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Cyclists

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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11 am

I am delighted to have been able to secure this debate on the provision for and regulation of cyclists. I am a cyclist myself. I cycle to work every day, but I am consistently amazed by the irresponsibility of many of my cycling colleagues regarding observation of basic laws of the road. The Minister and I have discussed this matter before when we were at red traffic lights together, me on my bike and he in his car. I was a solitary cyclist at red lights, while other cyclists went past me and rode through them. It is all too common to see cyclists ignoring red lights, riding on pavements, riding the wrong way up one-way streets and, in some instances, breaking speed limits. Outside towns, cyclists treat footpaths as their own preserve with virtual impunity.

Lawless cycling causes fear and traffic problems, which are often left behind as the unaware and unconcerned cyclist sweeps on. More importantly, it results in hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians being hospitalised each year. It clearly demands attention. I have called this debate to raise a number of issues surrounding the provision and regulation of cyclists, and to suggest some possible remedies to what I consider to be a major problem.

In my view, adequate legal provision to enforce regulation of cyclists already exists. The difficulty is that it is rarely enacted, and the plain fact is that, by allowing lawless cyclists to continue to flout established ordinance, we are allowing them to put themselves and others at unnecessary risk. I know from my experience that roads, especially in urban areas, can be a dangerous place for cyclists. That applies as much in Merseyside as it does in London. Drivers often pay little heed to their vulnerable two-wheeled pedalling companions.

Although we should expect cyclists to obey the law, we should, as a quid pro quo, ensure that their needs are adequately provided for. Such provision is gradually being established through initiatives such as the national cycling strategy and the cycling projects fund. I welcome and encourage those wholeheartedly in my constituency, which, as part of Merseyside, comes under the local transport plan. We have a cycling strategy that aims to maximise the role of cycling as a mode of transport. It incorporates efforts to extend provision for cyclists and underpin growth in the number of cyclists with a programme of proficiency instruction. That is very much to be welcomed. New cycle paths have been created, and existing cycle paths are being extended across the Wirral. The Wirral is to get a major cycle network as part of the Merseyside cycle network. All that is valuable, but it must progress alongside efforts to improve the enforcement of regulations for cyclists.

Given the numbers involved, provision for cyclists is not adequate. One of my constituents, Mr. Harper, took me on a cycle challenge. We got on our bikes together and went off to observe the provision on the ground in the Wirral. I remember vividly one cycle way that was all of 6 yd long. There is much to be done. The much vaunted targets for hugely increasing the number of cyclists over the next decade could, therefore, offset the benefits of efforts to expand provision.

I appreciate the need for greater provision for cyclists, but I do not believe that that excuses behaviour that is illegal and irresponsible, and that invariably affects the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the elderly when it comes to cycling on pavements.

I stress that I wholeheartedly support the hosts of lawful cyclists among whose number I hope that I can count myself. I support the work of the all-party parliamentary cycling group and try to participate in its annual cycle ride. As a mode of transport, cycling is essentially positive. It is good for one's health and environment, and in the inner-cities, it helps to ease the ever-present problem of congestion—although that is slightly lighter in London at the moment. It certainly gets me home quickly.

Cycling is loved by many, as is clear from its many lofty descriptions. It has been called
"the most civilised conveyance known to man",
and
"the vehicle of novelists and poets",
and even—although it was said in 1896—
"the great emancipator of women".
There is a romanticism about cycling that, unfortunately, informs some cyclists' tendency to regard themselves as above the law. They see themselves as eco-warriors operating on a higher plain of conscience than other road-users who rely as they see it on combustible, carbon dioxide-creating, environmentally damaging fossil fuel to propel their vehicles, rather than their own sweat and self-satisfaction. Some cyclists have a monopolistic, self-righteous arrogance, feeling that only they can be right. Those urban guerrillas operate according to their own morality and ignore the laws that enable our road system to function safely.

That is demonstrated in the actions of the anti-car non-organisation known as Critical Mass. That amorphous group urges cyclists to reclaim the streets by going out en masse and taking over the roads without regard for other road-users or "The Highway Code". Personally, I am unclear about from whom the streets are being reclaimed. It is presumably from car-owners, although I fail to see why the two modes of transport must be, or indeed how they can be, be mutually exclusive. For cyclists to ignore the laws of the road is not the way to achieve harmony.

I am sure that H.G. Wells is right that
"cycle tracks will abound in Utopia",
but I am equally sure that it would be a dismal Utopia for many if they were unable to get there by car. The two tribes must learn to cohabit peacefully; the farmer and the cowboy must be friends. At present, we have a vicious circle: motorists almost hate cyclists because of their apparent disregard for the law and then cut them up and run them off the road, which in turn justifies cyclists' lawless behaviour.

We must bring the two sides together to break the vicious circle, and it is clear that as well as improvements in provision for cyclists and stricter enforcement of rules and regulations, a fundamental attitudinal shift is required on the part of all road-users. Other than running red lights, speeding and riding on pavements, lawless cyclists can be found riding the wrong way up one way streets, under the influence or, at night, without the lights or reflectors required by law. There are problems with cyclists not wearing helmets, although that is not a legal issue because there is no requirement for them to do so.

Like me, you may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the days when the local bobby would make it his business to check bike lights and act as a general guardian of "The Highway Code". Those days are sadly gone, but measures must be found to enforce existing regulations. Any road user disobeying the rules of the road puts others at risk, and even if the offender is not hurt, they might cause an accident by forcing other vehicles to take action to evade them.

I oppose the European Commission's proposal to make motorists liable for such accidents whether they were at fault or not. Motorists clearly have a duty of care towards the vulnerable, but the vulnerable have an equal duty to follow the laws and regulations that exist to protect them. Someone cycling dangerously must be accountable for his or her actions. The roads operate on a system of trust that all users will obey "The Highway Code". Once that trust is broken, the system breaks down, yet cyclists are rarely proceeded against for breaking the most basic principles of "The Highway Code".

The most recent figures available to me are for 2000, when just 52 cyclists were proceeded against for neglecting traffic directions, and just 223 were proceeded against for riding on the pavement—less than a quarter of the 1998 figure. On Merseyside, just 20 people were proceeded against for cycling on the pavement. The enforcement of traffic regulations is left to the discretion of local police chiefs. I am sure that that is right as a matter of principle, but there are thought to be more pressing issues for the police to deal with than enforcing cycling regulations.

Fixed penalty orders may be the most efficient way to discourage the main cycling offences. When applied, they have proved effective. In 2000, in England and Wales, 821 fixed penalty orders were issued for the offence of cycling on the pavement. I understand that the Police Reform Act 2002 introduced police powers to confiscate bicycles from offenders. Indeed, there have been a number of initiatives in recent years, such as mandatory cycle bells for new bikes, fixed penalties for riding without lights and, of course, the vast increase in investment in cycle projects. However, for all the positive effects of increased provision, police powers are rarely applied, regulations are not enforced and little practical change occurs.

Some geographical areas have performed relatively well in enforcing regulation, and of course some authorities choose not to implement the regulations at all. Numerous areas, such as south Wales, Wiltshire and Essex, have seen extended periods in which fixed penalties have not been applied.

There are numerous measures whereby the regulatory system might be strengthened. Subject to improved enforcement, bicycles could be licensed, providing each owner with a progressive record of his or her cycling offences or otherwise. Such licensing need not cover all cyclists; it might be just for each new offender. A monitoring system via licences could carry a variety of penalties according to the frequency of the offences.

Fines, confiscation and other measures could be applied in the same way as they are applied against drivers of motorised vehicles. Cyclists could be obliged to take out third party insurance to cover them for any damage and injury caused. Fixed penalty fines could be applied on an incremental basis according to the frequency and seriousness of the offence. Equally, the range of offences to which such fines applied could be increased.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck. We do not want a draconian system of regulation, but we may want some regulation, and we certainly want it enforced. Such measures as I have described could have marked success in putting a stop to lawless cycling if they were introduced alongside increased investment to develop more cycle lanes, appropriate action towards lawless motorists and perhaps even legislation to make wearing cycle helmets obligatory, as it is on motorbikes. Those measures would also need to be combined with more effective enforcement of existing regulation.

Lawless cyclists must be held to account. Riding on the pavement was first prohibited under the Highways Act 1835, yet the law remains largely unenforced. Measures are in place whereby lawless cycling might be curtailed without taking up more valuable police time, such as through the increased role of community safety officers in issuing fixed penalty notices. Enforcing existing laws will help to resolve the problem, but a fundamental behavioural change is also needed on the part of everyone on the roads. Perhaps then the numbers of injuries and even deaths caused by clashes between cars and cyclists, and cyclists and pedestrians, each year can be reduced.

We must find ways to allow the police to stop turning a blind eye while allowing cyclists to ride in their own designated space. After all, the most effective way to persuade more people to cycle is to make the roads and provision for cyclists safer and user-friendly. I hope that this subject can be addressed by both the Department and, where appropriate, the Home Office.

11.14am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing the debate and on the succinct, clear and balanced way that he put his case. I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to consider cycling, not simply in terms of transport, but as a positive influence on a number of areas such as health, the environment, education, and the economy. That is something that the Government have recognised in their review of a range of policies.

The 10-year transport plan underlined our commitment to encourage cycling by setting a target of trebling cycle use. That target was an interim one on the way to the national cycling strategy aim of quadrupling the number of trips by bicycle by 2012, which we have endorsed. To help support targets to increase cycling we established the National Cycling Strategy Board for England chaired by Steve Norris. That shows that we work on a cross-party basis on these matters.

There are many reasons why we want to see an increase in cycling, as my hon. Friend clearly described. Transfers from car to bike journeys, or to combined journeys by bike and public transport would reduce congestion and, consequently, air and noise pollution. Cycling can also promote social inclusion. One in three households do not own a car. By making it possible for more people to cycle, we improve access to services, jobs and leisure activities.

Improving facilities is essential to increasing cycling. To support that, all local authorities in England, excluding London, have included a cycling strategy in their local transport plans. Authorities' spending on cycling infrastructure was £28.7 million in 2001–02 and £39.7 million for 2002–03, which was a substantial increase in real terms. Projections for the next three years are for spends of between £35 million and £37 million.

In order to determine how well these strategies are working, the National Cycling Strategy Board has established an English regions cycling development team, funded by my Department. Its work includes assessing cycling strategies in local transport plans and authorities' reports as well as auditing on-street provision for cycling and highlighting where improvements can be made. The laughable provision that my hon. Friend described of a 6 yd long cycle lane is the sort of thing that it will look at. A report detailing the assessment of all highway authorities is to be submitted in July.

Better facilities for cyclists alone are of course not enough. Cycling needs to be widely seen as a practical, mainstream form of transport. One of the best ways of encouraging people to cycle more is by promoting its health benefits. Studies show that the risk of premature death is lowest amongst those who are active. Regular moderate exercise, such as cycling, can significantly reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as guarding against the emerging problem of obesity, which is prevalent in this country and many other western countries.

Many people cycle regularly for fun. We believe that an increase in leisure cycling offers a good basis for encouraging people to use their bikes more for everyday journeys. We are highly appreciative of the tourism that cycle routes create. Only last month I visited Sustrans's Cornish way. I was on the route between Bodmin and Padstow. Not only is the route taking local traffic, such as school children, it is attracting tourists from across Europe who come to take an active holiday, cycling through the Cornish landscape and helping to invigorate the local economy along the way. If my hon. Friend has not been on this route I can strongly recommend it. It follows the route of an old railway line and is an extremely attractive and pleasant place to be.

School travel is a matter to which we have given particular focus. In July, I will visit Golden Valley primary school, which provided new cycle parking facilities, as part of a wider safe routes to school programme. Prior to the project, part-funded by my Department under the cycling projects fund, only five children cycled to school, but the project's success has been such that the school now has to limit cycling to one school year each day in order to cope with demand for the facilities. Those are the kind of results that can be produced with relatively modest investment in the right measures, in the right context.

We are also targeting the travel-to-work sector and the Government are urging employers to develop travel plans. A good travel plan should include a number of measures to promote cycling, such as the provision of secure parking, lockers and showers for cyclists, allowances for work journeys made by bike and, possibly, loans for bike purchase. Cycle lockers of the type produced by the BikeAway company, which is based near my constituency in Plymouth, offer cyclists protection from having their bikes stolen. I shall now give a little commercial for my constituency: if authorities want to know whether those products would be of benefit in promoting cycling, they may want to contact the company. Bike stands and secure bike pounds also offer the same protection. If sited at colleges and schools, at the workplace and at selected locations around towns such as bus and rail stations, they can bring about significant increases in local cycling trips.

We are actively involved through our road safety programme in promoting cycle training, and, earlier this week, the CTC launched its adult and cycle training schemes, work on which was funded by the Department for Transport and the Department of Health.

Cycling will increase where it is encouraged as part of longer journeys in conjunction with public transport, and local cycling strategies are expected to facilitate it. The National Cycling Strategy Board is working with the Strategic Rail Authority to integrate bike and rail travel. As those initiatives progress, there is reason to believe that a significant increase in cycling will be achieved in the next few years. However, as my hon. Friend said, the Government are aware that the behaviour of a minority of cyclists leaves something to be desired. That small but conspicuous minority bring the vast majority of law-abiding cyclists into disrepute. It is important that they realise that the rules of "The Highway Code" and road traffic legislation apply equally to them.

The Road Traffic Act 1991 made the worst two cycling offences parallel to those for dangerous and careless driving. The maximum fines are currently £2,500 for dangerous cycling and £1,000 for careless cycling. "The Highway Code", which has a specific section on cycling, details cyclists' legal responsibilities. There are also specific offences, including those relating to poor brakes, riding on footways and cycling under the influence of drink and drugs.

The sight of a cyclist ignoring a red light is, alas, all too familiar, especially in London. I usually walk, but one morning I was in a car adjacent to my hon. Friend, who was riding a bike; he was the only cyclist who stopped at the lights. Eight or nine other cyclists went straight past him, some of them weaving dangerously between pedestrians, including children who were trying to cross the road when they had the right of way. I have noticed that dangerous practice more in London than elsewhere in the country, including my constituency, but it gives cyclists a bad name and puts them and other people at risk.

Cyclists and other road users must obey traffic signs and signals, which exist for everyone's safety. A few cyclists also ignore one-way restrictions. My Department is aware that one-way streets can often result in cycle journeys becoming longer and more hazardous, but we have no plans to change the law to allow cyclists to travel the opposite way down a one-way street. Local traffic authorities already have powers to provide for contraflow cycling on one-way streets where they consider it to be safe and appropriate. My Department provides local traffic authorities with guidance on such facilities.

There is concern about inconsiderate cycling on pavements, which particularly affects the elderly and disabled, and those with limited movement. Cycling on the footway—the pavement adjacent to the carriageway—is an offence, and has been since the 1800s. The introduction of a fixed penalty for cycling on the pavement on 1 August 1999 provided the police with a direct and simple means of dealing with the problem. Chief officers recognise that the fixed penalty must be used with discretion; it cannot, of course, be issued to anyone under 16.

In addition, my Department recently made the Pedal Bicycles (Safety) Regulations 2003, which will come into force on 1 May 2004 and will require a bell to be fitted on the bicycle at the point of sale. The regulations will enhance the safety of pedestrians who share space with cyclists. To improve the conspicuity of cyclists, my Department recently consulted on amending the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 2002 to allow lamps where currently only reflectors are permitted, and to allow additional front and rear-position lamps to flash. Flashing lamps would be in addition to the mandatory position lamps that show a steady light. We are considering responses to the consultation.

Ultimately, the level of enforcement of cycling offences is for the local police to determine, but there is no excuse for adult cyclists breaking the law. My Department supports any action taken by the police to deter and reduce cycling offences. Traffic wardens do not have the power to deal with the offence of cycling on the pavement. However, one of the key aims of the police reform process is to free up police officers for front-line operational duties, and to harness the work of the extended police family in supporting the police. Consequently, community support officers have been given the power to issue fixed penalty notices for offences such as cycling on the pavement, and traffic wardens can be designated as such officers.

My hon. Friend also raised the European Union proposal to make the motorist liable for collisions with cyclists. The provision is presumably motivated by the well-meaning desire to maximise the protection given to the most vulnerable road users. However, it would not help us to consolidate our country's good road safety record if we issued the message that some road users need not be concerned about the consequences of their actions because they would be compensated regardless of any fault of their own. Our general line in recent years is that there should be mutual respect between road users, whether they are pedestrians, motorists or cyclists, although I accept that motorists probably have the greatest need to show care.

My Department has examined the case for a road tax on cyclists, but it would require a registration system, such as the one for motor vehicles, and the costs of the system would certainly outweigh any revenue benefit. For similar reasons, it would be impractical to introduce compulsory insurance for cyclists. Like any other road user, a cyclist involved in an accident can be sued for damages by the victim. However, we advise cyclists to take out insurance. Several insurance companies offer policies dedicated to cyclists.

In respect of cycle helmets, our policy is to recommend that they be worn, and our emphasis is on increasing wearing rates through persuasion. My Department conducts monitoring, and has found that about 22 per cent, of cyclists wear a helmet. We will review the option of compulsion from time to time.

The successful promotion of cycling may have huge benefits, through reduced congestion and pollution and improved health. However, as my hon. Friend said, the debate has been in two parts, one on the benefits of cycling, and the other on its problems, as set out in his introductory remarks. The damage done to the image of cycling by a minority of cyclists breaking the law is of concern to us, as well as to my hon. Friend. We need to encourage a culture in which all users take responsibility for their actions and look out for each other. I have no doubt that most cyclists are law abiding and are mindful of the needs of others, but the minority who are reckless and break the law can certainly expect no comfort from the Government. The debate has been useful, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to speak on the subject.

11.30am

Sitting suspended until Two o 'clock.