And, facetiousness aside, "doing what's easy" is the point in all this. People cycle in large numbers where you make it a really easy thing to do. People cycle in small numbers in the UK because we've made it a really, really hard thing for people to do. The many ways we have made it hard are well-described in sociologist Dave Horton's excellent blog series Cycling Struggles, based on research he conducted for the University of Lancaster's Understanding Walking and Cycling project. As I've argued before, telling people how good it is for their health to cycle, or that "gardening is more dangerous than cycling", or some such blather, is utterly useless as a strategy for getting more cycling. The only strategy that we know works is to make cycling easy, convenient, safe, pleasant, and fun.
Guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued today makes the health case for more walking and cycling, as both travel and recreation, again, but actually we have had guidance from NICE saying
Ensure pedestrians, cyclists and users of other modes of transport that involve physical activity are given the highest priority when developing or maintaining streets and roads.and
Plan and provide a comprehensive network of routes for walking, cycling and using other modes of transport involving physical activitysince 2008. Perhaps I have been looking in a different direction when it has all been happening, but I haven't noticed much evidence of any level of government following that guidance. And, overall, the actual policy guidance in this latest NICE paper seems to be rather less clear and concrete than that from 2008, if lengthier, with rather a lot of emphasis on "encouraging" cycling, and no real analysis of the infrastructure problem. So perhaps those pinning big hopes of a shift in policy in response to NICE's current paper need to prepare for a let-down. Again.
And I'm afraid "a let-down" is what Norman Baker's announcement must be viewed as. Part of the trouble is, of course, that the sum is just too small, spread across the whole of the UK, to make a difference. In the London Borough of Brent, where I operate, the Transport for London-declared "Biking Borough", with a 1% modal share of travel by bike, I could easily tell you how to spend that £20 million, just in my borough, tomorrow. You could, with that money, maybe fix a couple of major physical barriers to cycling, and you'd probably succeed in increasing cycling in the borough by between 50 and 100%, I'd guess (my guess based on comparisons with comparable London boroughs which have slightly fewer physical barriers to cycling). But that would be just for Brent, for 300,000 people. That's 0.5% of the UK population. So this money, spent in that theoretical way (which it won't be) would at the very best achieve a 0.5% increase in modal cycling share in the UK, from around 1% to around 1.005%. That's not a measurable difference.
Of course this money will actually be spent in much smaller lumps than I am proposing, on small projects all over the country. Norman Baker and many others would therefore argue that my analysis is totally irrelevant. There may be, or there are, they would say, many small barriers to cycling all over the country which could be fixed with small applications of cash, and that fixing these would have incrementally have much more effect than I am calculating. But I don't think so. I think the reverse, based on everything I have seen of the barriers to cycling in the UK and of what works and what doesn't work. I think the more you subdivide small funds using the traditional "scattergun" approach used in the UK for cycle investment, the less bang for your buck you get. You need to create consistent, widely-useful networks in towns to get people cycling as a matter of habit, as the Dutch showed in the early 1970s. If you've got little money it's better to do one "demonstration town" than waste it all through "evaporation" across the nation. Unfortunately this money is a drop in the ocean compared to what we need, and through being a minutely subdivided drop, its benefits will entirely disappear.
The DfT's press release shows that there is no departure here from the traditional scattergun approach:
Projects could include better cycle facilities at railway stations, improved cycle links, or projects to improve the layout of road junctions to make them more cycle-friendly. Previous investment has seen some great projects making a real difference in communities, including better cycle routes from residential areas to schools to encourage the next generation of cyclists to cycle more regularly.It sounds like this money will be used for a few more cycle stands at stations (but lack of cycle parking really is not the reason people don't cycle, it's lack of subjective safety of the cycling experience, so this part of the money will achieve little), a few improvements to Sustrans-style routes between towns, and possibly junction changes, though that these will be done well enough to work is unlikely given the terrible nature of current DfT guidance on cycle infrastructure (more good reading on that subject here).
It also sounds from that press releases as if the DfT doesn't really know exactly what it wants done with this money. I think it's important to note that other areas that DfT funds are not treated like this. For major road and rail (and I guess aviation and maritime) projects, the government first decides exactly what it wants. It then costs it, and decides if and how it can be done. It then gets it through the planning mechanisms, if necessary bypasses them by executive decisions or new Acts of Parliament, and sees the project through, spending as much money as is needed to finish it and make it work. By contrast, cycle projects are rarely completed to the standard to actually make them work optimally.
I think today's announcement is undermined not only by the smallness of the sum involved, but also by the continuing lack of a coherent strategy from the DfT for cycling, and the lack of decent standards written into DfT guidance to Highway Authorities to tell them exactly how to build for cycling. The point about the Netherlands is not just that they spend at least 20 times as much per person as the UK on cycling infrastructure, and not just that they have been doing this consistently for decades, but also that from 1989 they had a clear national plan (the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan).
There have been various announcements about funding relating to cycling from the government over the past year. It's been hard to keep track of them, as the same money tends to get re-announced over and over again. In March £15 million was announced for cycle-rail and Sustrans projects, and in June £15 million for junction improvements in London and £15 million for the same in the rest of England were announced. If we add these to today's money it looks like the DfT is putting about £65 million into cycling infrastructure for England, about £1.30 per person, this year. This may be compared with the budget that Cycling England had from the last government: £60 million. But that money was spent in only a few towns, in a more concentrated way, to try to demonstrate the effect of doing a lot (by UK standards) in one place (a more effective strategy, though it still didn't amount to the creation of the whole-town quality networks that the Dutch showed were necessary). A scattergun £65 million is not worth anything like as much as Cycling England's more concentrated £60 million. And there has been inflation since the days of Cycling England, abolished in the "Bonfire of the Quangos" as one of the first acts of the Coalition government.
The bottom line seems to be that the funding for cycling in England stays about constant over time, whoever is in power. And the cycling level stays constantly low, as you'd expect. You keep doing the same thing, you keep getting the same result. There's no shift from the historical pattern here, there's just not the gear-change we need present in today's announcement, or the announcements over the past year.
|The constant low level of cycling in England due to constant low investment|
A billion is getting on for 10% of the DfT's budget, after the recent cuts, of £11.6 billion. The direct costs of obesity to the UK are estimated by the Department of Health at £5.1 billion a year. On that basis, the request for a billion for cycling is rational and reasonable, given its potential for solving the problem, as detailed in today's NICE report, and its potential for solving many other problems as well, that we all know about. Could any UK transport minster, or even the Chancellor, possibly deliver a billion for cycling? In political terms, not easily. But posterity thanks politicians who decide to do things that are hard.