I’m a campaigner for people-friendly streets based in North London. I was asked by Cycle Stortford if I’d visit Bishop’s Stortford and come for a ride on the Sunday before the local elections.
I didn’t know much about the town apart from that it had some beautiful historic buildings, but I’ve come to learn that the cycling provision is inadequate. And that’s an understatement. Before visiting, I asked local people what street was the worst, and was told with a sigh that “they’re all pretty bad”, and that the historic town centre has been “dominated by cars since the 1960s”.
Local women fed back to me that many of them are too scared to even get on a bike in the town.
Women: too scared to cycle
Laura, who’s 29, said: “I’d like to cycle in Stortford, but I’m not confident enough because there is so much traffic and it’s too dangerous”. Sandy, in her 40s, said she doesn’t feel safe on the road, so she doesn’t cycle. Anita in her 50s said she has a bike but will only cycle very early in the morning when there are hardly any cars on the road. Many other women came forward to say the same thing – too many cars, too fast, no cycling provision, roads not safe.
In 2023 in a climate emergency, I find this horrifying. People who want to do their bit for the planet and their fitness are being deprived of the basic right to be able to cycle safely, because they’re scared of motor vehicles. When are we going to wake up?
But I was even more concerned when I arrived in Bishop’s Stortford. We all met at Castle Park in front of the bandstand, and I cheerily asked how many children would be coming (I had a bit in my speech aimed at kids – I wanted to find the youngest rider).
No safe cycling routes for children
I live in Haringey, in the busy capital, yet when we have safe rides, hundreds of children come along, giggling in delight. Children love cycling in my experience – we have 2 and 3 year-olds whizzing along on balance bikes, older kids riding for miles.
But here I was told that unfortunately, not one family in the area felt they could bring their children, even to a ride with marshals. Indeed, campaigners had actually left their children at home, because they didn’t feel it was safe for them to come on the ride. I was gobsmacked.
Tories haven’t prioritised cycling
So how has this happened?
Bishop’s Stortford Town Council, the District Council of East Hertfordshire, and Hertfordshire County Council have all been run by the Conservatives, with large majorities, for as long as anyone can remember. In all three levels of local government, there’s a tiny budget for active travel, and – I’m told by locals, no desire to provide leadership or solutions to the traffic gridlock that the town regularly suffers. Indeed, locals even say that there’s a level of denial that climate change will have any impact on Hertfordshire anyway.
“So this is what a Conservative-run area looks like”, I thought to myself. An area where many leaders may not even care about climate change. A town where children are simply unable to cycle safely, and many adults have to do their cycling early in the morning, if at all.
Cycle Stortford’s election campaign
Cycle Stortford have campaigned for a safe and accessible network of cycle routes to promote cycling for all. They’ve also urged candidates standing in the up-coming town council election on Thursday to sign a manifesto for the rapid completion of the Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan. Candidates from some parties responded enthusiastically, but the Conservatives only gave a collective response. I truly hope that on Thursday, the people of Bishop’s Stortford and East Hertfordshire take the bull by the horns and vote accordingly.
The local authorities have had more than enough chance to bring about change, and they’ve blown it. What’s needed is for parties that care about climate change and people being able to cycle safely gaining power at the local level. Unfortunately, the biggest travel budgets are held by the County Council, and locals will have to wait until May 2025 to vote there.
But if the voters in Stortford vote out their current administration on Thursday, it would be a positive start towards safer cycling and a healthier lifestyle. I would love to come back this time next year to a bike ride that’s packed to the rafters with happy cycling children.
And in the words of Elvis (which I sang at the Bandstand today), we need “A little less conversation, a little more action”. Actually, we need quite a lot more action. And, as Elvis also said, “It’s now or never”.
The people of Hertfordshire deserve the basic right of being able to cycle safely. And change can’t come soon enough.
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