Friday, 4 January 2013

Investment in cycling, really?

In Scotland we have free personal care for the elderly, free undergraduate higher education for Scottish students and free bus passes which even mean Scottish older people and disabled people can travel on intercity buses for free. And now the government announces £3.9 millions investment in cycling provision. Truly, the country is a green, social democratic utopia.

You might detect a hint of sarcasm in the above paragraph. When I first saw this announcement I initially thought it was a good thing – the government have at last realised that building decent cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities is a “shovel-ready project” (it just needs some TROs, very rarely planning permission) that ticks green and public health boxes. As ever, the devil is in the detail. The vast majority of this investment is going on a tourist cycle path along the Great Glen, with £500,000 on cycle parking at stations on the Bathgate-Airdrie line and £400,000 on new bike parking at primary schools.

To apply some basic policy analysis thinking to this, it is quite clear that this will not solve the policy problem it is intended to. The policy problem is that people make unsustainable transport choices – they drive their car for short journeys that could otherwise be done on foot or bike adding to congestion and pollution. The policy outcome we want to achieve in the short term is modal shift in transport choice. In the long term this will lead to positive outcomes in terms of health and carbon emissions (possibly on the latter). Investing £3 millions in a tourist cycle route away from our large towns and cities is not going to produce modal shift. It would be interesting to follow this with a baseline survey to see if anyone at all decides to cycle this route instead of driving it once the cycle route is complete. Like new road building, I imagine this will just create more journeys by bike and marginal economic development opportunities around outdoor activities tourism  along the route.

When it comes to the other £900,000 then this will be an utter waste of money. The basic problem is – parents do not want their children to cycle to school because the roads are not safe. People will not cycle to the train stations in great numbers because the roads are unwelcoming and dangerous to all but the most fit and active cyclists. You see this quite a lot because cycling infrastructure in terms of pointlessly short cycle lanes and cycle parking are usually requirements of planning permission these days. Planning conditions can only be applied if they are directly related to the development and most commonly are therefore also on site. But because all this new infrastructure is not connected to anything approaching a strategically planned, joined-up network of cycling infrastructure it remains underused to all but the most enthusiastic cyclists. I would hazard a guess that bike parking is a condition of building the new, identikit, Scottish Futures Fund schools across Scotland (that are replacing buildings that should be listed with ersatz white harling and grey windows crap; but that’s a whole other blog post) have to include bike parking. I would also hazard a guess that outside of affluent suburbs, this infrastructure is massively under used. As this rather depressing post from the Richmond Cycling Campaign showed – kids are really enthusiastic about cycling in the safety of a school playground but our roads are simply too dangerous for them to feel comfortable on.

And I don’t wish to question the Scottish Government’s pledge to deliver “sustainable economic growth” too much, but the First Minister does seem rather more keen to support the oil and gas industry than green transport solutions.

/edit two hours later - after an interesting debate on twitter I thought I should clarify what wouldn't be a waste of money. What would be much better is if £400,000 was spent on cycle lanes to one primary school and cycle parking there. This would, the evidence suggests, deliver a big modal shift at that school and also become a demonstrator for how future investment in roads can deliver modal shift. 

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