Liz Barker talks Lib Dem’s long-term effort to push Government on cycling

liz barker
Pic: @ Roger Harris

The Liberal Democrat’s cycling and walking stance appeared one of the warmest on offer prior to the 2019 General Election. With that in mind we caught Peer Liz Barker to gauge where that sentiment stems from and what active travel provision may look like with a Lib Dem steer…

“My cycling story is simply that I rode a bike as a kid, but I stopped as a teenager and didn’t then cycle at all until ten years ago,” starts Lib Dem Peer Liz Barker, explaining how upon entering politics she came to be a steering member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling and Walking.

“A friend of mine sadly died and I inherited her old banger of a bike. I decided that I would take it up again. Luckily, my local authority was doing cycling refresher courses for adults, so I went along. I then had the courage to get back on the bike, which at the time was something quite important to build as people were being mown down in London far too much.”

Liz’s story is one that is very familiar in the UK. Cycle use, for most of the population, is something that ebbs and flows as generations pass. Studies show that fear of the roads plays as much of a role in keeping people off cycles as the perception of convenience, or our very British obsession with the weather.

One might argue that because of the aforementioned dangerous road conditions the dots are not joined between spells and that therefore cycling is only something we do only when we feel safe. It’s fair to say that retention rates after cycle training ends do dip quite steeply and thereafter it takes a life interruption – Covid, for example – for people to dig the bikes out of the shed and rediscover the joy of two wheels.

“As a resident of Wimbledon, I’ve watched people cycle in London and it’s changing consistently over time. I have a particular passion for spotting those people who are not the archetypal cyclist. My interest is opening doors for people with disabilities, women and those from minority groups for whom cycling can be a lifestyle liberation and represent freedom,” says Barker.

Recalling fondly an event where members of the APPGCW joined the mobility charity Wheels for Wellbeing at Herne Hill’s iconic velodrome, Barker says that engaging politicians on such a personal level and demonstrating how a bicycle (or tricycle) can be life-changing for many people proved to be one of the most productive means to arm decision makers with policy insight.

“We were unfortunately soaked as the heavens opened at the end of the day. But the time together did enlighten us and subsequently we were armed with information that members of the group started to table to the House. That got the interest of other MPs. We got provision for cycling and disabled folk on to agenda of relevant departments – the Department for Transport and the Treasury,” explains the peer.

For the politician willing to engage on any given subject the best way to forge progress is to have them walk (or cycle) a mile in the shoes of those seeking change, we’re told.

Here former Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert is credited with bringing about what could be argued to be one of the most progressive documents affecting cycling in the past decade, the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. Huppert is credited with getting this embedded within the Infrastructure Act, something that has since meant a legal responsibility for a Government to have an active transport strategy.

“On the back of both this and the Olympics civil servants took cycling seriously rather than as a minority activity. They do see cycling as a transport form now. I’m no Tory, but I have to hand it to them, the investment has since increased,” says Barker.

But to echo Huppert’s key question on active travel upon leaving office, has it increased by enough?

“No, the budget is not right for active travel. If we are to look at successful countries like the Netherlands you need a sustained budget and one that is delivered over a very long time. More than that, time is important to build popular support. My transport spokesperson talks about active travel as a pyramid; you start with foundations of training children in school and build up from there. Their parents then can feel confident in the child’s safety, so then design and local panning becomes the next crucial step and it must sustain up until a point where the opposition to active travel no longer carries same weight. People see for themselves over time when schemes are allowed to flourish, but you need to have sufficient funds for all of these things and communication campaigns alongside to promote the benefits,” explains Barker.

Echoing our last interviewee, Green Peer Jenny Jones, Barker says that while things are slowly heading in the right direction, there is a large element of showboating about the present administration’s approach. To the public vote winner policies are projected, but that meaningful and more costly changes are kicked down the road, believes Barker.

“Cycling is, in truth, overlooked. Boris overstates his case and this subject was certainly lacking good news in the latest budget. Those of us who are serious about green economy will pull him up on it. At present the Government is great on flashy announcements, but it doesn’t go much deeper,” we’re told.

Once the responsibility to deliver on promises is devolved to local Government, Barker believes most good intention quickly loses steam.

“Local government generally does not have the resources to follow through on the ambition properly,” says Barker. “There is a need to hold to account decision makers in Parliament to see that infrastructure projects are beneficial to a broad audience and that throughout a process – for example, with the promised cycle path alongside HS2 – those people are being asked throughout the entire process for progress updates.”

Liz speculates that there has been some pause for thought on the back of the pandemic and suggests that there will be a lot of analysis of transport habits as the world resumes normal working patterns. There may need to a demonstration of willing to adapt now to benefit budget announcements down the line, we’re told.
It is therefore in this unique moment in time that it is crucial to capture momentum, believes Liz, who suggests she would like to see the APPGCW begin to develop closer ties with the medical community, whose datasets may be able to illustrate “what we all instinctively think” and that is that this period of adjustment will have handed those who have transitioned to active travel significant physical and mental health benefits. That, says Liz, is something the Lib Dems has long held as clear reason for to develop active travel.

“The Lib Dems have been promoting active travel for years, even when it seemed less popular. But outside of our party the sentiment is steadily changing in Parliament. Although it has nothing to do with active travel, the Olympics and focus on elite cycling did something to spark a renewed interest in leisure cycling. Then that gradually began to trickle into active travel means for commuting to work. I noticed in the last five years in London that in casual conversation people will talk about air quality being so bad. I think the idea that this cannot go on has begun to fall into place for people and there is a sense we might collectively do something about it too. You will know the environmental cost of doing something to promote cycling is always outweighed by cost of doing nothing at all. But ministers do also listen to the car lobby, so it is crucial to establish and lay out the facts for developing cycling’s role as a transport form.”

What can the bike industry do to help? Create more customers is high on Barker’s wish list and not just in quantity, but also in diversity.

“I would like to work on taking down the barriers that inhibit different people to taking up cycling. I think there are a whole load of women’s cycling initiatives that could use greater support. To the companies that run chains of shops, could somebody tell them it’s okay to employ female mechanics? Many women would feel more comfortable; if you want to sell bikes to women we need to start seeing women represented in stores,” suggests Barker.

In support of the bike industry’s growth in the right direction there is a suggestion that alongside cycle training at youth level, politicians should get behind the idea of kids being able to carry out tasks such as repairing a bicycle as part of their hands on education studies. There is a little nostalgia in the idea with Liz referencing cycling being a way of life in Hull for her father’s generation, but also a suggestion that apprenticeships for cycle mechanics should be supported and for as broad a group of people as wish to learn the skills. These foundations, says Barker, could ultimately pave the way for the UK to reshore some manufacturing of cycle parts given the supply headaches in part attributed to Brexit.

In concluding her wish list for cycling’s development, Barker comes full circle to suggest a policy worth exploring would be a ‘blue badge’ for cyclists who use bikes to aid their mobility. Having witnessed first-hand how life-changing and liberating cycle use can be for a broad demographic, Barker hopes to be able to be a cog in a gear change that opens cycle use to a broader range of people.

“Subsidy for electric bikes feels a sensible idea, that is provided the industry can come up with reliable data on how usage influences a modal shift away from motoring. If that is demonstrable a case can be made quite easily to invest in cycling as a transport form,” concludes Barker.