Much has been said about the pioneering approach Wales has taken to Active Travel, but what's really happening on the ground? We sent our Welsh correspondent, Geoff Rone, to find out...
A couple of days ago I was fortunate enough to attend on behalf of The Cycling Embassy Of Great Britain, a conference in Cardiff launching the Welsh Government’s vision for cycling in Wales. .
And what a grand vision it is. This vision is at the heart of the Active Travel Bill which is due to be made law next month and will make all local authorities obliged to provide safe direct routes to all local amenities for people to walk or cycle – getting the nation active.
The speakers included John Griffiths AM – Minister for Culture and Sport, The Right Hon. Carwyn Jones AM – our First Minister, and Dr Ruth Hussey the Chief Medical Officer for Wales and was chaired by Philip Darnton of the Bicycle Association – I understand he was also something to do with bikes across the border too!
Philip Darnton introduced the event by emphasising how incredibly different this was and that we must not under estimate the governments commitment for change – the simple fact that our First Minister had called the conference was evidence for this.
John Griffiths then introduced the idea that Wales has had fantastic success in Cycle Sport – Geraint Thomas, Simon Richardson and Becky James got mentioned but he forgot Nicole Cooke who kicked off the Welsh revival. His message was that we were to build on our success in sport to make Wales a true cycling nation where the bike will be chosen for most local journeys. Whilst there was no denying that Wales was lumpy it hasn’t stopped other lumpy countries having more cycling than us – for every up hill, there is a down hill. Indeed, our topography and geography will be used as a selling point! We were to be under no illusions that what we were looking at was no less than a “step change” in Welsh transport habits and they knew that to bring about this “step change” better infrastructure will be required – we cannot expect people who are wary of traffic to mix with it! Before the conference he said
“Everybody recognises that increasing levels of cycling in Wales can boost our economy, create jobs, increase tourism and cut congestion.”
“But to make this work we will need a cultural change that will see cycling to school or work as a routine part of most people’s lives.
“This may sound very ambitious now but we’ve shown in Wales that we can change behaviours and mind-sets quickly. Who goes to the shop in Wales now without their re-usable bag or consider smoking in a public buildings?
“We have a record of taking a distinctly Welsh approach to issues in Wales that reflects our own particular needs and aims.
“I’m confident that by taking this approach we will deliver our aims of making walking and cycling a safer, easier and more desirable option for the people of Wales.”
As an Arch Infrastructuralist this was music to my ears.
the First Minister then took the stage to say that this isn’t about sport and lycra, it is about giving people a real choice, opening up transport for our poorest and most disadvantaged people. There are sound economic, environmental and health reasons for this policy. But, we must be under no illusions that it will happen overnight and the conference we were attending will be an annual event to make sure the change happens. Critically he said “By taking a whole government approach to cycling that will involve transport, health, sport, recreation and planning – rather than a marginalised single department approach – we will succeed in making Wales a cycling nation.” Crucially he said, “we’ve built for more and more cars, increasing traffic and marginalising cyclists” and this must change.
Dr Ruth Hussey was providing medical support for the Active Travel Bill – cycling was more than just healthy, it helps to support total wellbeing it is important that we don’t just concentrate on obesity. She particularly wanted to reach out to the people in the less active areas – essentially the South Wales Valleys, how to they persuade people to cycle and walk? Frankly this is a huge challenge, Wales is bottom in the UK and Northern Ireland for active travel for shorter journeys and the health crisis is demanding and urgent response. Without additional funding support for the Bill we are looking at many years to achieve any tangible benefits. She did mention that cycling must be seen as normal – she demonstrated this with a picture of her on a bike.
Bendegedig – fantastic, but (there has to be at least one), there was an elephant NOT in the room, where was Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport? Surely we were discussing cycling as everyday transport – “Active Travel”, “everyday cycling”, “utility cycling” or whatever and this is transport. Yes, it’s good for you, the environment and the economy but in the end, it is TRANSPORT and the absence of the Transport Minister or her deputy presents one problem for me. The second concerns the silence around funding. You cannot create a cultural “step-change” without providing safe, direct and secure routes to get people where they need to go and Infrastructure costs money. Wales has 1200 miles of great off road routes but if they don’t get the kids safely to school or their parents to the station, work or the shops, they may as well be on Mars. If the people who don’t cycle don’t see the routes as transport links why should they use them?
There were also a series of round tables and workshops:-
The morning round table discussion was on cycling and business. I felt that this discussion lost its way and too much emphasis was placed on the cycling business – bike shops, mountain bike centres etc and not enough on how cycling can be used to regenerate town centres and a failing tourist industry.
In the afternoon I was part of a panel with Jane Lorimer – Director of Sustrans Wales, and Steve Fry from M2 Sports Management, chaired by Simon Nurse from CycleStuff blog. We were looking at “Promoting cycling in your area”. Fortunately most of the questions concerned the importance of good infrastructure. We also considered considerate behaviour by all road and path users – as both a cyclist and dog walker I have experienced inconsiderate behaviour by all parties and suggested that local campaigns on shared use facilities may help. I mentioned the old Ramblers Association “2 Tings” campaign reminding cyclists to warn pedestrians of their approach. I have no problem with this, for as long as we are stuck with shared use provision, everybody has a duty to consider other path users. I don’t think we really tackled the core question of promoting cycling – a brief mention was made of encouraging youngsters to join cycling clubs but I think that was missing the point.
Phillip Darnton closed the proceedings – very enthusiastic but nevertheless not glossing over the challenges ahead, “you are unusual, you are cyclists and you are very few. Most people love their cars and they are voters………..”. Either he didn’t hear the First Ministers speech, didn’t believe him or was possibly warning him. Time will tell.
Overall, like most people there, I have to be positive. My own Assembly Member, Keith Davies told me at a meeting last week that we were “pushing at an open door”. It is however going to be essential that those within the cycling community – either as campaigners, promoters or simply people on bikes maintain the pressure and be prepared to remind our ministers of their vision to “make Wales the best cycling nation in the World”.
This post also appeared on Geoff Rone's Get Wales Cycling blog