The cycling revolution needs to start now – MPs, don’t put the brakes on | Jason Torrance

History has a funny way of repeating itself, often to the tedium of those involved and onlookers alike. So as Westminster prepares to debate cycling tonight for the second time in 18 months, you have to wonder whether we’re about to get a good dose of deja vu, or if this time the government really means business.

As pressure mounts to alleviate the strain on our ailing health system, as our economy continues to falter and as the demand for safe, healthy and affordable travel options builds, now could be the time for action.

In the 1970s when smoking was still fashionable, not even those with the most optimistic outlook could have imagined that it would suffer the fall from grace that it has. Banned from pubs in 2007 and workplaces before that, the impact of smoking on our health was undeniable and something had to be done.

Today sitting is the new smoking, with 36,815 lives lost in England every year because of physical inactivity. Imagine the day when we have mandatory health warnings on cars, when government-funded advertising shouts about the dangers of sitting still and when its compulsory for doctors to ask us how often we cycle as part of our annual health check-up. The growing obesity crisis – as well as high levels of heart disease, cancer and other fatal illnesses – puts an immense but avoidable strain on the NHS, costing us billions. The health benefit of cycling on the National Cycle Network in 2012 was £295m, according to the WHO Health Economic Assessment Tool. Getting Britain cycling makes economic sense too.

The mandate for this kind of momentous change is there. Cycling groups are becoming increasingly organised and politically mobile but so too are ordinary people who ride their bikes. Tonight, cyclists will ride through Parliament Square to coincide with the debate, calling on the London Assembly and UK government to create space for people who ride bikes and put an end to needless deaths on our roads.

Everyone has the right to get from A to B safely, regardless of how they choose to travel. But as it stands, while it continues to get safer for motorists to drive on our roads, the number of cyclist casualties is going up. In fact, while the number of people riding bikes remains static, cyclist deaths have increased by 10% in the last year alone. It’s unacceptable and something needs to be done.

Last year Sustrans published figures showing that the number of people using the National Cycle Network had increased by 18% in a year, proving that the demand for safe, quiet routes is there. More than 71,000 people have signed the Times petition calling on the government to implement the recommendations of the Get Britain Cycling report – that’s 71,000 votes not to be ignored.

If ministers are tired of being told they’re too reactive and feeling beholden only to the next election, not able to look out for our future, then this is the opportunity to satisfy both demands. Implementing policies that put cycling at the forefront of our transport system will not only gain votes at the next election, but also show foresight by safeguarding future generations. Increasing cycling levels will mean we all have the chance to live long, healthy lives. It will clear congestion on our roads, keep smog and pollution at bay and help us to return to a time when we knew our neighbours and could socialise in our streets.

These will be bold steps. The vision for cycling will not be realised without leadership that looks to the future with optimism and purpose. Tonight when the government debates the future health and prosperity of the UK, let’s hope they don’t repeat history, but grasp it with both hands and choose to make it.

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