The list of MPs who have signed Early Day Motion 2689 supporting The Times's Cities fit for cycling campaign (58 at time of writing), analysed by party, shows clearly the strange, and perhaps unique way, in which cycling is a party-political issue in the UK.
Here is the breakdown of signatories, as a proportion of party numbers in the Commons:
Lib Dem 17/57 = 30%
Labour 31/256 = 12%
Conservative 5/305 = 1.6%
DUP 2/8 = 25%
Plaid Cymru 1/3 = 33%
SNP 1/6 = 16%
SDLP 1/3 = 33%
Of course cycling is political, in general sense: it must be, since deciding what to do to facilitate it involves taking decisions over taxation and resource allocation that advantage or disadvantage different people. That's politics. But with a Labour MP 7.5 times more likely than a Conservative MP to sign this motion, and a Lib Dem 19 times more likely, it is clear that cycling must be a party-political issue in the UK.
This is very sad, as there is no reason that cycling should intrinsically be associated with the political left, and it does not appear to be so, generally, in other countries. In the Netherlands, so far as I can see, it appears to be agreed pretty much uniformly across the political spectrum that cyclists should be made as safe as possible. Why is this not the case here?
It was a surprise that a right-of centre, "establishment" newpaper, The Times, should come out with the highest-profile pro-cycling campaign yet seen in the British media. And yet it should not have been, because there is no obvious association between cycling and the "big state", or with philosophies of social democracy or socialism. There is, indeed, an intuitive converse association, the bicycle being a facilitator of personal independence, industry and individualism, every person on a bike being, in a sense, a single unit of free enterprise. And the rhetoric of Conservative politicians has often recognised this, most famously in Norman Tebbitt's "He [his unemployed father] got on his bike and looked for work", often misquoted as the motto "Get on your bike".
So what has happened here, and can it be changed? The Conservatives, in a sense, do support, must support, the individualism, the personal freedom of the "man on the bike". But they have got more involved, historically, with the freedom of the "man in the car". As the party most associated with the upper classes, as those classes graduated, in the early years of the 20th century, from the fashion of bikes to the fashion of cars, so the Conservatives moved with them, and the bike became more associated with the "working man", who was naturally represented by the Labour party. And yet this was not a simple, nor a uniform story. It was the Labour Government that removed speed limits in 1930, and a visionary conservative Minister of Transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who reintroduced them in 1934, together with the driving test and other road-safety measures, and promoted probably the best cycle facilities the UK ever had.
But, broadly, in the post-war period, the Conservatives came to regard the motor car ever more as a symbol of personal freedom and individual life-success, and while not anti-bike, probably thought of the bike, if at all, as something that had just been left behind in the technological march of history, like the horse-drawn plough. Conservative mentions of cycling came mostly in backward-looking idealisations of Britain, as in John Major's re-quoting of George Orwell's "Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist". When an "ecological left" arose at the radical edge of politics in the 70s and 80s to take up a space previously occupied by a state socialism widely regarded as discredited, it took up the bike and thus, by repulsion, pushed right-wingers further from it. In the new century, the appearance of prominent Conservatives, notably Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who, on the surface at least, seemed to espouse cycling, for a combination of traditional Conservative reasons and a desire to get in on the Green bandwagon, led some rashly to suggest that when these men took power, the roads status-quo would shift. They were sadly disappointed.
The practicalities of the accommodation of personal transport in the public space of our dense, old cities are clear to all. There is a certain amount of space, and to re-prioritise the bike means that space must be gained from somewhere, and the big area from which it can be taken is the space currently used for moving and parked motor vehicles. The extent to which this must reduce the space for cars is generally exaggerated, because space is typically used very inefficiently on our roads at the moment, and there is much wasted space in over-wide traffic lanes that could be reallocated, when combined with the complete redesign of streets from one side to the other, in a way that in fact does not reduce motor vehicle capacity very much. Likewise, there is no need to decimate car parking in redesigning cities to be cycle-friendly. The Dutch have not done this, and their car ownership rates remain high. It is the space at junctions that is at a premium. At junctions, cars generally spread out into multiple lanes to fill the space, and this squeezes cyclists out. It is the space and time at junctions that cyclists need that will always be the biggest source of contention.
But contention for space on the roads there is, and a major factor here is that the political right has convinced itself that motor traffic is inextricably associated with economic growth, and hence prosperity, and hence quality of life. The negative influences of motor traffic on that quality of life may be apparent to them as well, in terms of pollution, ill-health, noise, ugliness and alienation, but these are weighed-up as being less important in the end. These downsides are, in their minds, associated with the complaints of those hair-shirt prophets of doom who have always been, in the past, proven to be wrong, and the best interests of the majority do seem to them to be tied up with continuing to prioritise motor traffic.
There is also the geo-political aspect: British Conservatives are heavily influenced by the American social paradigm, which the policies of Eisenhower, after the Second World War, inextricably linked to personal motorised independence and economic dependence on the roads, though the urban sprawl and despoilage of the countryside that this entailed in a small country like the UK certainly upset a traditional shire Conservative faction. On the other hand, as the main examples of advanced industrialised countries that have re-habilitated the bike are on the continent of Europe, in countries that have espoused more left-leaning social market systems than the UK, and in some, though not all, cases, are closely associated with the European integration project, this also makes Conservatives mistrustful of the idea of the state siding more with the cyclist.
Can things change? The statistics on EDM 2689 suggest they are not changing very much. One change has been apparent for a number of years, which has been the increasing number of middle-class commuting cyclists in London, associated mostly with the financial, legal and media industries. This, indirectly, has given rise to The Times's campaign, as one of them, their journalist Mary Bowers, was nearly killed by a lorry. Danny, the Cyclists in the City blogger, is always pointing out how big cycling has become now amongst employees and bosses of the City's financial institutions, and how this is clearly having an effect, at least on the local roads policies of that staunchly conservative (with a small c) body, the Corporation of London.
But Cameron, strikingly, never took the cycling thing forward after he became PM, indeed he seemed to have ditched it much earlier, and he put the primitively pro-car and pro-big-lorry Philip Hammond in charge of transport, replacing him, for extraneous reasons, with the possibly marginally more enlightened Justine Greening late last year. And Greening still has to work with a Road Safety Minister, Mike Penning, who hasn't the slightest clue about either cycling or road safety.
The cycling portfolio is held by Lib Dem Under-Secretary of State Norman Baker, whose achievements cannot be said to have been conspicuous. Yes, he has made it easier for local authorities to change by-laws forbidding cycling in parks, and there has been a change of policy on the (entirely common-sense) idea of allowing cyclists to contraflow on one way streets where signs are put up to allow this. But this government's sustainable transport initiatives have failed to target cycling, mixing it up, in the funding competition, with bus and tram schemes. Because facilitating cycling always involves taking difficult political decisions, if you don't give it its own pot of cash, but make it compete with other so-called "sustainable" modes, it will always loose. Boris Johnson did exactly the same in London, abolishing specific cycling funding to the boroughs, replacing the category with obtuse "corridors" and "neighbourhoods" labels for pots of money that allowed councils to back away entirely from the difficult choices around cycling, going for spending the money instead on general street-prettifying schemes, labelled "public realm improvements", that have no effect on modal split. And Boris Johnson's personal association with cycling comes across as rather more a manifestation of a traditional English eccentric type than as part of any real political shift of the right towards cycling.
And yet cycling should not be "of the left". Cycling is free enterprise. It needs facilitating by infrastructure the state must provide, it is true, it always has needed this, it is dependent on proper roads or cycle paths, but motor transport is similarly dependent, and, of course, far more cash-hungry. Facilitated, cycling becomes a prominent component of transport in economically successful and advanced societies, as wealthy cities across the world, from Geneva to Copenhagen to Tokyo, testify. The associations between cycling, freedom, efficiency and free enterprise can never be entirely submerged by the Anglophone right's concept of "roads for cars". The right is opposed to a "nanny state": but creating the conditions where children could again realise the transport independence through cycling they once had in the UK would be a massive de-nannying liberation for our kids, and their parents. Then there are the purely economic arguments, that building cycle infrastructure is cheaper than not building it. And of course, Conservatives are supposed to want a strong, independent state. The state is less independent if it dependent on imported oil.
The best way into the cycling agenda from a Conservative perspective would seem to be an emphasis on allowing people more transport choice. The status-quo makes people feel they have no choice but to use their cars for many inappropriate journeys. Allowing people more choice over all aspects of their lives is supposed to be a Conservative principle. Choice is not a simple matter, however. The investment choices that the state makes affects the choices people can make on a daily basis. The state has no choice whether to invest in transport, it has to. But it has a choice in how it divvies up the cash. At the simplest level, that's all The Times campaign is pointing out.
It is easy to argue for investment in cycling from a Conservative perspective, indeed, The Times is doing just that, but the list of signatories to EDM 2689 show that few of our current crop of Conservative politicians have grasped this point, preferring to remain, if one notes capitalisation, more conservative than Conservative. A political opportunity if ever there was one?