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11.32 am

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): This welcome debate takes place at an auspicious time in the context of the Kyoto conference. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) have mentioned Sustrans, a charitable company that was formed by an imaginative, creative and forward-looking group of people in Bristol in 1979, and that considered in particular how we could have a sustainable integrated transport system, with a focus on cycling.

To increase the percentage of journeys that are made by cyclists, we are looking for a safe and attractive infrastructure--with traffic-free routes and traffic-calmed roads, where often the speed limit should be only 20 mph--and for a clear lead from central Government, local government and the media to sustain cycling as a modern form of transport that should be encouraged. Sustrans, which had that vision in 1979, has been working hard. It has already put forward, built and designed 250 miles of traffic-free routes for both cyclists and pedestrians. As has been mentioned, in 1995, it was awarded the first Millennium Commission project to build the national cycle network. By 2005, that project will provide 6,500 miles of cycle routes, which will go through city centres and include safe routes to school and work and easy access to the countryside--all without the use of the car. That is what is needed to raise cycling's profile.

Sustrans has drawn my attention to the fact that, in this country, 70 per cent. of all journeys are under five miles. Most of them, of course, could be made by cycling. It is worth remembering that most of the people who are responsible for making decisions about transport travel much further than that to work and may have a different perspective on the use of transport generally.

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Cycling is relatively cheap, yet that millennium project, imaginative as it is, will cost about £180 million. A quarter of it has come from lottery funding. Much more is being raised in other ways, but transport money will also be needed. The Government's contribution towards the aim of opening the first 2,500 miles by midsummer's day of the year 2000, is to provide for 63 new and 38 modified road crossings. I hope that the Government will be able to confirm that we are on schedule and will recognise, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell said, that Government funding will be needed within local government financing to complete the urban sections of the network. Billions have been spent on roads, but spending millions on cycle routes would contribute significantly to a better transport system and to reducing the crisis on our roads.

While Sustrans has been making that important national contribution, which many individual cyclists support, my constituents have come up with some more immediate priorities, which echo some of the points that have been made. The first concern is that there should be a clear and combined cycle-rail transport scheme. In Denmark, for example, 35 per cent. of people who use rail reach the station by cycling. In Germany, the figure is 15 per cent., but in Britain less than 1 per cent. of people cycle to the station and continue their journey by cycle at the other end.

The position in my constituency of Bristol, West is interesting. Cyclists may use a local branch line, the Severn-Beach, which has received support from local government, free of charge without the need to book, but, if they reach Bristol Temple Meads--although the security for cycles there has been improved if they wish to leave their bike--and want to travel to a further destination with their bike, they are faced with three different operators, offering different charges and different conditions, with or without booking. That complicated system needs to change if we are to encourage cycling to the station and an onward journey with the bike. A common policy would encourage cycling.

Secondly, individuals are looking for more traffic- calming measures in residential areas. It seems that the Bristol cycle campaign, which was inaugurated six years ago with the main objective of achieving 20 mph speed limits in urban areas, was setting a precedent. Many more people want a national slowdown initiative to reduce the speed of traffic, particularly in residential areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South mentioned accident levels at different speeds. May I spell that out? At 40 mph, an accident involving a pedestrian will almost certainly lead to loss of life. At 30 mph, the pedestrian has a 50:50 chance of survival. At 20 mph, usually only one in 20 will have a fatal accident. It is so logical to reduce speed limits. In addition, in the urban context, driving at 20 mph--remembering of course that the majority of those journeys are under five miles--will add only one minute to the journey time.

We should see cycling as an important part of an integrated transport system. It can be enjoyable, and many more people could take it up. An integrated transport system with more cyclists could, as we have already heard, benefit health, local communities and the environment.

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I am sorry that the Chamber is not packed this morning, but I know that many House of Commons staff cycle, and I am delighted to see bicycles as I walk through the Courtyard. I hope that more Members, more staff and more people everywhere are encouraged to cycle by the Government's policy and the work initiated by Sustrans.

11.40 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): The debate is fascinating, but the case for encouraging cycling is so obvious that we should not have to put it in such a little debate; it should be central to Government policy. It was powerfully put by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), whom I congratulate on initiating the debate.

There is an environmental case for cycling: it relieves congestion. As has been said several times, most journeys are short--70 per cent. of car journeys are less than five miles--and ideally would be taken on a bicycle. There is also a health argument. Although cycling is compatible with being overweight in my case--and, I suspect, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South--it is a healthy pleasure. Then there is the convenience aspect. I used to live in Kilburn before my wife had delusions of grandeur and decided to move us up in the world to Victoria, where it is hardly worth getting the bike out. It used to take me 25 minutes to cycle in from Kilburn--although that was when I was at the peak of fitness; I was a young contender in politics then--but it took me between 45 minutes and an hour to come in by car, and 45 minutes on the tube.

Given the strength of the argument for cycling, it is amazing that so little is being done. Other countries do much more. In this country, cycling is regarded as a slightly cranky occupation. I wish that my hon. Friend had shorn his beard, partly to help his career in the Labour party but also to present a slightly less cranky image of cycling.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: What about your tie?

Mr. Mitchell: That is not a cranky image; it is a fashionable image.

Cycling is regarded as cranky and quirky. People pay lip service to it, but they do not do anything. A dynamic drive from the top downwards is needed to push the case for cycling, and to bring it into all transport considerations. Pious words and endless deference--which, it is fair to say, we do hear--are not enough. I do not know why more is not done, but encouraging cycling is central to the improvement that we need. Use breeds interest. The more people cycle, the safer cycling is--and, as all the figures show, the fewer people cycle, the more dangerous it is. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are more people on cycles, but fewer people use their cycles to make, for instance, the journey to work. We must remove the obstacles to cycling. That means recognition of what the obstacles are, and a massive effort to get rid of them. The all-party cycling group will do its best, but the drive must come from Ministers, as well as from local authorities.

What are the obstacles that need to be removed? One of the main problems experienced by cyclists--particularly in London, but I experience it in Grimsby, in Yorkshire as a whole and, indeed, all over the

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country--is that, having cycled somewhere because, in general, it is more convenient to cycle a short distance than to walk or drive, they have nowhere to put their bicycles. That is a perennial and pressing problem. There are signs defacing railings everywhere, especially in London, saying that police will remove cycles--but what better use is there for railings, except where dogs are concerned, than as somewhere to lock cycles so that they are not stolen? The signs are a monstrosity: we should be able to put our cycles somewhere. There should be facilities at workplaces, and also in the street. Why are there no cycle parks in central positions in London? Why are there not cycle parks at more railway and bus stations, so that people can combine cycling with other forms of transport?

Even at the House of Commons there is cycle storage space, but the facilities at Norman Shaw are pathetic. Cyclists compete for places with great bags of rubbish which, when moved, usually knock all the cycles over. When I lean my cycle against the wall, it is then moved because it is an inconvenience. Cycle storage space at work is essential.

Facilities for changing are also essential. I tend not to cycle in my fashionable suits--I prefer to cycle in a pair of jeans and a shirt--but I sometimes cycle to the House in a suit. When people shuffle away from me during debates, it is not because of my politics, old Labour though they are; it is because, having cycled in, I am hot and sweaty, and there are no facilities to enable me to shower and change my clothes. The facilities are few enough here, but in most other places they are pathetic.

There should be more emphasis on safety, so that people feel more confident. I would make crash helmets compulsory. More cycling routes should be designated--not just routes through parks, which we discussed yesterday in the all-party cycling group, but on the roads. As others have said, we also need traffic-calming measures. Traffic should be slower in the vicinity of schools, so that children will be encouraged to cycle to school. My heart goes out to mothers with small children perched on the back of their bicycles. When I see my daughter taking my grandchildren to school on the back of her bike, it worries me enormously.


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