OPINION

More money to come for cycling?

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"Jam tomorrow" not an ideal approach for green transport in a climate emergency

What did we get for cycling in the budget? Well, according to Cycling UK, nothing new, but these items were in there:

  • £36m for an “iconic new Central Park Bridge in Plymouth,
  • £79m for new cycleways in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole”
  • £1bn from the Transforming Cities Fund, and a further £800m for bus and cycling infrastructure.
  • Further details on a Comprehensive Spending Review in summer, along with a national bus strategy.
  • New potholes fund, with £500m a year, which is a 50% increase in local roads maintenance budgets in 2020/21.
  • £10m for a new cycle route between Nottingham, Derby and East Midlands Airport – (possibly a section of the HS2 Cycleway)

These projects are of course something, but they are nothing to the £27bn of tarmac Rishi Sunak pledged for major roads.

Sources in the Department for Transport say the real money for cycling will be coming this year, however. How much money, and the details of how it will be spent, and on what, is yet to be revealed.

With a climate crisis already here, and air pollution and congestion toxic in many of our towns and cities, it’s frustrating the cash hasn’t come yet. What’s more, funding for cycling runs out at the end of this financial year, i.e. next month. We don’t yet know how the £1bn-plus pledged for cycling from last month’s buses and cycling announcement will be spent, or indeed, when. Perhaps it will plug the gap.  

The fact is, if active travel funding is not deployed soon, the government will struggle to meet its own targets – the ones it’s set to miss under current levels of funding – like the ambition of doubling cycling from 2% to 4% of all trips by 2025, and of building the 250 miles of cycleways, that were promised in the Conservative manifesto. There are five years to deliver all of this. 

It was a struggle to get less than that built in London, where then mayor Boris Johnson’s cycling tsar Andrew Gilligan could keep tracks on boroughs in person – and keep an astonishing level of detail on schemes, roads and routes in his head. As advisor to Boris in no. 10 he will need help at a national level to keep tabs on those details, and to deliver. This role could be taken by a body akin to the long-scrapped Cycling England, though it would probably encompass walking, to reflect the growing interest and importance in providing for pedestrians – and rightly so.

That body’s role could be ensuring councils adhere to new design standards, which are being tweaked and will be released imminently. Funding will be contingent on meeting those standards.

If we do find ourselves awash with cycling money, local government will be the limiting factor. Councils in England, indeed most of the UK, are so unused to “doing” cycling, they will struggle to deliver much in four years.

Following generations of under-investment in active travel, councils will firstly need to understand the (albeit unarguable) benefits of active travel, secondly to deliver to a standard that means the routes will be used, and thirdly to withstand the inevitable cries of the apocalypse that won’t come.

They will start from standing on staff, on contractors, and on road space reallocation, and they’ll need to hold their nerve if there’s backlash around such changes.

That’s just the ones who want cycling. Of 343 councils in the England, just 33 completed Local Cycling and Walking Investment Plans, or LCWIPs, as part of the government’s Cycling and Waking Investment programme, setting out where they’d build active travel routes and networks, if they had the money. The remaining councils will be starting absolutely from scratch.

So, how much money is needed?

According to the Cycling and Walking Alliance, and to the Government's own analysis, we need £5-6bn over the next five years to double cycling to 4% of all trips - still a very small modal share, when you compare with more advanced cycling nations.

Any more than that and, I’m told, councils will struggle to spend it with the capacity they have.

At the moment we have “over £27bn of tarmac”, for 4,000 miles of new roads – a ludicrous idea given we need to cut car journeys, not increase them, yesterday. A sensible government would use roads money for cycling – after all, the returns are astronomical, on anything you can think of, from health, air quality and decongestion, to tourism.

As Cycling UK’s Policy Director, Roger Geffen, recently put it to me, it's often possible to fish cycling money out of other pots – extrapolating that, perhaps even roads money. Of the £1.2bn government said they’d spend on cycling 2016-2021 only a quarter of that, £314m, was ringfenced; the rest came from other funding pots, like the Local Transport Fund and Local Growth Fund, and the notoriously hard-to-crack Housing Infrastructure Fund. These extras were written into other funding by the Department for Transport – and in the end more than £1.2bn was spent on active travel, albeit a lot on shared cycle and footpaths, something we’ll hopefully see an end to with design standards.

As Roger Geffen puts it this is more "jam tomorrow" for cycling. We cannot leave it any later to invest in active travel, a literal panacea for much of what ails us.

What we can do now is work with our respective local councils to persuade them spending such money is a good idea. Then, at least, they'll at least be thinking of cycling when the money *finally* appears. Get bothering your local councillors and MPs now, seems to be the solution. Once again for cycling, it's a case of making the best of a bad budget - for now. 

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