James Palmer: Why I’m backing electric bikes as a safe and healthy way to travel in my region

21 Aug

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

This month, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority became the first region in the country to roll out e-bikes and e-scooters to the public so people can enjoy quicker, healthier journeys as they return to work and school.

Electric bikes and scooters have the potential to revolutionise travel, making fast, clean, and inexpensive journeys possible, and help to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and allow for social distancing.

As an innovative organisation, focused on delivery, the Combined Authority has brought forward this solution by appointing European e-scooter operator, Voi, on a 12-month trial basis. Voi will provide e-bikes across the region and test out e-scooters in the centre of Cambridge where they will be assessed closely for safety and viability in the coming weeks, with e-bikes rolled out in October.

This move follows a recent announcement of £2.9 million, negotiated from central government, to improve cycle and pedestrian facilities across the region to get more people walking and cycling.

These measures are part of a vision for healthier and more sustainable travel across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough post-Covid.

Traditional modes of public transport have been hit hard by social distancing.

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough bus use is just over a third of what it was pre-Covid in Peterborough and only one-fifth of what it was in Cambridge.

Footfall at One Station Square in Cambridge has fallen from a peak of 18,000 people crossing in March before lockdown, to an average of below 2,000 since. There are signs of people making more train journeys again, with a high of 8,000 footfalls recorded in August.

Meanwhile, average daily car use in some parts of the region, such as South Cambridgeshire, is as much as 24 per cent higher than pre-lock down levels and that is before many people have returned to the office and children to school.

It seems while the threat of Covid-19 remains, many people feel reluctant to make journeys by bus or train and so there needs to be a viable public transport option which allows for social distancing.

Without drastic action and investment in alternative modes of travel, congestion on the roads could reach a critical point very quickly as more people are encouraged to return to the office, and children are expected to return to school. Or, we could have a situation where people are discouraged from returning to public life, opting to remain at home. Both scenarios could have disastrous consequences for our region.

Firstly, for our economy. Recorded footfall in retail locations are down 41 per cent in Cambridge and 34 per cent in Huntingdon to the same point last year. We simply must get people out and about again or our local businesses, restaurants and highstreets will suffer.

And, for our environment. Emissions from cars and emissions per capita are 50 per cent above the national average in Cambridgeshire. On average, 106 deaths per year in the Greater Cambridge region alone can be attributed to air pollution.

During lockdown, carbon emissions dropped by 17 per cent, with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on track to record a 27 per cent decrease in carbon emissions this year. But with public transport use down by two thirds, and car use going up, we must reverse these trends if we are to meet our target of eradicating carbon emissions by 2050.

Electrically assisted bikes provide a safe and healthy alternative mode of travel to the private car, bus, or train, which enables the user to practice social distancing while also helping to reduce carbon emissions.

E-bikes are likely to be placed at rail stations throughout the region, as well as at Park and Ride sites, and potentially at stops along the guided bus way, so they can be relied upon by commuters for significant parts of their journey to work and by others including students and visitors travelling into cities, towns, and other areas of interest and leisure.

It is thought that 60 per cent of current car journeys are only 1-2 miles in length and e-scooters and other modes of active travel could help significantly reduce unnecessary reliance on cars for these short journeys. E-scooters will allow visitors, tourists, students, and commuters to make quick short journeys across town.

The initiative by the Combined Authority to provide e-bikes and e-scooters will aim to reduce by 400 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the region by August 2021.

Providing e-bikes and e-scooters will also help to prevent the spread of coronavirus by allowing people to make journeys while remaining socially distanced. In addition, handlebars will be covered in Shieldex® Copper-Tape designed to kill 99.98 per cent of coronavirus on contact and all scooters are disinfected every 24 hours.

Along with a decrease in carbon emissions, due to a temporary drop in car use during lockdown, this year has also seen a 200 per cent increase in people using cycle to work schemes. With people enjoying improved air quality and fitter lifestyles, the benefits to a fully integrated active network for our region are clear and our investment shows we are serious about making our vision for greener more sustainable travel, a reality.

Michelle Lowe: Local government has an important role in helping us beat obesity

31 Jul

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

Governments for decades have planned to fight obesity and help the nation lose weight with schemes from the sugar tax to the Prime Ministers new plans to ban junk food advertising before 9pm, calorie counts on restaurant menus and GP’s prescribing Weight Watchers. These measures will probably make a difference, but in my experience as Deputy Leader of Sevenoaks District Council overseeing a health-in-all-policies approach to tackle obesity, this will only scratch the surface.

Most overweight people know the causes are poor diet and lack of exercise. They also know that eating better and exercising more will not only help them lose weight but will make them healthier – yet they do not take the difficult path to shed the extra pounds. To help them the government needs to understand the reasons why people choose unhealthy lifestyles and tackle the causes as well as the symptoms.

Obesity is linked to mental ill-health. People who feel anxious and/or depressed are unlikely to feel motivated to lose weight even if deep down they would like to. Tackling mental ill-health, something that may have been made worse by lockdown, will help to fight obesity. As well as prescribing Weight Watchers it might also be worth prescribing specialist, holistic weight loss schemes that also includes counselling, exercise and practical advice about debt.

You are probably wondering what debt has to do with obesity. In my experience quite a lot. Debt can lead to mental ill-health, which is linked to obesity, but it can also be linked to choices. People running out of electricity may choose not to cook a dinner and risk the kids not eating it – and buy them a filling bag of chips instead. People on lower incomes are less likely to buy fresh fruit and vegetables unless they live near a supermarket as they can’t risk it going rotten before it is eaten – buying crisps is a better bet.

Lifestyle also has a lot to do with obesity. People working fulltime do not always have time to cook healthy meals – it is often easier to throw unhealthy meals together quickly that the whole family will eat. There are some people that don’t know how to make a healthy meal as we have lost a lot of practical skills such as these over the generations. Busy people may not have time or the energy for extra exercise over and above what they do during the day, which means active travel needs to be incorporated into their daily routine. This is where local government comes in.

Local government is great at social prescribing. At its best, it understands its local area and population and can work with other agencies and charities to put together social prescribing programmes that meet local peoples’ needs. Mental health support and debt advice needs to be included in some weight loss programmes, in order to tackle the symptoms as well as the causes, and local councils should understand how this mix will work for their locality.

Councils can encourage people to take on allotments which will help them understand food better. It is a healthy outdoor activity in its own right – that can lead to healthier eating. This can be linked to educating children and their parents through schools and other outlets about how to make fast, healthy, cost-effective meals.

Councils are also the leisure authority and can link leisure centres, local tennis courts and other activities into social prescribing activities. They are also the planning authority and if they plan well can make sure walkways and cycling paths, secure places to lock bikes are included in new developments – and incorporated in existing ones where possible. They can also control the types of food outlets and vans through planning and licensing, and I also believe there is a bigger role for Environmental health in promoting healthier choices on menus when they inspect restaurants.

Taking a holistic approach to obesity and its causes with central government, local government, schools and the NHS working together to identify the causes and solutions in particular localities will yield longer term, sustainable results.

Judy Terry: The increase in cycling poses safety risks

27 Jul

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Congratulations to Suffolk County Council (SCC), which has won £376,501 from the Department for Transport for emergency walking and cycling schemes, improving safety for people to make essential journeys and take daily exercise by foot or cycle whilst maintaining social distancing.

Work has already started in Ipswich, with changes to layouts, closing off sections of roads to motorised vehicles, widening existing footpaths and cycle lanes, and changing traffic signal timings to reduce waiting times at puffin and toucan crossings. The Government requires evaluation and consultation to be included during the emergency interventions, allowing some to be made permanent where possible.

Cllr. Andrew Reid, The Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways, says:

“It is crucial that the measures work for the majority of people, ensuring accessibility for businesses whilst reducing congestion.”

Cycling maps and marketing campaigns will be updated to support health and air quality benefits.

During the lockdown, more people have taken to cycling, which is great for health and fitness, and the environment. However, few people appear to take their safety seriously; whole families take to the road without helmets. Young teenagers (usually boys) are everywhere cycling in groups, blocking other traffic, which then take risks overtaking.

Sadly, a coroner recently ruled that the death of a cyclist early one evening was likely to be attributed to alcohol. This doesn’t surprise me since, a while ago, a cyclist enjoying a tin of beer as he travelled on the wrong side of the road in daylight at about 6pm fell onto my stationary car, causing several hundred pounds worth of damage. Completely oblivious, he quickly righted himself and carried on.

Cycling proficiency tests, already available to children, are to be offered to adult novices, with instructors funded by the taxpayer, to build confidence and competence. Courses are not mandatory. Yet Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, admits that “it is crucial for cyclists to understand the rules of the road, manoeuvring skills and positive interactions with other road users.”

It’s worth pointing out that not all cycles are actually roadworthy; too many have non-existent brakes, and inadequate lights, making it impossible to see them at night. Taking precautions in rural areas, where roads tend to be narrow and twisting, without streetlighting, is especially important. Cyclists may use bridleways, but not footpaths – or pavements.

So, I suggest the Government should legislate to require:

  • Cyclists wear helmets and a hi-viz jacket;
  • Cycles must be certified as roadworthy;
  • Cyclists must be trained in the Highway Code and pass a test;
  • The same alcohol limits should apply to cyclists as to motorists;
  • Cyclists should have appropriate insurance (which would require evidence of roadworthiness and passing the Highway Code test).

With lockdown easing, now would be a good time to run courses in public parks, supporting novice cyclists, and checking roadworthiness. Volunteers could be recruited to help; discounts on equipment could also be negotiated with suppliers for attendees, and the wider community.

It is time to ensure that all road users are governed by the same rules, being appropriately qualified and equipped. It’s bad enough having millions of untaxed and unqualified drivers on the roads, lacking any respect for others and ignoring speed limits. Government should acknowledge that legitimate motorists – and the Police – have more than enough to cope with. But, without further action, there will be more accidents – and motorists will undoubtedly get the blame.

Adding to the problem, the Government has now decided to allow rented electric scooters to share cycle lanes and road space in pilot schemes, in some locations from this month for a year’s trial. Conditions include users having a provisional or full driving licence, wearing a helmet and a 15.5 mph maximum speed.

Inevitably, relaxing the rules in specific areas will encourage greater illegal use elsewhere.

Just a few days ago, I found myself following an (illegal) electric scooter down a narrow main road in Ipswich, with legal parking down one side virtually blocking one lane; within just a few minutes, the rider nearly caused two major accidents: first, his speed was approaching 30mph. He fell off, and the scooter skittered right across the road, causing three cars coming in the opposite direction to brake sharply. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, but took his time to recover the scooter and get back on.

He carried on, in the middle of the road, at the same speed, whilst looking at his mobile phone, which he continued to do as he approached traffic lights. Instead of stopping in the empty designated priority cycle space, ahead of vehicles, he stopped next to a car indicating a left hand turn. When the lights turned green, he looked up from his phone, heading straight across the road, having ignored the car still indicating as it slowly turned left. Falling onto the vehicle, he shouted abuse at the driver, then carried on again, gathering speed.

I don’t envy the Police trying to control this sort of behaviour, without any form of users’ identification, once word gets out that e-scooters can use the roads. For too many people, regulations on speed and rental won’t apply. Nor does common sense.

It costs billions of pounds to maintain public roads, so it is only fair that cyclists should share the burden with other road users. An annual £20 tax for individuals, with £40 for a family of four, would not only contribute to the economy at this difficult time, but it would help to encourage greater responsibility for their personal safety. Some cyclists display a particular arrogance, taking risks, compromising everyone’s safety, instead of respecting other road users, including pedestrians.

Suffolk County Council, and other rural county councils, should also take measures to protect horses and their riders. According to the British Horse Society, 845 horses were killed on the roads in 2019 – equivalent to nearly two horses every week. There needs to be a national awareness campaign, with penalties for selfish motorists who carelessly speed through country roads and villages, with never a thought for vulnerable road users, whether riding a horse or cycle, or simply going for a walk.