Last year Norman Baker – sitting alongside ex-road safety minister Mike Penning – told the Transport Select Committee that Britain has a better safety record for cycling than the Netherlands, because fewer people, per 100,000 of the population, die cycling in Britain than in the Netherlands. This meant – according to him – we don’t have much to learn from the Netherlands about cycle safety.
These statements (partly) provoked a column by the Guardian’s Peter Walker, bewailing the fact that when it comes to cycling policy we are in the hands of dimwits –
Baker’s response was astonishing, not least because, as the sole Lib Dem in the DfT he is, in theory, the department’s voice of cycling. Statistics, he said, showed that the Netherlands actually had higher cycling casualty rates than the UK: “What we can learn from the Netherlands, in my view, is probably not safety issues, particularly.”
[…] Baffled – it’s more or less universally known that cycling in the Netherlands is considerably safer than here – I called the DfT press office. The response was amazing. Baker and Penning were quoting casualty rates per 100,000 people. That’s right, a statistic which takes no account of the fact that the average Dutch national cycles around 10 times further per year than the average Briton.
After that impressive performance in 2012, I am pleased to report that Norman has sprung back into action, with yet another misleading statistical comparison between Britain and the Netherlands.
Not content with informing us that Britain is apparently the safer country to cycle in, Baker is now telling us that more money is spent on cycling here, per capita, than the equivalent spend by the Dutch government –
The Coalition Government’s level of funding for cycling compares very favourably with other European countries. In this Parliament we have allocated £3.50 (€4.20) per person per year to cycling (based on £277 million invested since 2010 directly for cycling and the £600 million allocated for the Local Sustainable Transport Fund where 94 out of 96 projects contain a cycling element). For example, research by the European Cyclists’ Federation states that national funding in Denmark is only around €4 and around €3 in the Netherlands—two countries recognised for their commitment to cycling.
Baker is claiming here that ‘national funding’ for cycling in the Netherlands is around €3 euro per person, per year, which falls below the amount of money ‘we’ (i.e. Government) have allocated to cycling in Britain, per person, per year, since 2010. The source for this figure of €3 seems to be this ECF fact sheet, which states that the Dutch government spends €49m per year on cycling, which – with a population of around 16 million people, does indeed work out at about €3 per person, per year.
The problem with this figure, however – as several Dutch residents pointed out to me on Twitter – is that only a very small proportion of cycle funding in the Netherlands comes directly from central government. This figure of €49m is in fact only 12% of the total €410m spent each year on cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands, according to this very same ECF fact sheet, which amounts to a rather more impressive €26 per person, per year. The great bulk of the spending on Dutch infrastructure flows through towns, cities and provinces, not directly from central government.
So this is statistical sleight of hand by Baker – it is the equivalent of claiming that money the Dutch government has allocated to councils for spending isn’t actually spending at all; only the money spent, directly, by central government counts. To make an accurate comparison with Britain, Baker should surely only compare the money spent on cycling by central government here, through the Highways Agency.
But he hasn’t done that – he’s added up all the tiny sums of money spent on cycling by councils and by central government in a rather silly and transparent attempt to make his government look far better than it actually does.
And not just money spent on cycling; oh no, he’s even chucked in the entire Local Sustainable Transport Fund spending into his sums, on the grounds that many of the projects have ‘a cycling element’.
Well, yes… But of course in reality only a fraction of that £600m is actually being spent on cycling. The academic Rachel Aldred estimates it to be around 10% of the total LSTF pot, while Matt Turner has been compiling an LSTF spreadsheet which shows cycle spending to be, at best, around 30% of the total spend in the LSTF projects he’s examined so far. So Baker has included hundreds of millions of pounds of spending on projects that don’t involve cycling, at all, in his comparison between the two countries.
The more you examine this, the more and more dishonest it looks. Not only has Baker made a comparison between the total amount of money spent across Britain on cycling with the tiny percentage spend directly on cycling by Dutch central government, he’s even included a huge amount of spending that has nothing to do with cycling. Baker should, quite obviously, be comparing British spending specifically on cycling with the €410m spent per annum in the Netherlands.
It is also important to mention that this €410m total figure for the Netherlands does not even tell the whole story, as David Hembrow (in an update to an earlier post) explains. Total spending actually amounts to €487m, but even this doesn’t include spending on cycle parking, or on non-infrastructure measures, that have undoubtedly been included in Baker’s tallying up. Dutch officials estimate that spending on these measures is roughly equivalent to the €487m spent per annum on infrastructure.
And beyond this, as David Hembrow notes, a huge amount of cycle spending in the Netherlands is actually invisible, coming as it does from other departments – ‘only where something exceptional is needed do the funds come from the cycling budget.’
So, all things considered, this is really quite an embarrassing attempt by Baker to suggest parity between the two countries. Britain is still spending a pitifully small amount on cycling.