Sunak’s ‘plan for motorists’ misses the mark: UPDATE from the Critical Mass/Cycling Rebellion campaign

Cyclists gather in Poole for a mass bike ride. Photo by Adam Osman

Stopping what he called the ‘war on motorists’ seems to be Rishi Sunak’s latest electoral wheeze. He, or his advisors, have worked out that there are lot of people who not only drive, but who love cars and the roar of engines, the smell of petrol, the sound of revs and the thrust of rapid acceleration. For them, driving is a joy, a hobby, a source of pride and a statement about their place in the world. A fine for speeding or parking in the wrong place disrespects their view of themselves; traffic calming measures are created to delay them personally, and any mention of ‘stopping oil’ is destined to trigger a (usually) ill-informed rant.

I’m a driver: a six-year old Nissan Leaf, since you ask, which is a delight to drive, very convenient and cheap to run (or it was, until recent news about huge rises in insurance costs). It gets me where I want to go, although, being an ‘old’ electric vehicle, it has range limitations, which can be frustrating. I borrow my son’s petrol car for long journeys or use public transport. I live on the edge of a 20-miles per hour (mph) speed zone, protecting young children at the primary school that my grandsons used to attend. I’d be happy if the limit extended into my road, but to be honest, when it’s narrowed by cars parked on both sides (often!), it’s hard to travel much above 15 mph anyway.

The question for Sunak and his electoral prospects is: which ‘motorist’ is he targeting? The stereotypical ‘petrolheads’ that I described above, or the old woman driver like me (another stereotype) who can’t park straight and has no interest in cars beyond their functionality? Most drivers will fall somewhere between such extremes, of course, and cars are an integral part of the way most of us cope with the everyday needs of life, like getting to work and the kids to school, doing the shopping, visiting relatives, essential appointments and business activities, not to mention occasional leisure pursuits in people’s busy lives.

Public transport is often unreliable, inconvenient, expensive and time-consuming, so the call to stop adverse targeting of motorists may strike a chord with quite a large group. However, most people, motorists included, recognise that the climate emergency is upon us, and change is urgently needed. Many drivers also use other ways to get about, and would do so more often, if the options were easier and more readily accessible. Road systems designed for cars can be unwelcoming for novice cyclists and hard for pedestrians, whilst many public transport options are costly and inaccessible for people with impaired mobility. And many cyclists are every bit as enthusiastic about their bikes as motorists are about their vehicles!

Photo by Adam Osman

Poole resident Adam Osman recently founded ‘Cycling Rebellion,’ an affinity group of Extinction Rebellion, calling for our towns and cities to be transformed. At the end of September, he led more than 70 cyclists riding in a critical mass around Poole, to call for safer cycling in the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) area. A wide spectrum of the community turned out, from families with kids to those in their late 70s. Riding en masse, they rode from Poole Train Station, through Poole Park and Baiter, finishing at Poole Quay. Osman said:

“We’re riding today highlighting the huge amount of people in BCP who love to cycle as their main way of getting around. Through our chants of “20 is plenty!”, we are calling on BCP council and the UK government to instate a blanket 20mph speed limit on any urban street. If people live, work or shop somewhere it should not be 30mph, at which speed four out of ten pedestrians are killed, versus one in ten at 20mph.

“We’re not calling for an end to driving. We’re calling for public spaces to be for all forms of transport, not just cars.

“We honestly can’t believe the turnout. It really goes to show how many people already are cycling in BCP. We even had a family with young kids join us, and for the first time those kids were able to cycle safely in the road.

“BCP needs to ask itself are we creating a place where kids are safe to cycle and walk around town independently? BCP is rated as having some of the worst traffic in the world, causing poor air quality which results in worse public health. And yet 50 per cent of commutes in the conurbation are below five kilometres (three miles).”

‘Look how many!’ Photo by Adam Osman

Osman fully supports a statement issued by six long-established groups who campaign for active travel options (Bikeability Trust, British Cycling, Cycling UK, Living Streets, Ramblers and Sustrans). They say that, instead of giving people real choice in how they live their lives, Sunak’s ‘plan for motorists’ ignores possibilities for cheap, reliable and sustainable travel, leaving many with one default option: to drive. Their statement says:

“When the government should be giving people more opportunities to live their lives responsibly, it’s robbing them of options.

“When ministers could be promoting public transport, cycling and walking as cheap sustainable options in a cost of living and climate crisis, they’re entrenching congestion and reliance on driving for short, local journeys.

“When the government could respect people’s freedom to choose how they travel, it’s removing the alternatives. This is a plan that looks no further than one way of travelling and will make the roads worse for those occasions when people do need to drive.

“Having a reliable bus route to work, the freedom to cycle to the park, or to be able to let your children walk to school safely while breathing clean air should not be beyond us.

“This plan restricts people’s travel choices, setting the country on cruise control towards missed net zero targets and a worsening health and inactivity crisis, while denying our children of their independence and freedom to move around their local area safely.”

The critical mass bike ride in Poole was the third such rally and Cycling Rebellion intends to make them a monthly event.

Also, in a direct challenge to Sunak’s plan to ban ‘blanket 20 mph speed limits’, they will campaign for this to be the default option in urban areas, for safe streets, better air quality and to enable a sustainable lifestyle. ‘Love 20’ will be an ongoing campaign, which people in BCP will be invited to join, helping to paint 20 mph speed limit love hearts and display them on their streets.

Sunak may believe that many motorists will identify with his new plan for motorists – but he has chosen to ignore evidence that lower speed limits and cycling-friendly roads are great for local economies and the environment. Osman’s ‘Love 20’ campaign could be successful with local residents who are sick of noise, air pollution, and streets that are risky for children learning to make their way to school independently. There is already a great deal of evidence to suggest lower speed limits are popular once they have been introduced in urban areas, leading to improved environments.

Most people use a mixture of travel options and petrol cars are not the future. It’s time to redesign our streets.

Photo by Adam Osman

On a rainy weekend, members of public cycled with Cycling Rebellion on the Halloween Critical Mass Event.

Photo courtesy of Adam Osman

Despite the wet weather there was a great turnout, including witches, skeletons and spirits. This was the fourth sequential ride calling for radical change in cycling infrastructure in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP).

The family-friendly ride attracted community members from all backgrounds and ages – children, students, retired individuals and everyone in between. The group cycled eight kilometres around Boscombe, Southbourne and Littledown, following previous routes around Poole and Bournemouth centre.

With colourful flags tailing the bikes and fancy dress galore, the uplifting jingle of bike bells was cheered on by passers-by, fellow cyclists and many car users.

Following the ride, attendees enjoyed a warm drink and getting to know each other. As well as campaigning for safer streets, Critical Mass is a powerful community builder.

Photo courtesy of Adam Osman

With over 200 people interested in the event on Facebook, it’s clear that Critical Mass rides are becoming a critical part of our colourful community. Whether you ride a unicycle or wheelchair, electric bike or scooter, all are welcome to join this inclusive, joyful celebration of community showcasing the spirit that can be harnessed if we support our community through safer, accessible infrastructure.

Adam Osman, founder of Cycling Rebellion, had this to say:

“We have to think about making cycling for everyone. You need to look at the current infrastructure and ask yourself, would you feel comfortable with your kids cycling there? Because that is a safe town to live in, one that accommodates every form of transport. That’s why we’re riding today, to show the huge amount of families in BCP who want to cycle, and that we need to make big changes to make it liveable. We’re calling on the implementation of a 20mph speed limit in BCP to make BCP safe for families.”