I’d like to thank you for inviting me to speak today (1 May 2014).
Before I begin I’d like to pay tribute to the members of the Lord Mayor’s Cycle Ride who are cycling from Dortmund to Leeds this week.
It is a fantastic event that is raising a great deal of money for a good cause, so many congratulations to everyone who is taking part.
There are now just about 35 days left until one of the world’s greatest sporting events takes place just outside this building.
You can hear the buzz in the air in the city, in the county and across the country.
We all want hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France to encourage more people to take up cycling.
That seeing the tour on their doorstep will inspire the next generation’s Sir Bradley Wiggins or Lizzie Armitstead.
We’re here because - once the peloton has passed by - we also want cycling to be a normal, everyday activity, that most people can enjoy.
We want the decision to go by bike to be as simple for the 8 year old riding to school and the 80 year old riding to the local shops as it would be for Sir Bradley.
And we want to see change happen because helping 8 year olds to 80 year olds back on to their bikes will make our streets safer, families fitter and cities much less congested.
As the government announced in February, we want to help people to be ‘Moving more, living more’. The benefits of physical activity cannot be ignored.
I’d like to say just a few words this afternoon about what we need to do to make that happen.
It is not so long ago that cycling was the normal mode of transport for most people in the country. Until the mid-1950s large numbers of people travelled by bike, most of the time. So it’s not our climate or geography that’s stopping people from cycling more.
But somewhere along the line people fell out of the habit of cycling from A to B.
For many people it became either something children do or a hobby for the few people mad enough to want to ride up and down Garsdale Head.
But the signs are that the times are changing.
The past few years have seen something of a cycling renaissance in Britain.
People are increasingly choosing to go by bike - particularly on their commute to work. In fact, the number of people who cycle to work in Leeds has increased by half and similar increases are being seen in other cities across the country.
That’s backed up by figures released last week which show that bike sales have been increasing steadily and cycling shops have become common sights on high streets across the country.
But if you dig just a little deeper the picture isn’t quite so rosy.
The total proportion of people who travel regularly by bike has remained static over the last decade. Increasing numbers of cyclists in urban areas has been offset by declines elsewhere and the cyclists that are on our streets remain overwhelmingly young and predominantly male.
That fact remains that many people do not feel they have any alternative to taking the car and the fundamental reason is their perception of cyclists’ safety on the road.
So for cycling to become a normal, everyday activity for most people once again we have to address the common belief that it is a dangerous activity that is only for the young, fit and fearless.
Achieving that isn’t going to be simple.
It will take sustained commitment and dedication.
That’s why this government has invested £278 million in cycling.
That includes major projects like £16 million for the new Leeds to Bradford cycle connect scheme. I’ve heard how well it is coming along and I’d like to commend everyone involved for their hard work. It is going to be a fantastic example of what’s possible on major routes.
And there are also almost 100 more smaller schemes being delivered by councils through the Local Sustainable Transport fund. I was lucky enough to be shown around a couple of the local schemes earlier today.
We also supporting increased training to help people feel more confident on the roads. For example, this year more children than ever will enjoy Bikeability training. With almost three quarters of a million more to come over the next 2 years.
As well as investing in new cycling infrastructure, I want to ensure we are getting the best out of the assets that already exist.
For example, the country is criss-crossed with former railway lines, tunnels and viaducts. These can be ideal for dedicated cycle ways. They tend to connect towns and villages with one another and the gradients are relatively smooth and many of these are now the responsibility of the Highways Agency.
Last week I cycled 10 miles or so with Sustrans along the old railway track between Scarborough and Whitby.
It’s a spectacular ride.
Particularly when you cross the river Esk over the magnificent Larpool viaduct, 120 feet up in the air.
I think there is the potential to put even more of these lost railways back into use as dedicated cycle ways. For example, I know the Queensbury tunnel is one potential option between Halifax and Bradford. So I want us all to identify opportunities to use existing assets better. Where there is the demand, and the value-for-money case can be made, it should be possible to bring them back to life.
People have also told me about the problems they find with red tape.
Unnecessary bureaucracy can be a block on putting good quality cycling infrastructure in place. So we are also making it easier for local authorities to provide a wider range of cycling facilities.
I am pleased to announce that today we are launching a consultation on revised Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions.
These updated regulations will include many measures developed in discussion with cyclists.
These include low-level signals for cyclists, new types of crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, and new designs of advanced stop line. We will also trial new dedicated cycle streets. This will provide councils the opportunity to put cyclists on an equal footing with motorists on popular cycle routes by banning overtaking.
The consultation is available on our website and I urge you to have a look and respond.
So in summary, that’s what we are doing.
We have doubled the investment in cycling compared to the last administration.
We are looking to get the best use from the assets that we own.
And we are cutting red tape that has been a brake on infrastructure improvements.
But there’s a limit to what can be done by Whitehall.
As the local planning authorities, it is councils that are absolutely vital and expert town and transport planning is essential. You are the people who have the power to shape our cities for the better.
And to quote the amazing Spider-Man:
with great power comes great responsibility.
Because while money will always be significant it is, at best, part of the answer.
Ensuring the road surface is suitable for bikes, junctions are well planned and cycle paths are integrated with one another is as much a question of good planning as it is of cost.
That’s why my department’s Cycle Proofing Working Group is developing a programme of work that will ensure the right measures are in place to help practitioners design streets and places where cycling is a central part of the traffic solution. These will include professional training initiatives, best practice and information sharing campaigns and consideration of the barriers to successfully cycle proofing roads.
I know one of the common complaint is that there simply isn’t enough space available on our roads for cycling infrastructure.
My response is that there simply isn’t enough room not to put it into place.
UK road congestion is already among the worst in Europe, particularly in urban areas. If we do not make more efficient use of the available space in our towns then traffic will simply come to a standstill.
Other cities around the world are showing what’s possible. Take Seville as just one example. It is, in parts, an ancient city with narrow and winding streets, where road space is at a premium.
In response to increasingly bad traffic jams they made a consistent and concerted effort to improve provision for cyclists.
As a result the proportion of journeys made by bike has increased from 0.5% to 7% and traffic congestion has decreased dramatically.
That’s not a coincidence. The lesson is clear.
We shouldn’t start from the point of view that it is either room for cycling or space for other road users.
In fact the opposite can be true.
If you put in place high quality, integrated cycling infrastructure that makes people feel safe, it increases the number of people who travel by bike and that means fewer people feel the need to take their car.
So there are fewer cars on the road and less time stuck in traffic for everyone else.
To sum up, cycling is a reliable, cheap, healthy and safe way for most people to get around over short distances.
Getting more people cycling means quicker journeys for everyone.
To do so we need potential cyclists feel safe and that requires high quality cycling infrastructure.
I want to work with you to help put this in place.
So we are investing record sums, cutting red tape and changing the rules to help that happen.
But it simply will not be possible without your knowledge of your local areas and your leadership in your local communities.
As the next 2 days will show, there’s the potential for nothing less than a cycling revolution in Britain. Let’s agree now that together we can make it happen.
That’s why this conference is so important and what you take from it will resonate long into the future.
I hope you enjoy the next couple of days.