Friday 2nd May 2014 2:26 PM
My passion is cycling. It started quite simply because I needed to lose weight and become fitter when I discovered that I had raised blood pressure. Then I caught the bug and realised just how much fun it was to travel through the countryside in all weathers just using my own energy. However, I also quickly came to see that more cycling would be good for the UK and there are many different reasons why.
As a nation we take too little exercise. We see this in the growing amount of obesity (sadly including many children), and the growing number of people diagnosed with the conditions related to being overweight: heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancers. Not only do these conditions place additional strain on the health service, they can drastically shorten peoples lives and often at an age where the effect on dependents can be profound. So I am delighted to see that cycling is gaining in popularity as a pastime and that many more people are commuting to work on two wheels. I am happy that Boris Johnson has encouraged cycling in London and I am grateful to the Times Newspaper that is leading a campaign of awareness to improve safety for cyclists. For me the icing on the cake this year is the fact that the Tour de France will start in Leeds on July 5th. Not only will that fantastic event give our city and region wonderful publicity but it will encourage yet more young people to take up competitive cycling.
We must go further and take a big leap forward with measures that positively encourage cycling and enable more people to do so knowing that they will be safe. Our city, Leeds, has done much to mark out cycle lanes on highways, establish some reserved routes and allow the use of bus lanes. This is fine but it is not sufficiently radical. In recent years I have undertaken two charity bike rides from Leeds to Germany and this has meant riding through Holland. It is a cyclists paradise. Not only, of course, is the country very flat but there is an alternative network of cycle tracks for bikes entirely separate from the road system. Indeed, as I found out to my shame, bikes are not permitted on some of the main roads and when I transgressed I was put right in no uncertain terms by a traffic policeman who, happily for me, overlooked my misdemeanor on that occasion. That is the lesson we must learn in the UK - we need a reserved cycle network - not just in places like Wetherby where use has been made of former roads and railway lines - but a planned change to our road structure to separate bikes from other road vehicles.
It will cost money but there will be a pay back. It will come from the reduced expenditure in the NHS incurred by road accidents involving cycles and other vehicles. There will also be saving stemming from the reduction in pollution with its effect on everyone's health. There will also be a virtuous circle with growth in the popularity of cycling. One key barrier to more participation is the natural fear potential cyclists have about their vulnerability on the road.
I think that the cycling community also has a part to play if such investment takes place. It must be a model user of the highway and I support strong action against cyclists who disobey traffic lights, ride on the pavement or go up one way streets the wrong way. Perhaps we should even consider the idea of every bike on the highway or cycle network being licenced and visibly numbered with owners held responsible when offences are committed. On the issue of helmets for cyclists, I am more relaxed. Some hold that they should be compulsory to protect against head injury but you can argue that the main health gain can come from getting more people out on two wheels. Anyway, on reserved cycle routes there will be far fewer serious accidents.
I just think it would be wonderful to see something like this in the next Labour manifesto.