Maybe you didn’t notice, but you’ve had your investment already

If you read the headlines, you might hear that Transport for London are spending ONE BILLION POUNDS ON CYCLISTS. Or that they are spending FIFTY MILLION POUNDS ON ONE CYCLE ROUTE FOR CYCLISTS. Crazy, right? That’s a huge some of money to be spending on a cycle route. What have cyclists done to deserve all that cash?

One response is of course to point that these big, scary sums of money are actually quite trivial in terms of the overall transport spend in London. Ranty Highwayman has already done the sums, so I don’t have to go over the same ground, but to take just one example, just stopping the Hammersmith Flyover from falling down cost £100 million – basic road maintenance on an ageing bridge for motoring easily outstrips all the spending on cycling infrastructure in London, thus far.

But another way of approaching this issue is to place ‘spending on cycling’ in historical context. Let’s take, say, the Blackfriars Underpass, just one small part of the contemporary east-west Superhighway route. It was built in 1967, to facilitate the flow of motor traffic. As is apparent from the film below, the convenience, comfort and safety of anyone walking and cycling in the area did not feature in the scheme.

In ‘1967 money’ it cost £2.6m, which funnily enough is equivalent to around fifty million pounds today – more than the entire cost of the east-west Superhighway itself.

Or take the aforementioned Hammersmith Flyover, a structure designed purely to facilitate the flow of private motor traffic, built in 1960 at a cost of £1.3m, which in today’s money equates to around £27 million. For – effectively – an 800 metre bridge across a roundabout.

Or take Park Lane, widened at around the same time to six lanes, at the expense of 20 acres of Hyde Park and a number of buildings, at a cost, in contemporary terms, of roughly £21 million, again for a very short stretch of road.

Or the Westway and West Cross Route, part of the (aborted) inner London motorway box, built in the late 1960s at a total cost of £36.5m, or around half a billion pounds in today’s money.

I could of course go on, listing scheme after scheme just in London, without even touching on other major projects in other British towns and cities. In reality, the twentieth century was a period in which our entire road and street system was reshaped and rebuilt to favour motoring, at enormous expense, and at tremendous cost to cycling in particular, but also of course upon walking.

Leeds city centre. A colossal rebuilding of the urban environment, all for one mode of transport.

Leeds city centre. A colossal rebuilding of the urban environment, all for one mode of transport.

Roads did not spontaneously arrange themselves into the kinds of form shown in the picture above. Political decisions were taken to shape our towns and cities around the car, a programme that required vast sums of money to be spent. ‘The natural order of things’ that is today being challenged by a small number of cycling schemes on a tiny, tiny proportion of the overall road network is not ‘natural’ at all – it’s the outcome of political choices, made over several decades. Just because we’re living in that environment today without appreciating how it came into being doesn’t make those political choices any less real.

It’s also worth pointing out that, at the time many of these decisions were being made, the motor car was still very much a minority mode of transport.

Car ownershipAt the time of the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report in 1963, there were only 6.4 million cars in Britain, for a population of 54 million people. Of course, car use was growing, and may have continued to grow, even without any of the changes to the built environment that were occurring both before and after the Buchanan report. But I think it’s reasonable to point out that, essentially, you end up with the kind of transport use that you plan for. If you build very big roads in your towns and cities that make it easy to drive about, and difficult or inconvenient (or even dangerous and intolerable) to walk and cycle about, then we shouldn’t be surprised which mode of transport people decide to use for short trips.

As well as undoing the twentieth century’s failure to consider existing, established modes of transport in road design, the investment in cycling infrastructure that is taking place in Britain (albeit barely scratching the surface in London and a handful of other cities, and non-existent pretty much everywhere else) is really just an attempt to tip the scales slightly back the other way, towards a mode of transport that has never seen investment in any significant way, and that was erased from our towns and cities by an enormous historical programme of investing in motoring that we don’t notice today because its effects upon our built environment are so ubiquitous.

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3 Responses to Maybe you didn’t notice, but you’ve had your investment already

  1. Notak says:

    The worrying thing, with hindsight, is how utopian those schemes were generally perceived – not just by drivers – at the time.

  2. rdrf says:

    I think the argument – that loads of money has been spent on creating a more car dependent society – gets more traction when tacked on to another one. That additional argument is that drivers should be paying significantly more than they are at present in order to account for what economists call their “external costs” – quite apart from the huge wodges of money being currently directed for more road building.

    That is the conventional economists’ way of doing things (through cost-benefit analysis) and as such is open to the charge that it is part of the problem. Indeed, there is something obscene about totting up the costs of ill health due to noxious emissions from motors, deaths and injuries from crashes, ill health of drivers who don’t get physical activity, etc. Also it doesn’t make it OK for drivers to sever my community with a bigger road and more motor traffic because they might pay a nominal sum for the inconvenience involved. And – guess what – cost-benefit analysis always tends to favour the status quo.

    Nevertheless, it is worth looking at how the costs of driving have gone down in so-called “real terms ” (e.g. against an indicator bringing in inflation, which is itself a statistical artefact).

    This is all discussed in some posts here: and and

  3. Mark Williams says:

    Not so much `natural’ or `invisible’, as taken completely for granted in each case. One of my grandmothers always used to claim that it was `impossible’ to live without a motor car, despite never having a motoring permit herself or even laying eyes on an actual motor car until well into her adult life. Later generations have literally only ever known motoring monomania, so it is perhaps understandable that the less imaginative and more inward-looking types (politicians) cannot envisage doing things any other way.

    A large proportion of the current `investment’ is being frittered away on motoring-centric cycle `facilities’—e.g. shuffling about motor car `parks’, tinkering with motor traffic lights, etc. The charitable explanation is that UK highway engineers simply cannot conceive of any of `their’ projects which are not first and foremost about benefiting motoring…

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