Well, Fancy That! No 1: Nice Things Cost Money

What happens when you invest consistently & wisely in people who know what they’re doing

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, and The Netherlands or Denmark with their proven success are regrettably filled with foreigners so, apparently, 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.

What happens when you invest sporadically and unwisely in people who don’t know what they’re doing and/or with Councillors who don’t care (Photo: Warrington Cycle Campaign’s ‘Facility of the Month’)

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 qualityActually, 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.

This has to be bad because Jonny Foreigner thought of 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.

Believe it or not, a decent bicycle network can be cheaper than a sodding great airport built in the path of migrating birds
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Resolution

Clearly its the trees fault. Maybe if it had High-Viz wrapped around it and.....

 

Firstly, apologies to Lo Fidelity readers about not posting as frequently as I should recently but my laptop broke and I pick it up from Mr Apple Repair Man tomorrow.

In my last post I suggested that along with the DfT, the Department for Health should also be lobbied as encouraging cycling would be of massive benefit to the nation’s health from tackling obesity to increasing general wellbeing.

Yesterday the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley published a White Paper outlining the Governments Public Health Strategy to create healthier lives and people which was given the snappy title of ‘Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for Public Health in England’.

Cycling is mentioned a massive 4 times in its 95 pages and I outline the excerpts below;

3.20 (Page 35) ……This year, the Government is supporting walking and cycling in schools through the Department of Health’s Living Streets ‘Walk Once A Week’ initiative and the Department for transport’s (DfT) funding for Bikeability cycle training. We are working towards every child being offered high-quality instruction on how to ride safely and confidently by the end of year 6 in school.

3.32 (Page 39) Active travel and physical activity need to become the norm in communities. The Department for Health will support local areas by providing good evidence on how to make regular physical activity and healthy food choices easier for their populations, for example by sharing learning from the experiences of nine ‘Healthy Towns’, as well as sustainable travel and cycle towns. Initial evidence from the first round of cycle towns showed that there was an increase in cycling across all social groups combined with a reduction in sedentary behaviour and single car use, when compared to people in similar towns.

Workplace Cycle Challenge (page 47)

CTC, the national cyclists organisation, has led a pilot project to encourage people to cycle to work in Swindon as part of its Cycling Champions programme.

The Cycle Challenge works by encouraging and supporting existing cyclists to persuade colleagues who rarely or never cycle to give it a try. The Challenge was a competition open to all organisations in the Swindon area to get most staff to cycle for just 10 minutes or more. Whole organisations and individual workplaces were encouraged to sign up via the Challenge website – individual cyclists within those organisations could log their personal details and record how much cycling they did.

Overall 853 participants cycled 37,180 miles between them, of which around 35,000 miles were for transport purposes (ie non-recreational travel). It is estimated that they saved 3,157 litres of fuel and £3,630 in reduced motoring costs and burnt about 35 million kilojoules of energy. (www.swindoncyclechallenge.org.uk)

All very nice but at no point does it address the real reasons why people don’t cycle in the first place. At no point does it address the fact that the motor car is a major hazard to public health, in both urban and rural areas and yet nothing is being done to curb its use. You can teach all the children you like to cycle, but if the roads look dangerous outside the school gates then it counts for nothing. You can declare all the urban areas you like to be ‘Cycle Towns’, but if the councils that run them remain as car-sick as they are at present and the roads to town centres and transport interchanges look dangerous, then it counts for nothing. You can create all the ‘Workplace Challenges’ you like, but we are now at the point where many, many adults in the UK have probably never known the joys of cycling, and without training or decent routes for them to learn a new skill with the added freedom that it brings then it all counts for nothing. If road safety isn’t correctly addressed and the car finally named as the chief culprit, then people will continue to fall ill and die from sedentary lifestyles and dangerous roads and it will all be for nothing. Government Cycle policy is a bit like offering the flu jab as a cure but with people continuing to die from influenza because they are afraid of needles.

It’s the councils that should be a primary concern as, like the Sustainable transport budget, this new public health budget is going to also be thrown to the regions with a new body (‘Public Health England’…..yes, it does sound a bit familiar doesn’t it?) overseeing the spend. Much more detail is required as the White Paper is big on rhetoric, but low on detail. As we have already seen, Sustainable Transport can be thrown open to all sorts of interpretation from charging points to electric vehicles to trunk road upgrades to ‘improve traffic flow’ and ‘reduce emissions’. Expect to see some fascinating and very artistic interpretations of the term ‘Public Health’ over the coming months. From a County Councils perspective it will probably mean more ‘Pavement Upgrades’ outside Hospitals and Health Centres, bless them.

I’m setting myself a couple of New Years Resolutions;

  1. I’m trading in my Mountain Bike and buying a Dutch Style Roadster because I had no idea that this shop was open in Brighton. How it slipped under the Lo Fidelity Radar, I’ll never know. I want to do Lo Fidelity cycling, appease the nagging of a certain Dutch Cycle fan & local campaigning friend of mine and write about my findings.
  2. I want to establish a Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, committed to forging partnerships with British & European partners, Architects & Urban Planners, attract funding from private companies and lobby all Government Agencies on how the benefits of cycling could save the country billions, make them look cooler and ‘well fit’ (if you talk that way) and make them feel better about themselves. I want to see the rule book on cycle infrastructure design guidance re-written as, although I believe the CTC is correct in principle on ‘Hierarchy of Provision’, it is too open to abuse by County Council Highways Departments. We have to adopt a more robust Dutch model that ‘disarms’ the motor car and creates a level playing field for walking and cycling (although the ‘20’s Plenty’ campaign is making great progress). I want to do this with increasing levels of help through the year as I have a day job, a wonderful wife and 7 month old son, and I would like it to stay that way.
  3. I would like to grow more vegetables and finally use that home brew kit I bought months ago.

The second resolution might be of interest to you. You can make it yours too if you like. If the Government can’t do joined up thinking for cyclists, then cyclists had better do it.