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If Boris backs a cycling revolution, why is he spending £27bn on roads for cars?

Boris Johnson said he would kickstart a cycling and walking revolution, so why is the Treasury not backing the prime minister’s words with funding? James Wilmore reports

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The generous rhetoric for cycling in white paper Gear Change has not been matched by Treasury funds
The generous rhetoric for cycling in white paper Gear Change has not been matched by Treasury funds

You’ve heard “build back better” and “prosper mightily”, but Boris Johnson’s jingo rhetoric is not reserved solely for Brexit and Covid-19 – there’s cycling too.


“I want bicycles to be part of an effusion of green transport, of electric cars, buses and trains, because clean air will be to the 21st century what clean water was to the 19th,” he wrote last July.


The lofty ambition was part of a foreword outlining a new government strategy to promote cycling and walking, called Gear Change. Helped by the pandemic, the initiative would kickstart a “cycling and walking revolution”, we were told. The 52-page document was manna from heaven for cycling campaigners. It talks of making cycling a “mass form of transit” with an aim for half or all journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030.


“It contain many of things we have pushed for a very long time,” Roger Geffen, policy director of charity Cycling UK, tells The Developer. Geffen was particularly happy to see a new vision for designing cycling infrastructure, which he says will replace some “horribly outdated guidance”.


“You would have expected to see a ramp up [in spending], but instead we’ve seen a 15% cut”


Gear Change was among a raft of government pledges and commitments unveiled last year aimed at helping the UK hit its target of net zero emissions by 2050. Among the most high-profile was Johnson’s 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, with spending of £12bn covering clean energy, transport, housing and protecting natural environments.


But concerns are emerging over whether the government’s rhetoric is being met by its spending commitments - and where this leaves the drive to cut emissions.


In the case of cycling, campaigners have already been left disappointed. The government had previously outlined plans to spend £2bn over the next five years on cycling and walking - an average of £400m a year. But in November’s Spending Review, chancellor Rishi Sunak committed just £257m to active travel in 2020/21. “You would have expected to see a ramp up, but instead we’ve seen a 15% cut,” says Geffen.


Other promising measures announced in Gear Change are also yet to emerge. A new body called Active Travel England - to control how money is spent on new cycling and walking infrastructure and “raise standards” - was due in a “few months”. At the same time, nothing has been heard of a promised new national cycling and walking commissioner.


When contacted by The Developer, a Department for Transport spokesperson said there is “no date confirmed” for Active Travel England to be launched, and the same for the appointment of a national cycling and walking commissioner.


“Goodness knows what’s going on behind the scenes, but the Treasury is not backing up the prime minister’s words with funding”


On the issue of funding, the spokesperson pointed to an “unprecedented” commitment of £2bn to be spent over this Parliament, adding: “The Spending Review also made additional funding available for local transport and local growth initiatives, such as the £4bn Levelling Up Fund, the £4.2 billion five-year, consolidated intracity transport funds for Mayoral Combined Authorities and the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) of up to £1.5 billion a year, which could benefit active travel plans.”


But for Geffen, this is a worrying sign that the government is talking the talk on active travel, but not walking the walk, if you will. “Goodness knows what’s going on behind the scenes,” he says. “But the Treasury is not backing up the prime minister’s words with funding”.


The DfT denies there is any disconnect between its announcements and the Treasury. “The government has committed unprecedented amounts of funding to cycling and walking – there is no disconnect,” the spokesperson says.


So why have the government’s plans been delayed? Focus may have been elsewhere due to the pandemic, but efforts to promote active travel have stepped up as a result of Covid-19. Yet it has also intensified feeling amongst the pro-car, anti-cycling lobby - eagerly backed by sections of the right-wing media, particularly the Mail on Sunday.


A ‘bikelash’ has seen stories of councils being forced to rip out temporary bikes lanes due to often small but vociferous public opposition


In May, the government announced a £250m active travel emergency fund to help councils establish measures such as pop-up bike lanes. The move has inspired a sustained ‘bikelash’, with stories of councils being forced to rip out temporary bikes lanes due to often small but vociferous public opposition. In Shoreham-on-Sea, West Sussex, for example, the council is removing a pop-up bike lane which actually featured in a Department of Transport video promoting cycling investment. News of the plans to remove prompted the Mail of Sunday to crow that it was “Round One to MoS”.


But Geffen notes: “Plenty (of temporary bike lanes) have gone in without a fuss.”


The ‘bikelash’ has surfaced in Parliament too. MPs on the All-Party Parliamentary Group Fair Fuel for UK Motorists and Hauliers wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps in November urging him to “stop the roll out and withdraw the plethora of new road narrowing, blockades and dedicated cycle lanes eating into our town and city roads”. The MPs’ group - which includes former cycling minister Robert Goodwill - described the £250m for active travel as a “high-priced idealistic formula for even more congestion” and branded the policy “indefensible”.


The letter was dated November 5. However, in a sign perhaps the government is prepared to stand up to the car lobby, it announced on 13 November that it would allocate a second tranche of funding for active travel, totalling £175m, to allow for the “creation of longer-term projects”.


The DfT also attempted to head off any claims the public were against the measure. A press release announcing the extra cash pointed to a survey showing that “8 out of 10 people support measures to reduce road traffic in their neighbourhood”. It also flagged that 65% of people surveyed backed reallocating road space to cycling and walking. Boris Johnson chipped in again, saying: “We can see the public’s strong appetite for greener and more active travel, and this funding will help ensure the right infrastructure is in place to build truly active neighbourhoods.”


“Pick your spots (for bike lanes) intelligently and strategically and get out in front of the bikelash”


The term bikelash has been around for nearly a decade, with one of the first references to the term in a New York magazine story regarding opposition in the city to cycle lanes. But in the age of social media saturation, bikelashes can quickly spread.


One man who has observed these occurrences on a global basis is Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner turned consultant. What would his advice be to planners and councils worried about opposition?


“Pick your spots (for bike lanes) intelligently and strategically and get out in front of the bikelash,” he says. “We all know it will happen from a relatively small amount of people and the media will pick up on it because it’s a juicy story. But show (the scheme) to be a success. Make it hard to attack it and have better data and narratives so you are proactively outflanking the inevitable bikelash.”


Toderian points to the example of Calgary, Canada, which is regarded as the country’s most conservative major city. “They did what I consider to be the best temporary bike lane pilot project in North America,” he says. “It was well planned, implemented, measured and analysed. They said there wouldn’t be a massive number of bikes but an increase in bike usage and no significant impact on car movement, no ‘carmageddon’.”


Back in the UK, during the first wave of emergency funding, councils were not afforded this luxury. The DfT urged local authorities to act quickly to get bike lanes in place. Inevitably, it has led to problems with some locals complaining of a lack of consultation.


More than 200 LTNs have been proposed in the UK, with around 50 councils implementing or planning restrictions


It’s not just extra bike lanes that has caused some discontent. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which the government has been pushing, have also come under fire. LTNs are essentially where residential streets are closed to through traffic to stop rat-running by motorists. More than 200 LTNs have been proposed in the UK, with around 50 councils implementing or planning restrictions. But protests have been seen in Ealing, Wandsworth, Islington and Hackney.


Chris Todd, founder and director of environmental campaign group Transport Action Network, thinks the speed at which LTNs were introduced during the pandemic added to some of the discontent. “People don’t like change and when it happened so quickly, that didn’t help the situation,” he tells The Developer. “But local authorities didn’t have much choice as the DfT said they had to do it rapidly. When people see less traffic though, they generally love it.”


Nearly five years since Leicester’s football team turned the sporting world on its head by winning the Premier League, the city is about to put itself on the map again. This spring, the city’s council plans to launch the UK’s largest e-bike hire scheme. With sponsorship from Santander, plus extra money from the Department of Transport and operator Ride On, the scheme will see 500 electric bikes made available to hire from 50 docking stations citywide.


Covid-19 - which has seen Leicester face continuous restrictions - forced a delay to the start of the scheme, but the council has said it has given it a chance to test the initiative before a full public launch. This is no flash in the plan though in terms of Leicester’s ambitions around active travel. Driven by the city’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, and deputy mayor, Adam Clarke, the city has blazed a trail.


“Political leadership has been one of the crucial factors,” says Andy Salkeld, Leicester City Council’s cycling co-ordinator. “The incremental changes have been revolutionary with a small ‘r’. It’s a sense of direction that has enabled a recovery for the city’s civic and public realm from the negative impact of car dependency.”


Driven by the city’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, and deputy mayor, Adam Clarke, Leicester is blazing a cycling trail


During the pandemic, the city has been at the vanguard of efforts to promote active travel. It has given away 500 bikes, with around 80% of them being to NHS workers - and of these around 70% were women. “People didn’t have a lot of choice (about how to get to work) so it became evident there was a need,” says Salkeld. “The council also established a key worker cycle “corridor” to make it safer and easier to travel by two wheels and helped fix around 700 bikes for free.


And after the government’s emergency active travel funding was announced, the council delivered 11 miles of pop-up cycle lanes in nine weeks.


Salkeld says Leicester has avoided a major bikelash. “There are examples of where we’ve got it wrong and people’s concerns have needed to be listened to. But there’s not been evidence of concerted, co-ordinated and consistent objection to the principle that if you create a people friendly city and people friendly streets that’s generally good for people.”


While often active travel measures are intended to help the effort to cut emissions, it’s not the whole story when it comes to transport. This spring the government is due to publish its Transport Decarbonisation Plan - again another delayed document. Kicking off this process, Grant Shapps promised in an 80-page document last March - entitled Decarbonising Transport - that “2020 will be the year we set out the policies and plans needed to tackle transport emissions.” In the foreword, he added: “Transport has a huge role to play in the economy reaching net zero.”


Strangely, government plans to spend £27bn as part of its new roads investment strategy (RIS2) does not get a mention in the 80 pages of Decarbonising Transport. A legal challenge by Transport Action Network against RIS2 is already underway. Todd says: “RIS2 is an example of an outdated 20th century policy approach which has run its course and needs to be consigned to history.


“It does not make sense to be spending billions of pounds to tarmac over the countryside to encourage more cars onto the road and spend them quicker into another traffic jam.” The government, it seems, is not budging on its plans. Ministers are stressing that a switch to electric vehicles will be the answer. “Roads are not the problem,” wrote Grant Shapps, in The Daily Telegraph last September. “It’s the millions of internal combustion engines running along them contributing to climate change. Engines that pump out harmful pollution when gridlocked on poor and inadequate highways, particularly in urban areas. We must change the vehicles using roads, not condemn ourselves to transport paralysis by stopping road building in its tracks but ensuring we have the right capacity where we need it.”


Strangely, government plans to spend £27bn as part of its new roads investment strategy does not get a mention in the 80 pages of Decarbonising Transport


Todd remains unconvinced by this argument. “It’s quite often seen as the silver bullet: you electrify the fleet and all the problems go away. But all you end up with is a cleaner traffic jam as opposed to a very polluting traffic jam. From our perspective, the concern is that a lot of politicians think ‘oh box ticked, job done’.”


Nevertheless, once these government initiatives see the light of day, could we see the UK beginning to embrace the idea of more sustainable towns and cities? Gearing Change talks of creating more “mini Hollands” to make streets as “cycle and pedestrian-friendly as their Dutch equivalents”. It also promises to create at least one “zero emission city”.


So could this eventually lead to the idea of the 15-minute city becoming a reality in the UK? The concept involves the idea that citizens should be a 15-minute walk or cycle from all the amenities they need - such as shopping, entertainment, education and healthcare. The idea has been around a long time but Paris has emerged as a poster child for the idea with the city’s socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, taking the lead.


Lisa Taylor, director of consultancy Coherent Cities, believes it’s achievable but will require partnership working. “Central (spending) pots and initiatives can be combined and augmented by good development partners, council departments working together, and the talent and tenacity of small business, charities & social enterprise,” she says. “Delivering effective, equitable 15-minute cities may take more cobbling-together and good will than ever, but we’re getting really good at that, and the results will be worth it.”


And Toderian believes if towns and cites are ambitious with their plans it will attract the right type of developers. “It’s up to a city to establish the benchmark of expectations,” he says. “If you want exceptional development, set that standard. That will invite in the good developers and the developers that can’t meet your standard will go elsewhere.”


With some kind of normality expected to return this year, will we see the genuine greenshoots of a “cycling and walking revolution”? Best to keep an eye on the Treasury.


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