It is a wonderful time for sports cycling in Great Britain; Bradley Wiggins has become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France with Chris Froome enjoying an equally unprecedented second place. The hard-working men and women of Team GB are no strangers to success in Olympic events and so it has proved in London with medals on the road and the track with performances to give inspiration to all.
Wonders like this don’t happen by accident as other nations are already comfortably aware; This was never about ‘plucky British underdog spirit’. This was about the right talent, the right coaching staff giving the right strategies, confidence and belief and the right mechanics working on the right machinery. Above all, what we have been witnessing over the last few years is what consistent and focussed investment actually looks like by people who know what they are doing and care.
Norman Baker MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport) proudly trumpets the fact that last January he announced the Local Sustainable Transport Fund to the tune of £560 million (which has recently been increased to £600 million) as well as £15 million specifically for cycling infrastructure projects at railway stations to link communities and centres of economic growth. He has also recently announced a further £15 million cycle safety fund to help local authorities deal with high risk junctions.
These are undoubtedly large sums of money. I have no trouble with Norman Baker MP, nor do I doubt his overall commitment to cycling. However, I do have trouble with the fact that Local Authorities have been bidding for this money and are going to oversee the spending of this money. Put simply, the Government is giving sums of money for ‘Active Travel’ projects to people who largely haven’t a clue about the benefits of cycling as a mode of transport or don’t actually care about cycling as it gets in the way of more ‘serious’ modes of transport. Moreover, cycling design guidelines at local level are treated with the same professionalism and reverence as Dr Seuss. Meanwhile, The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so nothing they do must ever be considered, let alone copied. As a result, we end up with what we’ve seen for many years; inconsistent and unfocused investment by people who don’t really know what they are doing or don’t care.
I don’t see this as a recipe for the same delirious success as Team GB.
To be fair, there are Local Authorities that are trying to ‘get it’ as far as cycling is concerned and are very proactive. Even trying to see things from a Dutch perspective like my neighbouring Authority of Brighton & Hove.
In a way, it is good that Local Authorities have had to bid for pockets of money. By tendering for funding, we get to see the projects that they have in mind and therefore some sort of benchmark for local active travel groups to monitor (hopefully, they would also have been involved in the consultation). The problem lies in the precedents already set by Local Authorities which are a bit lacking in quality. Actually, most are appalling. Generally, the only time bicycle infrastructure works well in Britain is more by accident than by design; usually a converted pre-Beeching railway line or upgraded coastal path or promenade. Even then, because we never seem to be able to think in terms of network and linking stuff, people will often drive to it with their families if it offers the premise of inviting, quality traffic-free cycling.
The simple fact is that nice things cost money and, funnily enough, that includes cycle infrastructure. Why not pay more for a network based on principles of proven success such as The Netherlands and Denmark that people can and would actually use. It has to be better than our current sporadic and, by comparison to Mainland Europe, amateur looking attempts to solve a car-choked problem that has become too big to solve with pockets of cash dotted around Local Authorities that clearly need better guidance from Central Government on how to spend it.
If this country can even begin to consider schemes such as High Speed Rail, or an entirely new airport for London, then there is no reason why we can’t consider thinking big in terms of providing a consistent quality network for the bicycle with its excellent rate of return in terms of jobs, transport, health & well-being, greater freedom and subjective safety – especially for more vulnerable sections of society, increased social safety and reduced emissions. If Local Authorities are going to be the agencies providing it (which I’m not actually against believe it or not), then the guidance and funding from central government has to also be high quality, strong and consistent. Nice things cost money, even for a mode of transport so simple, egalitarian and cheap.