Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and founded the Conservative Friends of Cycling.
One thing that Conservatives – and, through clenched teeth, our opponents – can agree on is that the Prime Minister is good at winning elections, often in quite unpromising circumstances.
But over one subject, at least, is the PM losing his judgment of the public mood? He is about to announce more measures to boost walking and cycling – including more bike lanes and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), where residential side streets are closed to through motor traffic to prevent rat-running. Cars are not banned from these areas: you can still drive to or from any point, but you might have to take a longer way round.
Some in our party fear the pursuit of these policies will be damaging, saying that the measures already taken during the pandemic, including dozens of new LTNs, have caused “huge…anger across the country,” are devastating local businesses and have been “pushed through…without asking” people.
Just under three months ago, though, people were asked what they thought – at the local elections where, in dozens of wards, a controversial LTN or cycle lane was the major local issue.
In London, our mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, made opposition to bike and walking schemes one of the main planks of his campaign, promising that if he won the election, he would remove them. In Manchester, Oxfordshire, and the North East, local candidates did the same.
It didn’t work for us. It didn’t win us votes. In Conservative West London, the Bailey campaign did direct mail, leaflets, Facebook videos and personal visits against a new separated cycle track along the Chiswick High Road. Our vote went up in the borough (and in London) as a whole.
But in the three Chiswick wards with the cycle track, we went down by between 10 and 12 per cent. Similar, intensive efforts against LTNs in Ealing again saw the Conservatives underperform in most of the wards concerned, losing one, Ealing Common, that we won in 2016. In Enfield, our vote went up in most of the LTN wards, but by less than the borough average. In Oxfordshire, Manchester, and other places, we flatlined or fell in the LTN wards.
Of course there were many reasons why this might have happened. I’m not claiming it proves that all cycle schemes work – or that the same approach is right for everywhere. What works for London and other cities might not work the same way for a smaller town. In my own constituency I have been lobbied to complete the cycling green wheel in Leighton Buzzard and to increase safe cycling routes in Dunstable.
But most schemes have been in cities and larger towns. In those places, cycle schemes do make some people angry, but the election results appear to back up something already found by every professional opinion poll – that more people support them.
Why would this be? Cycling went up by 46 per cent last year, more than in the previous 20 years put together – but it is still not a majority pursuit. I think these schemes attract support because they benefit far more people than simply those who cycle: local residents, pedestrians, and indeed also businesses.
Streets not dominated by cars are more pleasant places to shop; people visit and spend more. Cafes and restaurants that fought to keep parking or motor traffic have discovered that they can make more money by putting tables in that space instead. It is often Conservative councils, such as Westminster and Wandsworth, that have led the way here.
But if things are better within the LTNs themselves, what about outside them? Don’t they just push more traffic or pollution on to surrounding roads? Surprisingly, perhaps, early monitoring results show that on most, though not all, surrounding roads this does not seem to be happening, once traffic patterns have settled down.
The people living in the LTNs appear to be changing the way they travel – taking fewer short local journeys by car and walking or cycling more. In most cases, though not in every case, this takes local traffic away from the surrounding roads too. And the longer a scheme is in, the more travel habits change.
As that happens, even schemes which are highly controversial at the beginning become much more widely accepted. Over time, by switching more journeys to vehicles which take up less roadspace, we free up that space for the many people who still need to drive. Cycling means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.
We have a traffic problem, an obesity problem, a pollution problem, and a climate problem. Schemes that get more people cycling and walking can be part of the answer to all those problems. That is why I’m glad the Government is acting to make cycling a pursuit for the many, not just for the brave.