Boom and Bust – Breaking The Cycle

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You’ll have seen the headlines. “Pedal Power—The Unstoppable Growth of Cycling”, “Cycling Boom is Here to Stay”, that sort of thing. Cycling in the UK is in a renaissance period. It’s booming.

Meanwhile, in case it had escaped your attention, the Department for Transport recently released its road traffic estimates for 2015. In brief, motor traffic is up (vans especially so) and cycling is… er… well, cycling is down.

To be precise, it’s down 6% on last year (the figures are in page 17 of that document, or you can get more detailed ones here), which isn’t exactly a boom. Not that there really is a boom.

To be fair, last year’s drop doesn’t appear to suggest a downward trend—more likely the previous year’s figure was an anomalous spike—but there’s no denying that it’s not great news, especially when the level of cycling remains low and the underlying upward trend isn’t terribly impressive.

Possibly the most notable feature of the data, though, is the fact that the proportion of the national population who cycle three or more times per week has remained constant for a decade (page 18). This is the group that includes people who cycle for daily transport—which would suggest that much if not all of the alleged boom is leisure-related.

So why is utility cycling apparently going nowhere?

Utility Cycling
Utility Cycling?

The funding

Today, a Sustrans press release brought attention to the Government’s commitment to spending on cycling.

Government is consulting on a draft strategy, a process which will end today, but it currently includes a pitifully low level of investment. Under current plans Government will spend just £1.35 a year per person on boosting cycling. This falls short of its own pledge of £10 per person, and far shorter of the £17.35 which Sustrans has calculated is needed to reach the Government’s own target of doubling cycling.

In short: government is saying but not paying.

Cycling UK looked at the figures a few weeks ago and gave a more pessimistic prognosis:

Our findings make for grimmer reading than our initial prediction of £1.39 per head. [The] annual spend per head on cycling and walking outside of London drops from £2.07 to £0.72 over the next five years.

It would appear that both groups are looking at similar figures, but Cycling UK is (not unreasonably) inferring a downward trend in the per capita spend from current levels and is basing its newly-unveiled “More Than Milk” campaign on the 2020 figure.

In the cases of both Sustrans and Cycling UK there is actually a dual nature to the concern with this low (and declining) level of funding: one would reasonably expect organisations that promote cycling to promote funding for cycling, but there’s more to it than that.

Sustrans are highly dependent on local and national government money, and Cycling UK (previously CTC the National Cycling Charity, and before that the Cyclists’ Touring Club) appear to have their eyes on public sector pots of cash. The sums of money involved—around £60m per year—may be small in the context of a £15bn commitment to roadbuilding, but they’re very significant to organisations that turn over about £44m per year (Sustrans) or £6m per year (Cycling UK).

It should be noted, of course, that this whole discussion excludes London, where Transport for London is spending a little over £100m every year for the next decade. The rest of the country is being asked to get by on a little over £300m of national government money for the next five years.

But all of this raises some questions about how cycling is funded.

money funding

The funding model

The key point is one that’s brought into sharp focus by TfL’s markedly higher level of spending. TfL is an organisation which has holistic control over transport funding and distributes its resources across all manner of modes of transport. Whether politically led or otherwise, funding can be shifted to prioritise the provision for certain modes at certain times, hence the current level of investment in high-quality cycling infrastructure.

However, outside of London things are not the same. The Highways Agency provides the strategic road network (motorways and trunk roads: essentially, roads where cycling is either banned or suicidal) and local authorities provide the rest.

It’s not quite that simple, though. Local authorities have (potentially, at least) access to a number of funds of national money, such as those listed in Cycling UK’s breakdown above, but this additional drip-feed of money turns into an embarrassing feeding trough at the local level. Possibly the most notable use—or not, as it turned out—of this money was by the New Forest National Park Authority, who had to hand back a seven-figure sum of Local Sustainable Transport Fund money after, among other things, attempting to use some of it to resurface car parks. But it’s not the only example of the dubious use (some might even say embezzlement) of LSTF cash. West Sussex County Council has been criticised in detail for its use of sustainable transport money in Chichester and in Horsham. The common theme here and in numerous other schemes? No demonstrable benefit for cycling whatsoever, and/or a benefit for driving: neither fulfilling the purpose of the LSTF.

The notorious Bedford Turbo Roundabout is another shining example of poor use of national government cycling funding, this time £300,000 of the “Cycle Safety Fund”. (Here’s part three of a four-part criticism of it.) It won headlines by taking a Dutch design—the Dutch make the best cycling infrastructure, right?—but one small detail was overlooked: the turbo roundabout design is, whilst Dutch in origin, intended to optimise motor traffic flow. (Turns out the Dutch drive too; who knew?)

And who did we have supporting the Bedford Turbo Roundabout? Sustrans and CTC (as it then was). In fact, Sustrans were the distributor of the money: local authorities applied to them for national government cash. This, of course, means that most applications were wasted effort: they were speculative plans, seemingly often set out with little expertise in cycling infrastructure (remember, Bedford was considered one of the best ones) trying to win public money from a non-governmental organisation. It’s a fairly astonishing mechanism, which wastes effort and fails to propagate best design practices.

Just as Mark Treasure asks, “Would you design a road like that?” one has to ask, would you fund a road like that?

After a tidal wave of criticism about the scheme, CTC published an explanation of why they backed it, the central point of which was this:

In our discussions, we gave thought to telling DfT, “sorry—too many of these schemes are not good enough, you’ll have to take the money back and sort out your regulations to permit better schemes to come forward.” However, we decided that this would be counterproductive: budget underspends are damaging for long term funding prospects, and we also wanted to make sure that more money would come for similar schemes in the future.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to sympathise with the CTC’s penultimate paragraph in that piece:

Ultimately, this is the sort of compromise solution that we end up with when there is insufficient political will to reduce traffic, and a lack of adequate regulations to permit the approach that would be taken as standard in the Netherlands. Along with other groups, we in CTC are lobbying to change that. Attacking those who are trying to muddle through under current conditions isn’t particularly helpful.

Many of the regulatory issues have since been fixed in the revised Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions legislation, but the problem of political will remains.

But, essentially, the logic is this: if we don’t approve something, the cash will dry up, so whatever we do we should approve something.

It’s certainly something.

Such is the state of affairs when cycling is funded by piecemeal funds which can be tossed around by politicians almost whimsically.

The mainstream model

Cycling is funded differently because, in the UK, it’s seen differently. It’s not seen as a mainstream mode of transport, so it isn’t funded as one. And since it isn’t funded as one, it doesn’t become one. And so on. Cycling money pays for unconnected tweaks around the edges of a motor-centric network, but it never truly becomes part of the network because it’s not funded by the money that pays for that network.

Yet, in London, it is. It is mainstream because over the last couple of years it’s been funded as a mainstream mode of transport. And when the infrastructure was finally opened, this is what happened.

Of course, it’s something of an irony that Sustrans posted this video, because this was achieved without the absurdity of giving national government money to a charity and then having that charity take applications from local government authorities for pieces of that money.

This was achieved (without wishing to overlook the political will of Andrew Gilligan, the London Cycling Campaign and others) by treating cycling as a valid mode of transport and investing in it from the same pot of cash that invests in other modes. It was a choice to distribute resources in a certain way at a local level.

What it took in London was the political balls to say that cycling is a valid means of transport; and not only a valid one but a beneficial one.

London has probably the most acute local transport issues in the country, and—because of this—it has chosen to provide for cycling out of its single pot of transport money. There is no need to grab scraps handed out by a charity acting on behalf of national government, which means there’s also no point in pretending to be spending on cycling and walking when in reality the money is being used to assist motor traffic.

What it took in London was the political balls to say that cycling is a valid means of transport; and not only a valid one but a beneficial one.

And from outside London, all we can do is look on in envy and wonder when other authorities might muster the same political balls; when cycling might be provided for by highways budgets, rather than being thrown assorted sops that are curiously routed away from and back into government via distributor charities and which often seem to be spent on highly questionable schemes.

What’s the real problem here: the funding, or the funding model?

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