London's Tory mayoral candidates are stuck in the past on cycling

Among his many claims to political prominence, both good and bad, Boris Johnson was notable as a Conservative who built a lot of bike lanes fairly quickly (at least in the end).

Similarly, much of New York City’s bike renaissance was launched by Michael Bloomberg, the three-term mayor who, as a billionaire media tycoon and Republican, had more in common with most Bond villains than your stereotypical wind-in-the-hair bike advocate.

The reason for this is simple: bike infrastructure is good for business. Yes, there are pressing environmental and social justice reasons for safe and accessible cycling, but there is also a good free-market case, as big cities compete less on road links and more on liveability.

But are Britain’s Conservatives forgetting this? I’m afraid the current evidence suggests they are.

The catalyst for this concern was a series of Q&As conducted by the excellent ConservativeHome website, which asked all 10 of the long-listed candidates for fighting the 2020 London mayoral election the same questions.

One question said, simply, “What would you do to improve transport?” and the answers were, depending on your view, either illuminating or alarming.

None specifically mentioned boosts to cycling or walking as a way to improve the capital’s transport woes. Of course, it being London, public transport was the main focus, particularly tube and rail.

But there were several candidates who raised the benefits of driverless cars, and one, former Kingston council leader Kevin Davis, even managed to talk up the benefits of a hyperloop – an as-yet theoretical system with aimed-for speeds of more than 700mph.

One candidate did mention cycling, but only to seemingly argue that local residents should be given more of a chance of veto over mooted schemes. This was the London assembly member Andrew Boff, one of three people (along with Shaun Bailey and Joy Morrissey) to subsequently make the three-person shortlist. Here’s what Boff said:

Safety improvements for those who wish to cycle will continue but I believe that TfL [Transport for London] will need to be a lot more sensitive to what residents are saying about the impact of the routes on public safety and the viability of town centres.

This sounds to me like a manifesto for endless delay. As an aside, I asked Boff how bike routes can impact public safety and the viability of town centres, and he seemed not to know, which appears more curious still.

So what, you might ask. This is a London-only survey for a website aimed at Tory members. But I’d argue it’s illustrative. Firstly, the mayoral race is a fairly broad beauty contest of Tory beliefs, aiming for a tilt at the UK’s biggest directly elected mandate. Also, the open-ended question gives a good insight into people’s priorities.

As such, the message is pretty gloomy for the Tories, who for all their talk of hyperloops and driverless cars seem paradoxically stuck in the past. Ask any expert on urban living and they’ll tell you that as well as public transport, getting people around the cities of the future will increasingly depend on safe and welcoming routes for people on bikes and on foot.

To utterly miss this, even in a battle that Labour’s Sadiq Khan is odds-on to win again, seems tone deaf – not least as it seems pro-cycling policies tend to be popular with electorates.

And it seems the same in central government, even allowing for Brexit taking up about 90% of the ministerial bandwidth. For all the obvious knowledge of Jesse Norman, the transport minister whose brief covers cycling, the only recent initiative has been a half-baked consultation about an entirely unnecessary new law targeting cyclists.

In the West Midlands, Tory mayor Andy Street arrived with good stated intentions towards cycling but has not visibly achieved a huge amount so far.

Much of this criticism can be fairly also directed at Labour, where too much of its national transport policy seems devoted to inanities like free parking at hospitals, and where Khan’s tenure as mayor when it comes to cycling has been noted more for endless delays than action.

But there are signs Labour is changing, in part due to the pressure from tireless internal advocates. In Manchester, Andy Burnham’s decision to appoint Chris Boardman as his active travel guru has resulted in the most ambitious plans yet seen on walking and cycling by a UK city.

If you’re a Conservative you could be forgiven for thinking: we’re tearing ourselves apart as a party over Brexit, and the only reason we have not replaced Theresa May is there’s no one remotely credible to take her place; this is small beans.

It might be a niche interest now, but in an era when issues connected to the global warming, urban life, pollution and the public health disaster of inactive living become ever more pressing, it should be a worry for Tories. The mayoral candidates’ answers were the responses of dinosaurs. And we all know what happened to them.


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