Developing an alternative vision for cycling in Leeds

I went to a meeting held at the Leeds University Business School a week ago where Roger Geffen, the CTC Campaign Officer, addressed a large group representing a number of local cycling interest and campaign groups to let us know what is going on elsewhere and generally how things are going. The message was generally positive. There seems to have been a dramatic turnaround in the Government’s attitude towards cycling policy due mainly to the Times Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, started as a result of one of their staff, Mary Bowers, being knocked off her bike while commuting to work and being crushed by a lorry, and the extraordinary success of the Team GB cyclists in 2012 including domination at the Olympics and Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour De France, the first Englishman to do so. However, the feedback from the audience painted a rather gloomy picture of cycling in Leeds and a council that seemed largely uninterested in improving the infrastructure and safety for commuting cyclists. Research has shown repeatedly that one of the most important factors, if not the most important, that makes cycling in general and commuting by bike in particular unattractive to non-cyclists is the perception that it is not safe. And Leeds has one of the worst cycling safety records in the country.

The response to this from Roger was that several successful campaigns had been accomplished in equally unpromising circumstances that we could learn from so we shouldn’t give up, particularly with the Grand Depart for the Tour De France coming to our area next year. One thing to take on board is that painting an unremitting negative picture of cycling in Leeds is unlikely to enthuse others to get involved and win them over to our cause. Other successful campaigns also had lots to be negative about but had counter-posed their critique with a coherent, positive and attractive vision of how things could be very much better. Having a strategic positive vision puts the negative account in context. The anger is not purely negative as it is justified by and gets a positive impetus from a comparison with where we could be. It is this positive vision, worked out with a strong evidence based set of ideas and propositions, that can be taken to a broader public and to the elected members of the Council as the basis for a negotiated and agreed plan for cycling in Leeds. One suggestion that came from the meeting was that something like an All Party group of some sort could be formed to review the arguments and evidence and add some authority to a resulting suggested cycle plan.

This is something that the Leeds Cycling Campaign could get their teeth into and take forward. The LCC already has a draft manifesto and its members have a wealth of knowledge and experience riding the Leeds roads and putting their issues and arguments to Council officers and meetings. The CTC has a number of campaign briefing documents to support pro cycling arguments on the benefits and practicalities of implementing cycle friendly policies. In addition there is an increasing number of reports and examples of what can be done and why, many of which have been generated in support of other campaigns. One notable one is the Siemens’s report entitled “London’s Transport: Progress and Future Challenges” which makes cycling central to much of its argument and vision [full report]. At the same time there have been a number of health related reports emphasising the necessity to get people to be more active and that to some extent this means getting people out of their cars. Typical of this is the guidance report (November 2012) by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) that states that cycling and walking should be the norm for short journeys and makes a number of policy recommendations to achieve this. The web page Walking and Cycling (PH41) gives full details and recommendations and a link to the evidence behind the recommendations.

What we need now is something persuasive, coherent and reasonably polished to underpin our critique of Leeds’ cycling policy and for our strategy to aim for. Importantly we need to carry on pointing out the problems of cycling in Leeds and the inadequacy of their car centred agenda but this would be contrasted with a vision what Leeds transport policy  could and should be, the reasons why and how we can begin to get there. I think the resources and evidence are in place. There has been a sea-change in government attitudes towards cycling that is already bearing fruit in some cities and areas, notably London. There is an unprecedented opportunity afforded by the coming of the Tour De France to Leeds and the surrounding area in 2014. If there has ever been a right time to promote cycling as a healthy leisure activity and as a practical and efficient mode of personal transport, this is surely it.

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