Cycling minister speaks to Transport Select Committee

Transport Select Committee, December 2013

After the hastily convened evidence gathering and the hearing on Monday 2 December 2013 - we commented here - it was the cycling minister's turn on the Wednesday. Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport, gave oral evidence at the Transport Select Committee. Where's he standing? Where is cycling with him? Is he seeing the bigger picture, or are we sweating the small stuff?

CTC are reporting quite positively. From our perspective it was a mixed bag of sweets, and here is why – picking out a few things.

Goodwill pointed out that transport ministers don't stick / are not stuck around for too long alluding to transport not being seen as a good wholesome political career path it appears. Yet it's the one thing that connects everything and everyone. On the whole, the cycling minister spoke with some knowledge and confidence, and was well briefed, armed with data and information. He lamented the “recent publicity which has not helped” thereby ignoring to identify (like is so typical still, yet again) the actual reason for people not cycling. Solving the riddle of objective versus subjective safety is a topic not yet on the (political) radar. We will keep making that point.

An example of confusion that arose was when the committee talked about bike training. The minister quite rightly stated that “people don't understand how to cycle in traffic" and "some schools may be worried about the health and safety aspect of their pupils cycling on the road", then only concluded that training kids to cycle on the roads is the answer, rather than physically improving walking and cycling routes to schools.

The minister also talked about 'experienced cyclists' and 'safety in numbers' but forgot to see - like so many others, including cycle campaigners - the link with inadequate infrastructure and the user needs of protection and comfort, and better design, especially when wanting to attract new people to cycling. Nitpicking the minister's choice of words, he used the term 'accidents' to describe what others now see as predetermined and bad design (London Coroner Mary Hassell) – but it's good to hear that he does want to learn from the continent, and exchange best practice. He said "we must learn from other countries to make cycling a more appealing transport choice" and kindly said he also wants to "represent the basket on the handlebar cyclist", by which he must allude to the more relaxed continental cycling-style we believe.

Goodwill kept urging the committee to make strong recommendations (particularly for a national cycling champion) and to 'filter' the 'Get Britain Cycling' summary and recommendation report for him. Thanks goes to Committee member Jason McCartney MP for making the minister aware of the APPCG report and Chris Boardman's offer.

He also pointed out that "there would have to be large changes", sounding somewhat overwhelmed and exasperated by the enormity of the task of an urban transport transformation, and a cycling revolution. If he'd read the 'Get Britain Cycling' report in advance of the hearing this would have come as no surprise, of course. Cycling is an interconnected subject, offering a solution to many societal ills, and requires real and total oversight, involving the Treasury and Prime Minister's office. And they say transport is not a career choice for politicians! Maybe they just don't like the idea of big changes and knocking on their bosses' doors?

The hearing's direction was leaning towards the bizarre with the minister's comment that "motorists have a number plate, so they feel a little bit more vulnerable". And he said "dare I say up North cyclists tend to stay at a red light" and "it's a London issue, non-compliance", somewhat sidelining how bad design affects everyone. Goodwill later acknowledged that link, and we say thank-you.

Overall, it took the hearing too long to start talking about the root causes and solutions, leaving infrastructure and road design suppressed when it should be centre stage. So does it feel that the government is serious about getting more people cycling? I am not yet convinced that the transport department, or indeed the government, has really grasped the importance of the subject. The argument badly requires to be debated, and brought to a conclusion. Well, let's see what the committee can come up with. The evidence is there. The ministerial steer is also there through the hearing. Yet the evidence gathering has been extended... I, for one, can't wait for the Transport Select Committee's final report and recommendations!

Watch the meeting recording: