It was a welcome start to the new year – a Holyrood debate on active travel. Regardless of what was said, or how few politicians turned up the fact that it happened at all is cheering news, and we congratulate Scotland’s new Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, for starting off the new year as we hope he means to go on.
For those who didn’t follow our live tweeting – or watch it online – the transcript of the debate is here – and Darkerside has done an excellent job summarising it here. We’re obviously disappointed that it wasn’t the occasion to announce more investment in cycling. However, we were delighted to see ourselves name checked by Jim Eadie, Claudia Beamish and Alison Johnstone (three politicians from three different parties – a sign that support for cycling is not a party political matter). As fully paid up members of the ‘cycle lobby‘, we were glad to hear from Tavish Scott that we are not just vigorous and determined, but also intellectually coherent – if only that was really enough to make us the most powerful lobby out there.
Jim, Claudia and Alison have long been friends of cycling and supporters of PoP – but it’s another, perhaps more recent, convert whose words we’d like to highlight today. Joan McAlpine has had the chance to see Dutch cycling conditions at close hand – not on some government-funded study tour, but because her daughter has moved to Delft. She has seen the everyday lived experience of Dutch cycling and come to the conclusion:
I do not think that we have invested in the kind of segregated infrastructure that would make me feel safe cycling in this country, or which would encourage me to send my children to school on bicycles, if I still had school-age children. I am afraid that I just would not do it unless they were completely segregated from traffic, and that is where I perhaps part company with those who say that training people to cycle more and getting more cyclists on the road will result in a magical transformation. There will be no such transformation; I believe that what we need is investment in infrastructure.
She went on to say: “It might well take a brave politician to get on his or her bike and ensure that Scotland goes Dutch. Perhaps we have such a politician in front of us. I certainly hope so.”
We hope so too, Joan.
So what will it take to make politicians brave enough to stand with Joan McAlpine and others and recognise that the easy answers – training programmes, encouragement, paint on the road – aren’t enough? Can we train them to take the lane, even if they risk being mown down by the juggernaut of public opinion? Sometimes, politicians are willing to lead from the front, to put in the infrastructure that’s needed in the face of motorised opposition and ultimately be proved right – in New York, in Vancouver, in Seville, in Zurich, in Paris, (do need we go on?), space has been taken from motor traffic and given over to bikes, and ultimately proved successful. But just as very few Scots currently cycle on our scary roads – and who would blame them – very few of our politicians have the vision and courage to follow their lead.
Many of the MSPs who spoke have mentioned that they got letters and emails from their constituents about this debate and about cycling and active travel in general like Cara Hilton who point out “The constituents who contacted me in advance of the debate are looking for genuine investment, not warm words“. It’s communication like that – from you – that gives politicians the space they need to do the right thing, and the brave thing. So thank you to everyone who took the time to contact their MSPs before the debate – we know that we ask you to do this a lot, but it is working. Shortly we’ll be inviting them all to come to PoP, and asking you all to write again and reiterate how much you’d like to see them there. We’ll also keep on making the case for investing in cycling, as vigorously and determinedly and intellectually coherently as we can. Together, we hope that this will be enough to change political hearts and minds and let our politicians realise that such investment doesn’t just benefit cyclists, but everyone – yes, even the ‘petrolheads‘ (as Joan McAlpine called them). For those who have long supported cycling, that might be an easy decision to make. But for those who have not, those recent converts, the ones whose constituents might not at first understand the benefits, then we hope that they will be brave politicians indeed…