A parliamentary meeting about cycling provision along the route of HS2 showed me that MPs just don’t get it

These are not most cyclists. Image: Getty.

There is a moment in Ben Elton’s novel Gridlock, when a small group of rail enthusiasts are left alone in the basement of a building while car industry lobbyists are upstairs talking with ministers about the real business of building roads. I was reminded of it recently at a Parliamentary committee meeting on HS2, the high speed rail line between London and Birmingham. But this time, rail was the real business – and it was cycling in the figurative basement.

Here’s the context. Cycling UK, a charity, was trying to hold HS2 Ltd to account for its promises to ‘cycle proof’ the route. This means considering cycling at the design stage: tunnels and bridges are very expensive to retrofit, so getting the extra width in at the start is key. If you don’t, communities all along the 330 mile route will be permanently prevented from cycling safely to their neighbours, schools, shops etc., across the tracks.

The first phase of HS2, from London to the West Midlands, is already considered a write-off as far as cycle crossings are concerns: the government-owned HS2 Ltd. has told the cycle proofing working group (CPWG), the group of experts it is supposed to consult on the subject, that it didn’t have enough money in the £56bn project to think about cyclists.

The company looks set to use the same excuse on phase 2a, from West Midlands to Crewe, after a letter from its director, Oliver Bayne, referred to the “principles” rather than the “applicable aspects” of design standards. This is a worry: design standards mean the difference between a safe, traffic-free cycle route anyone can use, and sharing a fast, narrow main road lane with lorries.

Cycling UK’s policy director Roger Geffen, and his expert witnesses, John Grimshaw and Phil Jones, arrived at the Parliamentary committee room at around 9.30am; I was present, covering it for the Guardian. We waited – only to be told at around 11.30am to come back after lunch.

At 1.45pm, Geffen was finally allowed to set out his case. He argued that communities along the routes to be able to walk and cycle safely. He explained the need for design standards, and safe, direct-vision standard vehicles. 

The MPs, though, didn’t seem to understand. The first question from the chair of the committee was an expression of surprise Roger wasn’t wearing Lycra. That’s like asking someone advocating for better pedestrian facilities why they don’t turn up to Parliament wearing running shoes and a sweat wicking vest.

The chair also failed to understand why design standards were relevant, and eventually, growing frustrated, stopped Geffen entirely, forcing him to bring on his witness, Phil Jones, a leading expert on cycling infrastructure, without introducing him or his credentials. Jones had just a couple of minutes to explain why HS2’s design standards were exactly the wrong kind if you wanted people to be able to cycle safely. By now, it was almost 3pm.


At one point an MP asked why contractors should use safer lorries, given the potential impact on delivering “best value for the public purse”. This question, with its implication that cost savings trump human lives, was astounding. I don’t know if she understood this implication, but Geffen paused, politely, before pointing out that there is also a cost when companies kill cyclists – an attempt to state the potential outcome of poor vehicle standards, using the MP’s own metrics.

Next came John Grimshaw, co-founder of the national cycle infrastructure delivery charity, Sustrans. Grimshaw is delivering, on his own initiative, a whole new cycle route, the Waddesdon Greenway, complete with crossings, where HS2 cuts through Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. This has meant negotiating with landowners, raising money, the lot. His partner even obtained a newt licence.

Grimshaw noted that he had personally negotiated access for a new cycling bridge ramp from the Rothschilds – infrastructure of a kind that would also help those with mobility issues, such as wheelchair users. And yet, he said, HS2 were still reluctant to put the ramp in, even though it would cost “pennies”.

At this point, it’s worth noting that the return on investment for cycling infrastructure ranges from £5.50 to £35 per £1 spent. HS2 has an ROI of just £1.47. What’s more, much of that comes from the business benefits of cutting travel times, rather than from anything experienced by communities along the route.

Last up was Peter Miller, director of environment for HS2 Ltd. He said it was difficult to cost cycling infrastructure, and questioned whether there was any desire for cycle crossings from communities along the route anyway. He was led through his points by HS2 Ltd’s QC, during which time one MP challenged him to say that not designing for cycling at the start would rule it out forever. During some of his claims on HS2’s provision for cycling, Phil Jones, in his frustration, murmured “rubbish”. Before we knew, it was over.

Geffen has often said that, before making the case for cycling infrastructure, you have to make the case for cycling. For some politicians cycling looks like men in Lycra on weekend jollies, not normal people doing everyday journeys. Phil Jones said he left feeling bullied – that during 30 or more such Parliamentary meetings in his career he’d never been treated this way.

Once HS2 is built many smaller roads will be blocked off, leaving fewer crossings, inevitably with heavier traffic, without cycle infrastructure. The last time I cycled on a rural dual carriageway I was nearly mown down by a lorry, before a fallen branch tore off my front mudguard, stopping me dead: I had been too terrified of being run over by another passing lorry to swerve to avoid it. I continued my journey by pushing my bike along the grass verge, thankful to be alive.

Instead of looking to the future, those making decisions on how we travel are recreating the very conditions that result in obesity, air pollution and reliance on expensive private transport. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham recently called active travel an “orphan policy” in Whitehall; and MP Ruth Cadbury has said that mentions of cycling often elicit figurative eye rolls in Parliament.

I now get what they mean. What I saw was a worrying insight into why our government seems determined, not just to sideline cycling, but to stubbornly refuse to see the point of it at all.

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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.