Friday, March 26, 2010

Smarter Travel Sutton

The BBC had a piece on the news a couple of days ago about Smarter Travel Sutton, which is an initiative of 'soft' measures ( knocking on doors and talking to people, handing out leaflets, promotions, that sort of thing, anything other than infrastructure investment) to "encourage residents and people who work in Sutton to choose to walk, cycle and use public transport more often, and their cars a little less."

The BBC is becoming more and more 'tabloid' in its coverage of news. For the real in-depth analysis, you have to come to this blog.

Now, Smarter Travel Sutton has spent something like £5M, which is not a small amount of money. With buses and trains, you can persuade people to them more because the services are there and they work. With cycling, the infrastructure isn't there. Most people don't want to cycle where they don't feel safe, and there is no way you will persuade them otherwise.

In terms of cycling, the BBC gushed that "in three years Sutton has seen a 75% increase in cyclists". What they don't tell you is that Sutton started with a pitifully small modal share of 0.6%. You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that 75% of bugger all is not a lot. The modal share now is 2.1%, around  the national average, which remember is among the lowest in Europe. (source) Bear in mind also, there's an upward trend in cycling all over London. The real challenge is getting modal share up to the levels seen in certain European cities, and you cannot do that without substantial investment in cycle infrastructure. The BBC report showed 'Maria' cycling 2 miles to work along a segregated path. Trouble is, there's not many segregated paths in Sutton. If she ventures further afield she'll encounter the kind of conditions all regular cyclists have to deal with, and after a couple of near misses, she may be back in her car. If you promote cycling without first investing to make it a good experience, people will try it and find out how crap it is. In the words of Barack Obama, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig.

The great thing about 'soft' measures from a political point of view is they don't upset motorists. No-one's parking or driving is restricted, there are no speed limits or road closures. But the trouble with 'soft' measures is they're ephemeral. If you'd invested £5M wisely on improving cycle infrastructure, it would permanently advertise itself, and that infrastructure will be there for decades to come.


  1. To measure the success of these measures you'd have to take another suburb of london with similar demographics/modal share and see if, with £0 investment over the same time period, the change in modal share was statistically significant. A/B Testing, as it is often known. Otherwise you end up assuming causation when there is just correlation.

    I believe Waltham Forest exists as the reference "no investment done" area for London, though worry that the ongoing documentation by the Crap Cycling site is going to effect the outcome: the heisenberg effect.

  2. Thanks Steve.
    To be honest I'm not sure it's possible to measure success easily...measuring modal share is quite tricky to start with, and there'll be factors other than investment that will affect it, such as local congestion levels, local socioeconomic changes, roadworks. Also, measuring investment can be problematic. On the one hand a 20MPH speed limit or road closure may not be classed as cycle investment. On the other hand, councils are very good at 'investing' money with very little benefit...