Fantasy cycling targets

Both David Arditti, and Freewheeler of Crap Waltham Forest, have recently blogged about the National Cycling Strategy, published in 1996 by the Department for Transport. This document set a target of quadrupling national cycling levels by 2012, based on a 1996 baseline. If met, this would mean that 10% of all journeys in the UK, in 2012, would be made by bicycle.

This bold target was signed up to in London, in 2001’s ‘London Cycle Network‘ document-

 For London the main target proposed is to achieve a 10% modal share for cycling by 2012, bringing levels of cycling in London towards those found in many European countries.

It was also signed up to my in my home county of West Sussex. The County Council even claimed, in their year 2000 Cycling Strategy document, entitled ‘Pedalling Ahead‘, that they could beat the National Cycling Strategy targets.

We believe that increases in West Sussex can, overall, be in excess of the National Cycling Strategy target but that this is unlikely to be achieved by 2002.  At current levels of expenditure, it is anticipated that this target could be reached in parts of the county by around the mid part of the second LTP

So although the 2002 target for cycling levels would not be met, West Sussex County Council believed they could be back on track to meeting the targets by around 2008-9, and presumably beating that target at a later date. Ambitious! And indeed optimistic, given that, at the time, in the 10 largest towns of West Sussex –

there has been a small decrease of 2% [in cycling levels] in recent years.

I have no doubt this ‘10% by 2012’ fantasy figure appeared, in a similar way, in countless other local authority documents.

But how has it subsequently been assessed?

While David Arditti notes that the original National Cycling Strategy document no longer appears to be available online, I have managed to find a document entitled ‘Delivery of the National Cycling Strategy: A Review’, which seems to date from 2005. This document only appears to be available in ‘cached’ form, as in the link provided – the original, again, has disappeared from the Department of Transport website.

Here is what this Review has to say –

The National Cycling Strategy (NCS) was launched in 1996. It was developed collaboratively by the public, private and NGO sectors, and was supported and endorsed by a wide range of stakeholders. It set a headline target to quadruple cycle trips by 2012 and a number of subsidiary targets concerning related issues such as land-use planning, safety and security.

Today most stakeholders accept that the original NCS target of quadrupling the number of cycle journeys by 2012 will not be achieved, although some of those consulted in this review have recommended that it be retained as a longer-term objective. In fact, over the last decade, the number of cycling stages in England has fallen by a fifth, from 20 stages per person per year in 1992/1994 to 16 in 2002/2003. Cycling currently makes up 1% of all trip stages.

So, even by 2005 (with seven years to go until 2012) the official consensus seemed to be that the ‘10%’ target was unrealistic, and should be abandoned – yet for some reason, some cycling campaigners thought it should be ‘retained’ , even though, with cycling levels decreasing to only 1% of all trips being made by bicycle in 2005, it was obviously never going to be met (although there is still a year to go – who knows!). Why those consulted felt the need to cling to this fantasy figure is something I will go on to speculate about, below.

They didn’t get their wish, in any case, as the ‘10%’ target had already been axed –

In The Future of Transport, the White Paper published by DfT in July 2004, the Department dropped the national target for cycling, as part of a wider rationalisation of its suite of targets. This reflected our assessment that the existence of an aspirational national target had not been effective in supporting better performance management of cycling by local authorities. While some local authorities have found the target useful – “it’s something to aim for” – many more considered it counter-productive at local level, since it is difficult to encourage political or officer commitment to take action to meet a target which is considered unattainable in the first place.

This begs the question of why targets that are considered ‘unattainable’ are even being set in the first place, especially when, according to the DfT, they seem to be discouraging commitment to action by being so unrealistic.

What happened to the target in West Sussex? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I can’t find specific reference to it in subsequent Transport Plans, either that for 2006 (LTP2) or this year (LTP3).

The best I could find was this graph, included without apparent embarrassment,  in the LTP2.

The dashed line shows the ‘projected’ target for cycling levels, as outlined in West Sussex’s year 2000 Local Transport Plan. It appears to show that the target, in the year 2000, was to increase cycling levels by 50%, based on a 1998 baseline figure, by 2005/6 (according to measured counts of cyclists on a small number of roads in major towns.) If that same rate of ‘projected’ increase continued to 2012, then cycling levels would, if my maths is right, have doubled from 1998.

A doubling is of course not quite the same thing as the ‘quadrupling’ proposed by the National Cycling Strategy – the same targets the Council thought they could ‘exceed.’

But even the council’s severely revised target was not met – and quite obviously so. The solid orange line shows clearly that cycling levels in West Sussex were completely stagnant over this period. The number of cyclists counted in 2004/5 was exactly the same as in 2001/2. There was never a hope of meeting the more modest 50% target, with the total lack of commitment exhibited towards cycling as a means of transport by West Sussex County Council.

And as we roll around into 2011, and the arrival of West Sussex’s LTP3, any talk of targets has completely disappeared off the radar.

The number of cycling trips are indeed being ‘monitored’, but without reference to any previous figures, and indeed without reference to any future target. We have a brand new 2010 ‘baseline’ (which is being measured at different locations from the LTP2 monitoring) which of course conveniently erases the history of a decade of a failure to increase cycling. This document, and the monitoring, tells us nothing. No doubt in the next LTP we will see flatlining figures for cycling over the previous five years. But this time, it won’t matter, because no targets have been set.

I suppose I should be thankful that my Council has abandoned all pretence of subscribing to targets, of any kind – perhaps they have been shamed into an embarrassed silence by the enormous disjuncture between the projected targets and the reality, and have learned their lesson.

But in other places, targets still seem to be quite popular. Boris has recently proposed a (pathetically modest) target of a 5% modal share by 2026. And despite signing up to the ‘10%’ target (by 2010, no less!) Edinburgh has conveniently forgotten this failure and moved on to a new target of 15% cycling share by 2020).

Constantly moving the goalposts like this is, of course, rather convenient. As Freewheeler, cynically, if accurately, puts it –

Cycling Action Plan…

Firstly, decide on your favourite modal share target (10 per cent is a very popular figure, for example). Be sure to set the target at least ten years in the future.

Secondly, tell all your friends how the target will be achieved with the aid of poster campaigns, winning respect for cycling, and cycle training.  A free extra-loud ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ whistle is included to blow at at those who would lose us ‘the right to ride’ by their unrealistic demands for Dutch-style segregated cycle paths.

And I think this gets to the nub of why the cycling campaigners consulted by the Department for Transport were so keen to keep the ‘10%’ target, despite the reality that it stood no chance of ever being met, and that the DfT had already lost interest, and scrapped it.

The target is a comfort blanket. It’s these individuals’ way of convincing themselves that cycling really, really is on the up, without apparently having to persuade any council or authority to do anything about actually improving the conditions for cycling – the ‘hard’ measures that the CTC and other groups seem to take such a profound and irrational dislike to. Even when they are quite aware the target is not going to be met, they still cling to the belief that it could be, and that there is not enough ‘marketing’ going on, or enough emphasis on how safe cycling actually is

 We’re two-thirds of the way through the period over which, according to the National Cycling Strategy (NCS), cycle use is supposed to double – and cycling is still unremittingly on the way down!

… Cycling should be repositioned by imagery that emphasises its practical advantages. Safety issues of any kind must be avoided, as should direct criticism of car use. Cycle facilities that attract criticism from existing cyclists can also be counter-productive. Market segmentation should choose the best targets, of which the journey to work by people in their 30s and 40s has much the best potential.

Despite the obvious failure of these kinds of strategies, they were, and are, being clung to.

The target, meanwhile, however distant and unrealistic, is there in black and white in fancy official documents, and that seems to be enough to keep them happy. It’s a way of avoiding facing up to the reality that the methods so dear to these groups are not working, and will never work, as a way of creating a mass cycling culture.

This entry was posted in CTC, Cycling policy, Cycling renaissance, Department for Transport, Targets, Uncategorized, West Sussex County Council, WSCC LTP. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fantasy cycling targets

  1. Mike Chalkley says:

    Bournemouth’s just published LTP3 similarly has no target figures for increase in modal share, just a load of waffly language saying how it will ‘encourage’ and ‘work towards’ increasing cycling.
    LTP2, which has just ended, DID have a target…. 10%! No, not an increase TO 10% but an increase OF 10%, over 5 years! Not surprisingly, with the general trend of more people riding bikes anyway, the council have proclaimed they ‘achieved their target’ of increasing cycling. The reasons given for not setting a target that would make any real difference was that ‘if we set a target and didn’t achieve it, we would lose funding in the future’. So the only real stick we had to get the council really trying to change things was thrown away by the council itself.
    Sometimes I really do feel like just giving up.
    Mike Chalkley
    Chair, Bournemouth Cycling Forum

  2. Tommi says:

    When you’ve had targets, whether realistic or not, and whether you met the targets or not, there are few important questions one should ask at the end: 1) what exactly did you do to try to reach the target? 2) what worked better and what went worse than estimated? 3) what would you do differently the next time?

    I can’t recall seeing any critical reviews leading me to believe whoever is planning these things isn’t interested in learning from decades of experience and will just keep on trying the same flawed ideas over and over and over again.

    It really shouldn’t take decades to learn the biggest obstacle for cycling is subjective fear and little paint on fast roads does not remove that fear. Actually I think that was known already decades ago, so why haven’t the planners learned from it? Or are they thinking the color of the paint is the crucial detail, just need to find the right soothing color?

  3. @Tommi, the answers to your questions are simple for West Sussex County Council to answer:

    1) Nothing
    2) Nothing
    3) Nothing


    As far as I can tell, West Sussex actually don’t want any more people cycling and getting in the way of those lovely motor cars. They are so car-focussed they can’t even see that getting “other people” out of cars and onto bikes is a Good Thing for people who want to drive everywhere.

    At least WSCC’s LTP3 was more honest that LTP1 and LTP2: they now have no plans to increase cycling, or to help people on bicycles at all. Their main targets are to make it easier to drive along the A27 and A23 (conveniently both roads funded by the Highways Agency!).

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