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.
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.
Another picture from “Carscapes”, of Leeds today. The war on the motorist in evidence pic.twitter.com/O2KUsvcU
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) February 15, 2013
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.
At 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.