The Department for Transport (DfT) has today published its long-awaited Local Transport White Paper, as well as guidance on the much-heralded Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). Some big news from cycling’s point of view is a guaranteed £11 million over the next year for Bikeability, and the government has confirmed its pledge to support the training scheme, which operates in England & Wales, for the lifetime of the current parliament.
However, £11m definitely earmarked for cycling is a lot less than the £60m Cycling England had to spend annually cycling will have to compete for the rest and, as a Bike It instructor in Swindon has already found out, when that happens cycling can lose out.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker told the House of Commons that the White Paper and the LSTF were designed to turn into reality the government’s vision “for a transport system that helps create growth in the economy, and tackles climate change by cutting our carbon emissions.”
While the LSTF ringfences money for cycling, walking and local transport initiatives, a measure welcomed by Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, the fact remains that cycling will now have to compete for funding with other alternative modes of transport at a time when Cycling England is due to be abolished as part of the government’s “Bonfire of the Quangos.”
At exactly the time the government was launching its white paper the funding gap opened by the demise of Cycling England and indeed the gap between government rhetoric on LSTFs and reality was illustrated by the case of Ruth James, Swindon's Bike It officer who faces the prospect of losing her job in April when Cycling England's share of the funding of her role ends. Ms James is one of 58 Bikeability officers in the UK whose job it is to work with schools to help promote cycling. Commenting on the funding shortfall that may cost Ms James her job a spokesman for Swindon Council told the Swindon Advertiser:
"“The Bike It officer is an employee of the charity Sustrans, and the council has committed to fund a third of the cost of the post because there is a clear benefit to Swindon from the work that is done.
“Unfortunately the cuts in the grants that make up the rest of the funding for the job are not something the council can control.
“We will now have to examine how we proceed from here, taking into account the competing priorities that we have and the budget pressures that we face.”
Outlining support for greener transport alternatives as part of an overall strategy that has as one of its chief aims the reduction of carbon emissions, Mr Baker said: “In the immediate term, addressing shorter, local trips offers huge potential in helping to grow the economy and tackle climate change.
“Shorter trips are important - two-thirds of all journeys are under five miles. Walking, cycling and public transport are all real, greener alternatives for such trips.
“What’s more, we know that people who travel to the shops on foot, by bicycle or by public transport can spend more per head than those who travel by car – and research shows that improvements to the public realm can increase turnover in the high street by 5 to 15%.
“Increased sustainable travel also helps tackle congestion, which is a drag on business causing excess delays in urban areas at a cost of around £11 billion per annum.
“And let us not forget the further benefits that follow a shift to more sustainable transport – benefits to the air we breathe, to our levels of fitness, and the money in our pockets as well.
“Investment in sustainable transport helps make our towns and cities healthier and more attractive places to live, work and shop,” he continued.
“This White Paper sets out how we can encourage the uptake of more sustainable modes at local level, and the unprecedented £560 million we have allocated in our new ‘Local Sustainable Transport Fund’ will support this. Our commitment to helping local authorities with this vital agenda is reaffirmed by the amount of money we are making available.
“The Local Sustainable Transport Fund forms part of a wider picture of more streamlined and simplified funding to local authorities. This will give local authorities more power and flexibility to meet local transport needs,” Mr Baker added.
That latter point of course ties in very much with the coalition’s ‘Big Society’ strategy, built around a devolution – some critics might say abdication – of decision-making to the local level, others will say it simply devolves the blame for cuts to a local level shielding central government from the flak that will inevitably be aimed at cash-strapped local authorities struggling to balance their budgets, when the inevitable diffiuclt and unpopular decisions have to be made. For instance, what happens when a council has to choose between filling potholes or building cycle facilities? Smoother roads make for more efficient motoring and lower carbon emmissions so expect attempts to raid the LTSFs to fill that funding hole.
Malcolm Shepherd, chief executive of Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, who while welcoming the ring-fencing of money for walking, cycling and public transport, but warned that the benefits of this could be offset by cuts in transport budgets at local authority level, with a 26% reduction in 2011/12 alone.
“The Local Sustainable Transport Fund is timely and welcome but there’s a compelling argument for a far greater proportion of transport spend to be earmarked to increase people’s local travel choices, especially at a time when local transport spending is set to be reduced by over a quarter next year,” he explained.
“From Sustrans’ work we know that investment in sustainable transport is low risk with the potential for high returns. As local authorities now consider their bid for funding we would urge them to unlock massive potential for change and expand the choices people have for getting around locally by walking, cycling or using public transport."
Although not mentioned by Mr Shepherd, also of concern to cycling groups must be the fact that some local authorities will be tempted to try and secure funding through the LSTF for projects such as road widening schemes that don't exactly fit within even the widest definition of sustainable travel, although they presumably will seek to justify them by pointing to the fact that they will reduce congestion.
Mr Baker added however that there were “some initiatives that benefit from a single national approach,” the most important, from a cycling perspective, being “providing £11m funding for Bikeability cycle training next year, to allow 275,000 ten to eleven-year-olds to benefit from ‘on-road’ cycle training.”
He also pledged “a commitment to support Bikeability for the duration of this parliament, which will allow as many children as possible to undertake high quality cycle training.”
While that commitment, and the £11 million funding, are clearly to be welcomed, it does make the axing of Cycling England, which cost £300,000 a year to run, all the more perplexing since a new infrastructure will presumably have to be put in place within the DfT to support it, which in itself will create more expense.
Another of those initiatives was designed to improve “end-to-end journeys by encouraging transport operators, and those involved in promoting cycling and car clubs or sharing, to work together, to provide better information and integrate tickets and timetables.”
Having said that, from a cyclist’s point of view, making it easier to travel with a bike and ensuring adequate levels of secure cycle parking at railway stations would be pretty high on the wishlist.
Also on the agenda is “setting out in a strategic framework for road safety, by spring 2011, how to ensure that Britain’s roads are among the world’s safest.”
However, that’s difficult to square with one of the first acts performed by the coalition government when it came to power when it slashed the Road Safety Grant by 40% and also announced that money would no longer be provided for speed cameras, as it brought to an end what it termed 'The War on the Motorist.'
National cyclists' organisation CTC also welcomed news of the LSTF which it believes will "'nudge' people towards greener transport choices," but said that "better cycle-friendly planning and design are also needed in order to maximse the effectiveness of travel behaviour interventions.
It added that the White Paper and LSTF "show a welcome shift in DfT's willingness to fund cycle training and other 'smarter choices' measures to encourage people to promote sustainable transport options."
CTC's statement continued: "Previously, local transport funding was dominated by capital funding (i.e. funding to build roads and manage traffic) at the expense of revenue funding, which can be used to influence travel behaviour.
"Measures such as cycle training, personalised travel planning, and projects such CTC's Cycle Champions, Bike Club and Workplace Cycle Challenge programmes are already proving highly cost-effective at increasing cycle use among employees, youth groups, health patients, minority and disadvantaged groups."
CTC added that it "looks forward to working with local authorities to spread these activities more widely around England," but warned that it was "concerned that the White Paper does little to improve design of the road layout and cycle infrastructure, both of which need to be improved to ensure that programmes that encourage people to take up cycling have a long term effect on people's behaviour."
Roger Geffen CTC's Campaigns Director, said, "More funding for effective promotional activities will certainly give cycling a boost, but we remain concerned that there isn't enough attention being paid to ensuring that any physical provision for cyclists meets the standards set out in Government guidance."
He continued: "Poor design of cycle facilities and road layouts are major concerns for cyclists and significant barriers to cycling for non-cyclists. While we are very pleased with the investment in influencing people's travel choices, it is disappointing that today's White Paper omits any reference to the Government's own guidance on the principles of neighbourhood-friendly streets and cycle-friendly design solutions.
"Conditions on our roads remain intimidating for many people, and measures such as quality cycle training can only achieve their full potential value-for-money when highway authorities stop producing dreadfully designed "cycle facilities" which are often worse than useless.
"There is a crying need to improve the design skills of Britain's transport planners if large numbers of people are to take up cycling as a healthy, efficient and money-saving transport option."
CTC also said that it was "concerned" about some of the details as regards criteria for the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.
"The urban transport policy failures of the last 60 years mean that the combined costs to society of air pollution, physical inactivity and road casualties are three times greater than those due to congestion, a point recognised by the Local Transport White Paper," it said.
"It is therefore vital that local authorities should not simply view the LSTF's economic growth objective as being all about tackling congestion. Councils which try to squeeze capacity for extra traffic flow on our already over-crowded roads will only worsen the other three problems, with serious costs to the economy as well as to our quality of life."
Mr Geffen added: "Encouraging more people to cycle helps tackle congestion, reduces greenhouse and pollutant emissions and casualties and promotes physical activity all at once, while saving money for councils and the public into the bargain.
"As councils finalise their Local Transport Plans and develop their Sustainable Transport funding bids in these economically straightened times, we hope they will recognise that cycling really is the best value-for-money solution for all of these problems".
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.