Imagine if, with an email, you could help to start a national conversation about cleaning up the air where you live, improving the health of your community, boosting the local economy and making your neighbourhood a happier place to be. Well, you can – and you’ve got until 1 June.
This is the government consultation on its cycling and walking safety review, its purpose, “to help make cycling and walking the natural choices for shorter journeys”.
If you’re sitting, or standing there, thinking, “I don’t cycle, why should I care?” don’t look away just yet, because this is not just about walking and cycling. This is about having a national conversation about the places we live, and what we want them to be like. Do we want to tackle our lethally and illegally poor air quality, for example? Do we want the choice to cycle and walk to the shops, to school, to work, without fear of dangerous roads? Do we really need every one of our neighbourhood streets to be thoroughfares for passing motor traffic, or would we like them to be places to play, to walk, to sit and shoot the breeze?
Research suggests cycling could be a “miracle pill” for our nation’s health, but most of us can’t access it. There is a 60% chance you’re one of those who would like to cycle more, but feel the roads are too dangerous. If you’re a family there’s a 38% chance you would cycle more often if there were more traffic-free routes; an additional 25% of you have family members who don’t feel confident cycling, according to Cycling UK. If so, you are the people the Department for Transport needs to hear from. More than those already mixing it with motor traffic, you can help to build the case for change.
We in this country are dreadful on cycling and walking. We have four decades of motor-centric thinking embedded at local and national level, and we lag behind many of our European neighbours, in cycling particularly. Change isn’t going to happen overnight. However, with some of the worst obesity rates in the world, and our filthy air, we need to put pressure on our politicians to get moving.
Around 11% of trips less than a mile, and 29% of one to two miles, are currently taken by car. Imagine our streets, and our air, if more people walked and cycled those trips.
I’ve seen at first-hand the impact walking- and cycling-friendly interventions have had in the Netherlands. Neighbourhood streets become places children play out, where people get to know their neighbours, and where it’s safe for older people to get out and about, including on bicycles, without fear of traffic. Places you hear birdsong, rather than the rumble of engines.
Studies have found people living on streets with lighter traffic know more of their neighbours, and are healthier. By making residential streets dead ends for traffic, with bollards or planters, say, while allowing cycles to pass through (known as “filtering”), we can start to achieve change.
On main roads protected cycle tracks help to encourage more people to cycle to work, reduce conflict and make streets feel safer for everyone. Imagine what school-run streets would be like for everyone if kids could cycle to school. One Danish study of 20,000 children aged five to 19 found improved concentration in those who cycled or walked to school.
The benefits of cycling and walking on high streets are tangible, too: time and again studies have shown that town centres don’t grind to a halt when motor traffic is restricted – far from it, they thrive: bike lanes can increase retail sales by a quarter. There isn’t gridlock. Deliveries still happen. Shopping streets become places people want to be.
I’m not judging anyone here – I grew up and learned to drive in rural Somerset and I know what it’s like to live with poor public transport and fast rural roads, where it feels too dangerous to cycle and driving is the only realistic option for most trips. But time and again, surveys show most people support more cycling infrastructure, and more spending on cycling, even if it takes road space from cars, or slows car journey times. Yet we still lack national design standards for cycling infrastructure, which means that local councils, with the best intentions, build routes people can’t use because of barriers, diversions, cyclist dismount signs and narrow, painted lanes that give up at junctions.
If you’re not an expert, don’t worry. Cycling minister Jesse Norman is looking for ideas, and what he calls “idealism with a sense of the practical”. The government is listening right now. It’s time to send a clear message.
• Laura Laker is a freelance writer for the Guardian. She also writes on the environment and cycling for the Ecologist and the London Cycling Campaign