At the Leeds Cycle City Expo, the keynote speech was given by Robert Goodwill, the Under Secretary of State for Transport, with special responsibility for cycling.
It was full of pleasant soundbites and encouraging noises, but when he had to depart from his script – printed out on A4 pieces of paper that he was reading from – the detail was worryingly absent.
Goodwill seemed keen to boast about the record ‘£270 million’ the current government had spent on cycling – a figure that was questioned immediately by people on the stage next to him. But even if we take this figure at face value, it pales into insignificance compared to the sums being announced for road upbuilding and upgrading – tens of billions. It’s even dwarfed by the extra sums of money being employed to promote electric cars – the mode of transport nobody seems to want to buy.
How far does ‘£270 million’ – about £50 million a year – go towards actually addressing the significant barriers to the uptake of cycling in Britain a year? Even assuming, that is, that it is spent wisely – a very generous assumption, with hundreds of thousands of pounds currently being spent on schemes of dubious benefit.
By way of example, here is an issue in the town where I live, Horsham.
Let’s take a look at these in turn. Number 1 is a level crossing.
There isn’t actually a shortage of space here, but sorting this road out will require serious investment, to adjust the kerb lines and put in cycle tracks. It’s entirely unsuitable for mass cycling as it stands.Your next option for crossing from one side of the town to the other is the North Street railway bridge – crossing point Number 2.
As you can see, it is very busy, narrow, and effectively unusable for all but a tiny minority of the population by bike. This bridge, and the embankment, will have to be adapted, or rebuilt, to make this crossing point suitable for cycling. Probably quite a lot of money.
The next crossing point - Number 3 – is a pedestrian-only underpass. You are not allowed to cycle through here, and there are barriers that attempt to stop you.
The sight lines are not good, it is narrow – and the ceiling is too low to safely cycle through, in any case. So as with the previous examples, for this railway underpass to be a crossing point for mass cycling, it will need to be widened and deepened. Another substantial project.
Crossing point Number 4 - the Queen Street bridge on the A281.Like the previous road crossings, this a busy road, carrying tens of thousands of vehicles a day, including buses and HGVs (it is not surprising these crossings are busy, as there is no discouragement to driving across Horsham, despite the presence of a bypass, and these crossings funnel motor traffic). The A281 itself is, in my opinion, the most hostile road to cycle on in Horsham, with a combination of pinch points, parked vehicles, side roads with limited visibility and a narrow carriageway all contributing to an unpleasant environment that requires constant vigilance. Totally unsuitable for most people to cycle on. It might be possible to create some form of protected space for cycling under this bridge without substantial re-engineering of the bridge itself, but again work will have to be put in adapting the carriageway.
The final crossing point, Number 5, is actually acceptable; a reasonably quiet residential street that does not carry much motor traffic, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. The low bridge also effectively acts as a form of ‘modal filter’, keeping out HGVs from this route, because they can’t pass under it.
So. The main point here is that the town is severed for most ordinary people who might wish to travel by bike. There are no reasonable crossing points over or under the railway line that are in any way attractive to the general public. It is effectively impossible for them to cycle from one side of it to the other. And when you consider that the town centre lies on one side of the railway line while majority of the population lies on the other, that is a serious issue.
I haven’t even mentioned here the fact that every single one of the main roads in Horsham is totally unsuitable for inclusive cycling. They are not environments that most people would even dream of cycling in.
Cycling is designed out of Horsham. That is why – despite the town being essentially flat and only 3 miles from one extremity to the other - it is practically non-existent here, probably around 1% of all trips. The 2011 census revealed that even for trips to work (usually a higher mode share than trips for other purposes), just 1.6% are made by bike in Horsham, a decline (for what it’s worth, given these are very small numbers) on 2001.
As I understand it, the entire West Sussex budget spending on cycling in the last year was around £30,000. This for a total population of around 900,000 people. The only other funding stream is Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) money, which WSCC successfully bid for. About half a million pounds is being spent in Horsham, but – despite some good intentions – none of the systemic problems I mention here are being dealt with, and it will almost certainly be frittered away, in the most part, on ‘infrastructure’ that nobody wants to use, or signing circuitous routes on back street that people are using already.
To deal solely with the severance problems created by the railway line detailed here will require, at a low estimate, more than a million pounds, spent properly. This is just one issue, in one town, of 55,000 people. Scale this across England and Wales as a whole – villages, towns and cities with very similar problems to Horsham – and it is quite obvious that the current sums of money being ‘invested’ in cycling just aren’t going to cut it.
What is depressing is that congestion is primarily an urban problem, yet the huge sums of money the government is throwing at the road network are missing the target, going on large road schemes between urban areas, rather than addressing the prime issue of mobility within urban areas.
Towns like Horsham have a dysfunctional road network, clogged with single occupancy vehicles at peak times. The necessary conditions that will enable people to opt for sensible, painless alternatives – attractive, safe, direct cycle networks – are not being created, even though doing so would solve these congestion problems at a stroke.
The solutions to urban congestion are being ignored. So as far as I can tell the only purpose of the occasional announcements of tiny sums money ‘for cycling’ is to create the illusion that this government actually cares, rather than an actual serious engagement with the issues. They are crumbs, and not even comforting ones at that.