Friday, October 15, 2010

RIP Cycling England

It's official - Cycling England will be killed off. While I've blogged before about the problems that can be caused by the number of different organizations involved in funding UK cycling and the lack of clear responsibility for outcomes, things can always get worse.

Norman Baker, minister responsible for cycling, said "This new Coaltion Government is firmly committed to cycling. That is why it is expressly referred to in the Coalition Agreement...We want to give more power and more flexibility to local authorities as we strongly believe that they know best what is right for their communities."

The trouble is, Cycling England funds are being transferred into a Local Sustainable Transport fund. This could all get spent on modes other than cycling, and in any case, we don't know what the funding level will be. While claiming to be 'committed to cycling', the Coalition is abdicating its responsibility. Local authorities like Merton are arguably the worst people to put in charge of cycling. They are inefficient, they lack the vision and specialist expertise, their highways departments have a car-centric culture and their dismal past record on cycling speaks for itself: lots of money spent and precious little to show for it. Also, cycle journeys don't stop at local authority borders. If Merton were to be suddenly transformed into a cycling-friendly area, conditions in surrounding boroughs would still deter people from cycling.

It is very difficult to see how cycling can be improved without strong leadership at a national level. The incentives are all wrong at the local level. Local authorities have little control over, or responsibility for, NHS costs that arise from poor road safety,  sedentary lifestyles, CO2 emissions or pollution. Local politics is dominated by the level of council tax, by schools, by how often the bins are emptied and how much it costs people to park their cars. Cycling doesn't even register on the electoral radar of most councillors, and some are openly hostile to it. Therefore, why should they spend even a penny on it, especially when other budgets are being squeezed? The Local Sustainable Transport fund may provide an opportunity for creative accounting. What's to stop councillors to use such funds for items that are currently under the highways budget?

Compare and contrast with High Speed Rail or electric car infrastructure. Neither could possibly succeed if they were left to local politicians, because they cross local borders, affect a large area and the costs outweigh the perceived benefits at the local level. They would clearly fall victim to NIMBYism. Can you imagine local high-speed rail, or an electric car scheme where the only charging points are in one borough? That's why there are strong national policies (and plenty of money) for them. So how exactly is cycling different?

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