionally been viewed as particularly dangerous for cyclists.
In January 2012 keen cyclist Andrew McNicoll died from injuries sustained in an incident involving a parked car and a lorry driver, while riding to work. Following Andrew’s death, his family campaigned for changes to where and how motorists can park on the road.
Since it was first proposed, however, the scheme has come under fire from a group of local residents.
In January last year, the residents group South West Edinburgh in Motion (SWEM) threatened Edinburgh City Council with legal action if construction began on the pop-up bike lanes, and have since blamed a supposed increase in collisions – based on purely on anecdotal evidence and mostly involving motorists alone – on the new lanes.
In Monday’s article, Webber made the unsubstantiated claim that Lanark Road residents have recently noticed a sharp increase in the number of cyclists, including small children, using the lanes.
“Perhaps it’s a coincidence,” she writes, “they have only started to appear just as another public consultation for the ‘experimental traffic restriction order’ for these changes is due to finish at the end of this week.
“Until very recently, householders along the route have seen very few, if any, young people cycling up the long, steep hill, and any increased general use is more likely to be because the Water of Leith pathway ─ still cyclists’ preferred route ─ is closed for resurfacing.
“But then a leafleting campaign was organised ─ by the same people who organised the ‘Critical Mass’ cycle lane protest this time last year ─ to encourage parents and children to join a ‘bike bus’ from the bottom of Lanark Road to Juniper Green Primary.”
Webber went on to claim that “a genuine attempt to boost cycling numbers would have started in Baberton Mains where there are more pupils and greater potential to boost safe cycling to school.
“But starting from the most distant part of the catchment area with far fewer children looks like an attempt to prove the coned-off lanes are popular.
“Not surprisingly, other parents complained about what they saw as a deliberate ‘pied piper’ exercise to use children for political ends.
“There is something deeply distasteful in exploiting children in this way.”
Webber’s article, however, has been heavily criticised by her political opponents, who accused the Tory MSP of “significant hypocrisy”.
So is this Susan Webber encouraging a local school in her ward to use their kids as pawns in a political game by replicating the success of another bike bus? pic.twitter.com/YeMJ4pGQM9
— Algorhythmical (@Algorhythmica1) June 27, 2022
In 2020, the then-councillor for Pentland Hills praised a “fantastic” group cycle to school initiative at James Gillespie’s Primary and supported a motion to “support and enable bike buses”.
Incidentally, organisers of the James Gillespie’s bike bus helped those behind the recent Juniper Green scheme with a risk assessment and marshalling assistance.
The SNP’s spokesperson for transport on the City of Edinburgh council, Lesley Macinnes, said Webber’s shift in thinking concerning bike buses “represents significant hypocrisy” and that the MSP was “weaponising volunteer-driven initiatives”.
“Unfortunately, Ms Webber’s disgraceful comments in this latest article represent significant hypocrisy around encouraging children to cycle in this city,” Macinnes told the Edinburgh Reporter. “At a previous committee when she was a councillor, she was very encouraging of children who came to talk about the benefits of a bike bus.
“Her attitude seems to have turned completely in the opposite direction and she is weaponising volunteer-driven initiatives with nothing but good at its heart and which is designed to encourage children to get around this city in a way which benefits them, their health and others around about them.
“In my opinion, bike buses represent a very positive future for this city with increasing numbers of young people feeling that cycling is a good, healthy and greener option for their transport needs.”
Labour councillor Scott Arthur also described Webber’s comments as “disappointing as I thought I lived in a city where everyone wanted children to be able to walk or cycle to school without their parents having to worry.
“I hope she will consider joining the next cycling-bus so she can better understand some of the challenges our young people face.”
The Scottish Conservative politician has since responded to criticisms of her article, which she described as simply raising “legitimate concerns”.
She added: “If Cllr Macinnes had read the article properly, she would have seen I did not criticise bike bus schemes per se, but raised the legitimate concerns of parents that children were being used as part of a highly-politicised campaign to preserve a scheme she forced through which made an already busy road more dangerous.
“She might be struggling with her irrelevance after years of her high-handed policies ignoring community concerns, but it’s pretty desperate stuff to be arguing that it’s fine for adult activists to attempt to manipulate impressionable youngsters.”
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.