Update: 10 May 2020, 22:05.
The day after publishing the article below, the Government updated its advice regarding the coronavirus pandemic with Boris Johnson moving away from the ‘stay home’ messaging and instead saying that people should be encouraged to go back to work where they cannot work from home.
This advice is dubious at the current stage of the pandemic as it is, but Mr Johnson then said that workers should avoid public transport as far as possible – a far point given social distancing requirements – and that people should drive to work. He then said that it would be even better if people walked or cycled to work.
In this one statement, the Prime Minister has done significant damage to any good will built up in the funding announcement from the day before. He has prioritised people going to work by car, only adding in walking and cycling as secondary modes. Many people will just hear the instruction to ‘drive to work’, tuning out from the afterthought that perhaps people might walk or cycle to work.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease and as such its effects may be exaserbated by air pollution of which road transport plays a significant part in normal times. Outside of the coronavirus, the climate emergency is still a thing. If people are to go back to work (which it can be argued is a bad idea at present anyway), a sudden return to excessive motor traffic, congestion, traffic jams, and toxic air is not going to do anybody any favours.
The messaging on Sunday evening should have been clear: stay at home. For those who absolutely must go to work and cannot work from home, avoid public transport and either walk or cycle. Only drive as a last resort where it is the only viable option.
On Sunday morning, following a Guardian article about plans to close roads around schools at school-run times, I had started to think that just maybe a shift in attitudes was occurring. Just twelve hours later, I’m not convinced.
On Saturday 09 May, Grant Shapps announced a £2bn package for cycling and walking intended to double cycling rates and increase walking over the next five years, by 2025. On the surface, this looks like welcome news – but is it as good as it perhaps seems?
Back in 2013 the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group recommended a sustained budget for cycling infrastructure of between £10 and £20 per person (Get Britain Cycling, page 7) – that would equate to between roughly £650m to £1.3bn per year. Some campaign groups have called for more, with £3bn per year being provided over five years to kick-start a rapid expansion of high-quality cycle networks before settling down to £1.5bn per year.
Even at the lower end of the recommended budgetary range then, this new announcement of £2bn over five years unfortunately falls short, equating to the equivalent of just £400m per year shared between the two modes of transport, cycling and walking.
Additionally, the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group tweeted shortly after the announcement that this package is actually part of a pre-existing commitment to spend £5bn on cycling and public transport. So, this is not new money. Rather, it is a new announcement of an existing policy. Of course, that doesn’t make the money unwelcome but if anyone were to think this was in addition to what had already been promised, they will surely be disappointed.
The commitment to funding for cycling over a five year period has to be welcomed and despite the money having already been promised, it is an increase over what has gone for years before. So, credit has to be given where it is due. However, it is unfortunate and disappointing that the Government still have not taken on-board the advice given in a cross-party report to provide the funding that is needed.
My concern is that with a limited pot of money available, most will end up being allocated to cities and large towns leaving smaller areas with little to no new funding. These areas need cycle connections too, of course. Village links to nearby towns, commuters accessing train stations, residents visiting local shops etc. It would be a failure of planning to miss out these communities where public transport alternatives to cars may be fewer than exist already in city areas.
Moving away from money and looking at the ambition, here the Government really does fall short. 2018 statistics show that in England alone just 2% of trips are currently made by cycling, just 1% of all distances travelled. Between 2002 and 2008 there has actually been a decline of 5% in the number of trips taken by bike (although the mileage doubled). In other words, cycling in the UK is starting from a low base level.
The government’s aim to double trips over five years would mean by 2025, still only 4% of trips would be made by cycling, covering just 2% of distances travelled. It is, frankly, an extremely unambitious target but one that probably fits with the still low budget allocation.
But to be positive, money for cycling is certainly welcome. Even if this is a rehashed announcement of money from back in February, these are cautiously encouraging signs from the government. Maybe, given time, the benefit of cycling and walking will be properly realised and prioritised ahead of motor traffic.
We’re not there yet and now is not the time to take pressure of politicians to properly fund cycling infrastructure. But this is a step in the right direction.
Cover image: Matt Brown (https://flic.kr/p/RgTmFd) – CC BY 2.0