This has been a big week for moves to improve conditions for walking and cycling in the UK. Well, it could have been. Scrub that: it SHOULD have been.
Wednesday saw the publication of the report of the London Health Commission (LHC) entitled Better Health for London. Then, on Wednesday, the Government’s Cycling Delivery Plan (CDP) was released.
Since my hopes for neither were terribly high, it would not be fair to say that they were dashed. However, while the Commission members can, to adapt a famous quote, be forgiven for not (quite) knowing what they do, the DfT has no such excuse.
So as not to bore you too much with my own views, I also refer you to those of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC), which described the Delivery Plan as a ‘Derisory Plan’ , and those of The Times, which has been running the Cities Fit for Cycling campaign and which refers to the Plan simply as ‘disappointing’. The views of Sustrans can be found here.
After much lobbying, Living Streets successfully managed to get the DfT to broaden the scope of the CDP to embrace both walking and cycling. However, it says much for the Government’s approach to the matter that, although the DfT therefore wanted the document to be called a Cycling and Walking Delivery Plan, the longer (and more accurate) title was dropped at the behest of No.10 ‘advisors’ who considered it too complicated!
LS’s take on the Plan can be found here. Its public stance uses different language from that of the CTC, and indeed LS welcomes the fact that, in the Plan, for the first time, the Government has set a target mode share for journeys to school: 55% by 2025 (from 48% in 2013). However, Living Streets’ Chief Exec, Joe Irvin, is clear that “without investment… this target will be impossible to reach”.
And it’s the complete lack of certainty about funding that is most concerning about the Plan. This is very simply because the extent of politicians’ real commitment to action can almost always best be gauged by the amount of money set aside for that action. My low expectations for the Plan arose specifically from a meeting I was at a couple of months ago when the Minister, Robert Goodwill, completely sidestepped a question that was along the lines of, “So, if you’ve got a 10-year plan, you’ll have a 10-year budget to go with it. Right?” To play around with the old saying: if you’re cheap, all there’ll be is talk.
The Times leader sets out what it thinks the level of funding (for cycling) should be going forwards. It wants £600m a year, or 3% of the total transport budget; which is entirely reasonable based on a current cycling mode share of all trips of 3%. This annual figure is based on investment in cycling at the rate of £10/year per head of population. The Government also quotes this figure, but the Plan describes this as merely an “aspiration” that it proposes to “explore”. It hopes to make this exploration alongside local government and businesses, and hopes to achieve the £10/head figure by 2020/21 (”sooner, if possible”).
Compare this with February’s Transforming England’s Strategic Road Network . Robert Goodwill launched this with the following fanfare: “The Government is tripling funding on the road network over the next 8 years with more than £24 billion to be spent on upgrading and improving the network until 2021. By the end of the next parliament, the Government will be spending £3 billion each year on improvements and maintenance for the strategic network alone. This is a locked-in funding commitment.” Now THAT is putting your money where your mouth is.
If funding is committed, then of course the question arises as to what it’ll be spent on. As things stand, the Government’s take on designing for cycling is Local Transport Note 2/08, the cover photo of which is appropriately discouraging as to the quality of infrastructure the note aspires towards. On design guidance for walking, there was Local Transport Note 1/04, though this was withdrawn, with some of its contents making it through to the Manual for Streets. If the Government doesn’t want to update its own guidance, it could at least endorse that produced by others, such as the latest (currently draft) London Cycling Design Standards. (Meanwhile, TfL is also proposing to issue design guidance on walking – the first draft of which is being consulted on internally at the moment.)
The point in all this is, of course, that achieving (much) more walking and cycling is good for individuals, good for cities, and good for economies. Another recent article in The Times covers new research indicating that the wider health benefits of spending £10/head per annum on cycling, and thereby getting the cycling mode share of all trips up to 10%, would save the NHS £1 billion a year and create an additional £5 billion of annual health benefits! And yet…
…and yet, of the 64 recommendations contained in the LHC’s Better Health for London report, only three relate to walking and cycling; and only one of these to the environment in which we walk or cycle. The latter is Recommendation 12, which is that the Mayor should accelerate planned initiatives on air quality. The other two feature the keywords ‘encourage’ and ‘incentivise’. No: this isn’t going to end well.
Recommendation 7. The Mayor should invest 20% of his TfL advertising budget to encourage more Londoners to walk 10,000 steps a day, and TfL should change signage to encourage people to walk up stairs and escalators.
Recommendation 8. The NHS, Public Health England, and TfL should work together to create a platform to enable employers to incentivise their employees to walk to work through the Oyster or a contactless scheme.
Further details about this ‘platform’ are provided, as follows. “TfL should establish a scheme, paid for by employers, to incentivise walking the last mile to work and the first mile home. Employees tapping in or out with their Oyster or contactless card at least one mile from their registered place of work would collect points and be eligible for employer-financed transport rewards.”
I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.
The report is right to say that, “Getting London walking requires joint action from employers, the Mayor, local councils and Transport for London.” But a completely different king of joint action is needed from that which it prescribes.
My sense of frustration is intensified by the facts that the Commission clearly understands the problem (“Only 13% of Londoners currently cycle or walk to work – despite half living close to their workplace”) and that, almost incidentally, it recognises the importance of good infrastructure in getting people to walk and cycle more (“We strongly support the Mayor's Cycle Superhighways scheme.”) And yet, in this latter statement of support, comes perhaps the best clue as to why the Commission hasn’t grasped the importance of taking a stronger line on infrastructure provision. It supports Cycle Superhighways because they will “…encourage Londoners to travel around the city actively.”
But good infrastructure does far more than merely ‘encourage’; it enables.
In so far as I’m dissatisfied with what the report is likely to do to actually get more people travelling more often in ways that are better for their health, I must share some of the blame. I was on one of the LHC’s working groups, and I plainly failed to get my views across. I think the issue is that public health officials clearly get the importance of active travel; they just don’t know what to do with it. Probably the same as traffic engineers and ecology.
The thing is that, while it would have been great if the LHC had come up with some strong recommendations as to what transport authorities should do, practitioners are no less able to do the right thing than they were. Indeed, we’re that bit better off as we can point to more evidence of the problem that it’s our job to solve.
As for the Cycling (and Walking) Delivery Plan, the good news is it’s only a draft, and the Government says it “welcomes views on our plans, as well as further suggestions on how to achieve our cycling ambition”. The timescale for this is vague, however, so I’d get your comments in ASAP if I were you, using this address.
There’s other good news within the Plan. First is the proposal (in Annex B) to establish partnerships between Government and local authorities that have a serious, long-term ambition and plan to grow walking and cycling. This offers the prospect of an end to the counter-productivity and short-termism of ‘competitions’ between authorities most recently exemplified by the Cycle City Ambition Grant process. Another bit of good news is found in the Plan’s first footnote, which says that “The DfT will shortly publish a paper setting out the economic case for cycling”. I await it with interest.