The importance of any transport strategy is that it provides a framework within which all decisions relating to that subject matter are made – a single reference point against which decisions can be justified. What you do should always be guided by what you want to achieve – your vision, your aims, your objectives. But what constitutes ‘good’ objectives, and how does Boris’ Cycling Vision measure up? Let’s have a look, shall we…
Its mostly about the evidence…
The most important thing is that objectives should be informed by high quality evidence. This involves setting a minimum standard for the quality of primary and secondary research, and sticking to it. Far too many based at least in part on research that is of questionable quality because it ‘is the best available’ or ‘there is no other research in its field.’ Poor excuses – poor research is poor research, and has no place informing policy development. Just see the quality evidence-free debate surrounding free town centre parking for evidence of that. It is always better to have policy informed by one or two areas of quality research than 10 poor studies.
There are many professional standards by which research is judged, and it is always worthwhile keeping on top of these. If you bash together a strategy in 2 days (not recommended), anything where you can interrogate the method and raw data yourself, peer-reviewed papers, and Government research is an absolute minimum. Not many strategies include a full reference list, plus Appendicies with full access to both research methods and data. And without spending countless days interrogating every data point yourself you cannot have 100% confidence that every sentence is supported by quality evidence. But flawed evidence sticks out like a sore thumb.
Looking at data presented to support the Vision’s approach, whilst there is much ‘clever use’ of statistics that raises some suspicion (173% increase in cycling on London’s main roads since 2001 is my favourite), one cannot identify any significant flaws with data sources used. For the lay person, it would appear that much of the points being raised, and reasoning for the approaches committed to, are not supported by evidence directly referenced in the document. I confess that in such cases, a transport professionals own knowledge is a supreme advantage to have, and one can reference to good studies supporting the approaches taken. But even accounting for that, there is no reason to not believe that much of what the Mayor is seeking to achieve is not in some way based upon good evidence.
…but partly about agreeing what is desirable
The importance of strategy is that it should set an overall framework within which all related The other aspect to objective setting is an ideological one. As professionals we are (or should be) guided by evidence. But even the best evidence can be contradictory, and decisions need to made as to what are the priorities. The outcomes of these discussions between professionals and with decision makers is then often guided by how people see the world, what is the overriding political focus at the time, and what is considered to be socially acceptable and ‘the norm’. Where such situations arise, they must be subject to extensive discussion before a general consensus on what the priorities are is reached.
Sometimes, an outcome of this are priorities which I lovingly refer to as Weasel-worded Guff. I know them, because I’ve written plenty of them. Stuff like “To improve conditions for cyclists that make it a more attractive means of getting around” means both nothing and everything. A good strategy commits itself through its objectives to set priorities, and explicitly states them. It may highlight areas where compromise is needed, but objectives are a statement of intent, and should be worded as such. Compromise still requires conviction, and strategies should be worded as such.
Your views on the objectives that result from this entire process depend upon how you view both the evidence, and your own priorities for transport. Based upon my own views of transport’s role in the world, I have to say that I am very impressed by the objectives – identified as ‘Key Outcomes’ – and the tone of the Mayor’s Vision.
The Tube Network for the bike strikes me as somewhat more of a marketing title than anything else, but the supporting text makes it clear what is intended by this. The language indicates a preference towards segregated, Dutch-style cycle routes over cycle lanes and semi-segregation. It also indicates how routes will be developed – superhighways forming the basis of the network, with supporting Quietways. Mentions of the taking traffic lanes on the likes of the Westway, and the now-famous concept design for Victoria Embankment have stimulated much debate about the commitment to these principles.
In terms of intentions, there is not much to argue over. There is sense in learning from those who have led the way for decades on investing in cycling – the Dutch. The development of a basis of a cycle network also makes sense, at least as a starting point. But as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Statements of intent in policy are fine, but the risk of not being able to deliver in accordance with these statements needs to be accepted. Adapting a full Dutch approach to each route being developed may not be possible in all circumstances (not least because of their current legality), so acceptable compromises will need to be negotiated and accepted. I will go into delivery in much more detail later this week.
Safer Streets for the bike first reads first reads as the weasel-worded guff that I mentioned before. I mean, who doesn’t want safer streets for the bike? Regardless of what you think of certain schemes and strategies, no transport professional intends to make streets unsafe for anybody, and certainly don’t set out to kill people by their plans. But what is interesting about this objective is how it combines both subjective safety and ‘measurable’ safety.
Measurable safety has been easily defined and accepted for years – police records of collisions resulting in slight injuries, serious injuries, and fatalities. Or STATS19 as its known in ‘the trade.’ It has, rightly in my view, been used as a means of prioritising expenditure towards areas where collisions are numerous in terms of numbers and severity. One of my concerns about TfL’s Junction Review is that it is simply a list of junctions that TfL wish to improve. To see the prioritisation of major improvements and funding informed by evidence is a welcome step to rectifying this issue.
Subjective safety is a matter that too many transport professionals have struggled with. Most accept that road safety has a subjective element, and evidence suggests that subjective safety fears play a major role in the uptake of cycling. But many have also struggled with trying to marry subjectivity into seemingly objective mechanisms for assessing schemes. What the Mayor states in this strategy is that this isn’t that hard in reality:
London’s streets and spaces will become places where cyclists feel they belong and are safe…
This is a strong statement of the importance of the subjective when designing streets for bicycles. Designing to make streets subjectively safe for potential cyclists will take time, and a substantial amount of professional development for some engineers. But as schemes are designed and delivered with a focus on subjective safety, so the data required to inform objective safety analysis will grow. Not that there isn’t any already of course, but it would appear that TfL are committed to that. More on TfL committment to come later in the week.
More people travelling by bike again strikes as somewhat wishy-washy at a first read. In particular I am not impressed to get people of all backgrounds to cycle. This strikes me as simply another way of saying “get everybody cycling” which is what every cycling strategy ever written has said. But a single key word in this paragraph sets it out from many others – normalise.
Normalising cycling goes beyond simply encouraging more people to cycle and making it an everyday activity for them. It is about making cycling an everyday part of the streetscene of London, and about making people accept cycling (whether they cycle or not) as such. Too much time (and vitriol) is wasted on phoney ‘wars’ between different users of streets, and not enough on acceptance. Transport professionals have worked hard for many years to reconcile different and opposing views – a good example of this being the recent work of Urban Movement and others on bike tracks and bus stops. Its is excellent to see a Mayor who is committed to making cycling a normality of every day street life:
Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network
At the very heart of this strategy is my belief that helping cycling will not just help cyclists. It will create better places for everyone
Better places for everyone provides the focus of the strategy on the wider benefits of cycling. I have no doubt about the much wider benefits of cycling: improved population health, possibly reduced crowding on public transport, cutting vehicle emissions where there is modal transfer, and improved quality of place on our streets. And there is much evidence to support many of these additional benefits, though I think more tree planting could be achieved without a cycle network!
Other cycling strategies do include the wider benefits of cycling within them. But what is impressive about the Mayor’s Vision is that by highlighting these wider benefits as a part of what he wants to achieve, Boris has given a clear message that these are as important as the direct benefits of cycling to current and potential cyclists. This is an important selling point for improving cycling: it is not a cycling infrastructure investment being made, but an investment in the economic and social infrastructure of a city, and an investment that benefits much more than just cyclists. Whilst many groups won’t be won purely because of a simple strategy, it at least gives TfL a sound policy basis on which to make these points.
In all, the Vision has made a good start. It knows what it wants to achieve, the language strongly indicates a committment towards its objectives, and for the most part it is supported by a sound evidence base. These strong objectives, and sense of what the vision wants to achieve, provide a good basis on which to start delivering the cycling revolution Boris clearly wants. But this is just the start, as we will explore throughout the rest of this week.