Institutional priorities

A few months ago I attended the Hackney Cycling Conference, and heard a presentation by Robin Lovelace, entitled Cycling and transport policy: embedding active travel in every stage of the planning process.

Unsurprisingly – given the title – there was an interesting section of the talk on how weakly embedded walking and cycling is within the Department for Transport. In particular, Robin focused on the board structure of the Department, showing precisely how small a priority these important modes of transport are within it. He used the equivalent of the chart below, which has of course changed following the cabinet reshuffle.

Out of all the people shown on this chart, just one civil servant – highlighted right at the bottom – has explicit responsibility for walking and cycling.


We can see this more clearly by zooming in on this bottom left section.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 14.33.25

Tellingly, ‘Local Transport’ is itself embedded within the ‘Roads, Devolution and Motoring Group’, and even within ‘Local Transport’ walking and cycling comes right at the bottom – not even mentioned explicitly by name, instead bundled up as ‘sustainable accessible travel’. It really is the lowest of the low.

Given this structure, is it any surprise that walking and cycling garner so little attention and such low levels of investment, despite their fundamental importance?

The priorities of the Department for Transport also emerge from the imagery they use. This stock photo – spotted by @AlternativeDfT – appears frequently on their website.

Amongst other things, it has been used for road safety announcements –

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 14.40.11

… and, amazingly, even for an announcement of Local Sustainable Transport Funding.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 14.41.52

The junction shown in the photograph is Tower Gateway, right by the Tower of London. It is a particularly revealing choice, because while the photograph shows motor traffic smoothly flowing across the junction, it is a truly dreadful environment for walking and cycling.

To take just one example, let’s imagine we wanted to walk from the left of the photograph, to the right – from the north side of Mansell Street, to the Tower of London. You might imagine you could just cross the road in one go – the green arrow. But as it turns out travelling this short distance actually involves eight separate pedestrian crossings.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 16.08.16This is how pedestrians are expected to cross the road at a junction the Department for Transport has chosen to illustrate its role. Needless to say the cycling environment is, if anything, even worse – a vast expanse of tarmac, shared with HGVs and heavy traffic, somewhere only a small minority of people would even consider cycling in the first place. The east-west superhighway does now run across the top of this junction – with improved pedestrian crossings to the west – but that’s about it. Anyone cycling here has essentially been abandoned.

This isn’t just any junction; it’s a junction in the heart of our capital city, a place teeming with people. It’s somewhere that walking and cycling should be explicitly prioritised. But instead people walking and cycling here are treated with contempt – marginalised, and ignored. And this is the image of transport that the DfT is using.

The priorities that this junction embodies are an exact parallel of the board structure of the organisation. Cycling and walking as an afterthought, if that, the very bottom of the heap when it comes to consideration. And this is how the Department of Transport will continue to function, without institutional change. Still stuck in the past, still focused on prioritising motoring at the expense of sensible, space-efficient ways of making short trips, the kinds of trips that form the bulk of all the trips we make.

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6 Responses to Institutional priorities

  1. Can you sue the DfT for being neglectful of cycling, walking, and even drivers because they’ve consistently failed to introduce Sustainable Safety despite it’s proven effectiveness and that they have the responsibility to protect us to the greatest degree of their powers but deliberately chose not to?

  2. Bmblbzzz says:

    Technical note: click to embiggen on the first image does not work (in Opera, FYI).

  3. Bmblbzzz says:

    It’s telling also that “sustainable accessible travel” covers, presumably, cycling and walking and specific concerns for wheelchair access, blind pedestrians, etc, and that it does all this only within the context of local transport. Cycling or walking as a means of getting from one town to another do not seem to feature whatsoever.

  4. Bmblbzzz: The small team at the Department for Transport (DfT) headed up by Pauline Reeves would be better described as “Sustainable AND Accessible Travel”. In other words, the SAT team deals with cycling and walking *and* the accessibility needs of disabled users of the transport system. Note though that SAT does not deal with public transport (except to the extent that accessible transport inevitably overlaps significantly with public transport). There is a separate “buses and taxis” team which, like the SAT team, also sits inside the Local Transport Directorate. Meanwhile there is a very large rail group, and another whole group dealing with High Speed Rail. This can all be seen on the full DfT organogram at

    As of June 2016 (when I last got hold of the SAT team’s own organogram), SAT included 25 people – not all of them working full time though.

    The point still stands though that DfT devotes a tiny amount of its organisational resource to walking, cycling and accessible transport.

    • Mark Williams says:

      All the more astonishing then if it was one group who came up with regulations for tactile paving which is simultaneously unpleasant to cycle on and difficult to `read’ with a white stick. That might have been more understandable had it been two subdivisions trying to score points off each other!

      OTOH, the fact that it is all one DFT team might explain why highway authorities are so encouraged to create `shared’ footways which promote conflict between walking and cycling—the classic silo mentality in action…

      I have my doubts that cabinet reshuffles result in any significant change to this diagram. DFT’s take on devolution seems quite comical, too: `if it’s not London or “the North”, we don’t want to know’ ;-).

  5. Paul Mason says:

    As always, Mark, very interesting and informative. Your articles provide a constant source of inspiration.

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