Should bicycles have registration plates? Should cyclists carry compulsory insurance? These ludicrous and unworkable suggestions by Transport Minister Grant Shapps are a collective sign of the times. A non-policy and a massive non-starter - how big a registration plate does anyone think you can get on a bike?

If implemented, the measures would be counter-productive – deterring cycle use just as every other wing of government urges folk to get out of cars – and totally wide of the mark. Do we really need to plough through the statistics to know which road-users cause serious injuries? For the record, Department for Transport figures show 4,290 pedestrians and 4,700 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in crashes with cars on Britain's roads in the year to the end of June 2021.

The clampdown would also be impossible to implement, unless Shapps really wants police to spend their time checking cyclist credentials and tackling the symptoms not the cause of nuisance cyclist behaviour.

The number one reason for cyclists crossing traffic lights during the pedestrian sequence, for example, is to avoid being hit by a left-turning vehicle – a so-called left-hook collision and the number one cause of cyclist deaths.

A few countries did try registration plates - Switzerland, Argentina and some American cities - but all rapidly gave up. Except North Korea where women are still officially banned from bike use. Is that the new Tory role model?

There might be a point in carrying insurance – one cyclist used it recently to prosecute the driver that knocked him off the road, breaking a leg. But compulsory?

And how does this fit with the more tolerant direction of travel created by the new Highway Code, which requires cars to give cyclists 1.5 metres clearance when overtaking? As a cyclist on the rural and often single-track roads of Fife, I’ve been struck by the extra care and courtesy by drivers since that rule change in January.

So, what was Grant Shapps’ policy blurt really about.

Political jostling perchance? The transport secretary pulled out of the Tory leadership battle after struggling to get 20 supporters before nominations closed a month ago and then backed Rishi Sunak. Bad call. So perhaps he’s now waving his policy arms in a suitably populist way so Liz Truss will notice him before setting the seal on her new cabinet?

Or, he might just have had a rush of blood to head and made a mistake. After all, the same day his ‘cycling crackdown’ outburst dominated the Daily Mail’s front page, he told The Times: “I’m not attracted to the bureaucracy of registration plates. That would go too far.” Would the real Transport Secretary please step forward?

But before dismissing all of this as a storm in a wheel nut, there’s another possible explanation. The cycling controversy might just have been a clumsy attempt to distract from the current shocking abdication of government by Boris Johnson and fellow ministers amidst a national emergency – a well-worn ruse to avoid scrutiny of a government and a country in the doldrums by generating heated debate about a relatively trivial issue.

If so, the truly shocking thing is that British citizens are so well-schooled in the art of pointless clickbait judgement of fellow citizens, so used to being deflected into culture wars instead of urgent public policy solutions, so relieved at having something relatively minor to discuss, that we have duly obliged with radio phone-ins, TV news reports and op-ed articles aplenty. As one commentator put it; “I mean thank goodness there are no other more pressing matters to deal with. But cyclists …”

Now, I’m not saying cyclists are perfect – not at all. As someone who cycles on an upright, hybrid, electric bike – I am routinely ignored when trying to greet the lycra-clad men (generally) of serious cycling. Fair enough.

Just as city motorists dismiss ‘Sunday drivers,’ cyclists have their own pecking orders and ‘utility’ cyclists, trying to get from A to B, are barely acknowledged by members of the fitter, long-distance and speed brigade.

Yet this lack of communication and failure to recognise fellow path/pavement/non-motorised road users is where all the aggro towards cyclists arises. I slow down and try to speak before ringing the bell on tracks, so as not to have pedestrians jump out of their skins. This apologetic cycling behaviour annoys many two-wheeled companions. But I know how I feel when suddenly forced aside by a mobile stranger claiming priority. No one likes the sudden alarm and folk who are alternately cyclists, motorists and pedestrians should understand that and have some empathy for other road users.

Thus, hard-to-safely-pass cyclists on country roads could occasionally pull over and pedestrians getting irate at cyclists carefully crossing traffic lights might see someone trying to escape left hook collisions in the absence of road systems that build safety in.

In other countries where cycling is the norm (55% of all work and school journeys in Copenhagen for instance are made by bike) cyclists are separated from both pedestrians and drivers by raised lanes with separate cycle sequences at traffic lights and junctions. That’s why so few folk in the bike-friendly Danish and Dutch capitals wear helmets. Safety is designed into their road systems, amplified by laws enshrining the ‘presumed liability’ of drivers in any crash and reinforced by the mutuality that comes from citizens who flip ‘tribes’ regularly and easily. It’s not laid at the door of individual cyclists who must ‘armour up’ to produce DIY protection in un-designed city centre road spaces that are still dominated by cars.

Cycling levels rose during lockdown when there were fewer cars on the roads and cyclists felt more confident. But as Covid restrictions have relaxed and cars have returned to dominance on the roads, levels of cycling have reduced.

No wonder only 2.7% of all commuting journeys by employed Scottish adults were made on bikes in 2019. Changing that needs investment – not empty opportunistic threats. Otherwise the vicious cycle will continue.

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