The Times, they aren’t a changing

WHEN The Times newspaper gave front page headlines to its launch of the historic ‘cyclists’ revolt’ in February, aimed at forcing the government to improve cycling safety in towns and cities, it gave the campaign movement fresh impetus and claimed centre stage in Parliament – for a time.

But what have those artful dodgers in the Commons done about it? Besides falling over themselves to sweet-talk a major daily newspaper, not much, if you ask me. Despite The Times excellent campaign, there remain two big issues holding up real progress: insufficient funding and a lack of a national strategy to bring about the key changes in road infrastructure.

First, let’s do the maths. According to one of the UK’s leading campaigners, Continental evidence says that when you spend at least £5 per head of population on cycling there is growth. The Cycling Towns, under the direction of Cycling England – killed off by the government last year to save money – were spending a tenner and achieved an average of 27 per cent growth over three years. This is consistent with a rate of doubling growth over 10 years. However, in the interests of keeping a little perspective, this is merely the doubling of next to nothing to close to very little.

Lack of spend
As it stands, in England, the government spend on cycling equates to between £1 and £2 per head of population. It’s higher in Scotland and in London. In Denmark and Holland, it’s somewhere between £10 and £20 per head. There are 49 million people living in England. So £1 to £2 per head equates to, at best, £98m being spent on cycling. That’s some £150m short of even the basic sum needed to make a difference. To up this to £5 per head means the government must spend £245m per annum. But this is still half of the amount spent by Holland and Denmark in percentage terms. So what if the government do the decent thing and spend upwards of £300m per year on cycling? How will they direct this? Answer, they won’t be able to, unless government takes direct control of Local Authority transport planning for cycling, as the Dutch did over 60 years ago.

This is important because virtually all the work to make the roads safer for cycling will fall under LA control. The Department for Transport has responsibility for the trunk road network which makes up only about five per cent of the road network, whereas the rest comes under LA control and government can only advise the LA’s; they cannot impose their will.

Cycling: still squeezed

Here’s a recent example. The Times identified hundreds of major junctions that need to be made safe for cyclists. Transport Minister Norman Baker responded by providing £15 million in funding. However, he can only encourage, not tell, Local Authorities to bid for a slice of this cash to carry out the work. It falls to The Times to ask us, the punters, to write to our local councillors and implore them to bid for funding! Left to their own devices, the LA’s, who may not necessarily agree with government directives, have with very few exceptions, shown that nothing meaningful in cycling planning will ever be achieved.

Big Struggle
So, The Times faces a big struggle in a country that has shown it doesn’t do strategy.  When the National Cycling Strategy launched with great fanfare in 1996 it was largely meaningless because not only did it have no money before Cycling England were given a few bob in 2005, it couldn’t work in isolation, not without sister strategies for all other models.  And there never has been a national strategy for transport, from the canal age in the 1700s, through to the railways in the 1800s, followed by road and air.

This article was first published in the July 19 issue of Cycling Weekly.