Get Britain Cycling – A blueprint for better cities, but…

Cycling MPs

More of this, please

For those of you well tuned into the Twittersphere, blogosphere, and any other virtual sphere, you will no doubt be aware that today the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group produced the long awaited report of its inquiry: Get Britain Cycling. Inspired by The Times’ excellent Cities fit for Cycling Campaign, this inquiry took evidence from a variety of professionals, campaigners, and politicians to investigate how to, well, Get Britain Cycling!

There is much to commend in the Get Britain Cycling report. The author Phil Goodwin produces a convincing narrative throughout the report that cycling is fundamentally a good thing socially, economically, and environmentally. But not enough is being done to support it, to the detriment of our towns and cities, but by planning for it we can – given time – deliver people-friendly towns and cities.

The report makes 18 recommendations, each of which have their own merits but I will not spend time going through each of them in turn. Instead, what I will focus on is on 3 of the 5 broad topics highlighted by Phil.

A new priority for investing public funds

Much seems to made about levels of funding compared to nations such as the Netherlands or Denmark. Clearly more funding is needed if we are serious about delivering proper infrastructure, but what most pleased me was about continuity of funding:

Creating cycle-friendly roads, junctions and cycle facilities will require significant capital spending over many years

This is about making the £10-£15 per head of population (ideally more) provided by the Cycling Demonstration Towns the base case to be delivered by local authorities and the Highways Agency. The allocation of this funding can be easily done by the Department for Transport through existing mechanisms. The annual Local Integrated Transport Block funding distributed to local authorities can be the funding stream, with DfT ring-fencing additional funds, allocated on a per head of population basis, for cycling through this allocation.

To act as the stick to deliver real improvements, changes in uptake of cycling (as now measured on a local authority level) could be factored into the formula for allocating the ITB to each authority, thus funding for other schemes is dependant upon good performance in increasing the modal share of cycling. It might even help out DfT with their performance monitoring issues as well. And reinstating the 5 year ITB funding forecast, scrapped by the Coalition, for budget planning would be useful too,

The ITB is just one example of how existing funding mechanisms can be used to provide the continuity of funding so vital to delivering sustained improvements to cycling infrastructure. What is required is the will to reallocate said funding from other areas of the transport budget and pool financial resources with other departments. More on that will in a moment.

Redesigning our roads, streets, and communities

I am quite fortunate in that I work in a local authority that had the benefit of delivering one the Cycling Demonstration Towns. Our officers and engineers learnt a lot from this experience of delivering a comprehensive cycle network in a small town, but the common factor that many of us cannot agree more on is that current design guidance and many regulations are not fit for purpose, and makes delivering quality cycle infrastructure far harder than it should be. So to see that as a key recommendation is very much welcome.

One thing I disagree with the Inquiry on is their recommendation:

A statutory requirement that cyclists’ and pedestrians’ needs are considered at an early stage of all new development schemes

Whilst not statutory, it is done already. They are called Risk Assessments and Safety Audits, and any one of those worth their names should actively ‘consider’ cyclists and pedestrians as a matter of course. And this touches on an area not considered in the report: that of training of staff on what constitutes ‘good’ cycling infrastructure.

Manual for Streets

Seminal reading, surely?

Don’t get me wrong on this one: good guidance is essential and provides engineers and officers with confidence when designing schemes that what they are producing really will make a difference. But there are still far too many who have little or no idea what good cycling infrastructure looks like outside of what the guidance says and their own personal view. There are still many who have never heard of Manual for Streets for gods sake!

Whilst there are still too many, I am pleased to say that the skills of engineers in this regard are improving. We learnt the hard way, through many lengthy design meetings, discussions with risk assessors and arguing with DfT. Initiatives like Urban Design London are providing hands-on training and guidance, and high quality schemes also spread lessons of best practice in themselves. The process seems glacial at times, but I have noticed the progress over the last 10 years that I have been working.

Oh, and just to go back to the recommendation I disagree with, wouldn’t it be nice to swap the word ‘consider’ with ‘prioritise’?

Political leadership

And here comes the crux, and one of the key factors setting cycling in the most successful cycling nations apart from others: that of sustained political leadership over time to deliver a cycling culture in localities and across the nation. Talk of cross-departmental action plans and targets is all well and good and need to be supported, but what of those who will have ultimate decision-making authority over our cycling future, our elected leaders?

Simply nominating a politician, however well-meaning they are, to champion the cause of cycling, to be a cycling champion is one thing. But said politician needs to demonstrate an understanding of what securing mass-cycling entails, including the political risks, or at least a willingness to learn about it. London has that in Boris, and I am sure there are other keen cycling politicians around the country.

As for a national cycling champion, well we had that before. It was called Cycling England. Whilst it didn’t set the world alight, from my direct experience with them they succeeded in bringing cycling from almost no consideration at all to even being thought about. Through years of supporting best practice in the cycle demonstration towns, developing and pushing best practice guidance at every opportunity, and undertaking research (benefit:cost ratios of small transport improvements, anyone?), it slowly pushed cycling towards the mainstream and into the minds of politicians. Its burning in the bonfire of the quangos was a huge step back for pushing the cycling message politically.

Flashride

Some more of these may be needed

Until a cycling culture almost becomes engrained within the psyche of an area, it will be the role of professionals and campaigners to continually push the social and economic case for investing in cycling. One thing that has impressed me in recent years is how cycling campaigners, with the support and advice of a whole host of committed professionals, have become much more bold and united in their message for improving our streets and the quality of cycle infrastructure within them, through blogs or other means. The excellent Cities fit for Cycling Campaign has provided a welcome boost, and a great opportunity to more forcefully push these messages to politicians. After all, one thing politicians will listen to is the media! I am in no doubt that both The Times and campaigners will keep up with their vociferous efforts, and best of luck to them.

But…

Whilst Get Britain Cycling delivers a compelling case for investing in cycling, and improving the street environment with many sound recommendations, unfortunately its flaw lies within the remit of the All Party Parliamentary Group itself. The group does a lot of fantastic work, is very passionate and committed to cycling, and is no doubt lobbying senior MPs as you read this, but it needs to be remembered that it is purely advisory group. The report is non-binding, and when Government’s ignore the more powerful select committees almost as a matter of routine, one is not confident that the publication of this report on its own will achieve anything.

That is where we as professionals come in. The report offers a blueprint for better cities, for making things better for cycling, and an idea of how to get there. It is our duty now to run with this, to apply pressure to implement this in full, to pester, nag, make people aware at every possible turn the opportunities that this provides to make our towns and cities a better place to live. And above all to mean it this time. I am certainly up for that fight, so who’s with me?

You can start right now by signing the e-petition to encourage the Government to implement Get Britain Cycling in full. It only takes a few seconds.

I also have to apologise to those who voted in my recent Help Me Write poll for the next blog to be on the London Mayor’s Cycling Strategy. It is coming next week!

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