Thursday, November 18, 2010

Norman Baker Interview

Norman Baker, (Minister for unimportant transport modes - including cycling) was interviewed by Civil Service Live. You can read the report here, and I'm going to highlight a few cycling-related matters and shine the Cycalogical LED headlamp on them:

“The coalition agreement talks very clearly about encouraging cycling and walking; it talks about the importance of greener transport and reducing carbon."

Talk is cheap, Norman. Action is what we need.

“One of the things the previous government did which we don’t like is having huge numbers of pots of money to bid for – £10m here, £5m there – for different rural transport grants, ‘kickstart’ bus schemes, and so forth. The consequence is that councils are spending a huge amount of time form-filling without a very good chance of getting anything out of the pot at the end; and even if they do, it’s quite a small pot....I don’t think that local councils, even if they’re given a lot more power, will suddenly go round saying: ‘Whoopee, we’ve got all this power: let’s build a 15-lane motorway!’ They aren’t going to do that, are they? I think local councillors want to do some of these green things. They’ve got the same objectives.”

They might not build a 15-lane motorway, but they might build a bypass and dress it up as a 'green' measure. Reducing beaurocracy is good, but this approach of handing over power over spending decisions will only work if councils actually share the vision of greener transport and more cycling/walking, and are prepared to spend money and deliver on that vision. In many cases, it's clear they don't have the same objectives. Westminster Council in particular has historically been hostile to cycling. Witness the acute shortage of cycle parking and almost total absence of cycle lanes, traffic calming or traffic restrictions. Yet without improvements in Westminster, it's going to be difficult to persuade more people to commute into town. Secondly, local councils often don't have the resources to research which schemes to invest in. They don't have the specialist knowledge. Many authorities don't even have a cycling officer, and if they do it's usually a lonely occupation. Highways departments are institutionally car-centric and anti-cycling, so you have to change that culture if you want to get anything done.
Transport needs a joined-up, cross-authority strategy. If individual boroughs take different approaches, you end up with a patchwork rather than a network. The other issue is, councillors may privately be in favour of cycling and other green measures, but they are vulnerable to parochial forces. Local 'nimbyists' always lobby against cycling in the same way they would lobby against a 15-lane motorway.

Baker is working with the department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, once a transport scheme has been approved for use by one council, each council wishing to follow its lead won’t require DfT sign-off. Citing a proposed scheme in Northamptonshire which mirrors one already in place in Kent, he says: “I’ve been astonished at some of the stuff coming across my desk here, asking me to sign off on things which, in my view, are really nothing to do with the Department for Transport. Once we’ve established a principle, once a scheme is up and working somewhere satisfactorily, why are we involved? We want to get rid of that level of bureaucracy.”

Spot on, Norman. It's ridiculous that Traffic Orders for mandatory cycle lanes, pedestrian crossings and yellow lines need sign-off from the DoT. Why do cycle track orders need a public enquiry if there is even one solitary objection, no matter how spurious the grounds? I've been making this point for a while now. Give boroughs the freedom to pick the safest, most effective measures rather than ones with the lowest beaurocratic overhead.

He has “been in touch with [public health minister] Anne Milton at the Department for Health, because there’s a very clear linkage – proven with quite good empirical evidence – to show the value of investing in cycling in terms of health, obesity and so on. The Department of Health has historically funded some work on cycling, but we have to see where there are common objectives across government and try to exploit that and make the best use of the money available.”

Fine, but how are you going use health money to target cycling and active travel, for example, if you're abandoning the principle of ring-fenced budgets? The NHS may understand the link between disease and sedentary lifestyles, but they can't manage transport projects. That's a transport matter, and now you've abolished Cycling England who's going to coordinate a cycling project? The DoT are institutionally car-centric, they don't have the right culture to do it.

When money is tight, why would councils prioritise non-conventional transport projects? Well, major infrastructure projects may be beyond local authorities, but councils can introduce walking and cycling schemes to “civilise” town centres. “If you civilise a town centre you get people moving round from A to B more quickly, then you start opening up towns more,” he says. “Then you have a town centre which isn’t choking with car fumes; where people aren’t forced off narrow pavements; where they’re able to browse and shop – and that’s good for the local economy.”

Nice idea, really, it's a great vision, but it involves tough measures that car-dependent electors may not like. How are you going to stop people driving to the town centre? Are you going to close the car parks? What makes you think people will cycle to town unless you actually stop them driving? Are cycling schemes going to take roadspace away from motor traffic? Again, local councils know there are strong forces against schemes that in any way restrict peoples' ability to drive and park where, when and how fast they like. Even for councillors who privately agree with this vision, they think about the next election. If you do not address the political dynamic then you will fail. I believe it is possible to set things up so that the incentive is there for councils to do the right thing, but I don't see that you're proposing that.

Baker also sees local cycling schemes as a good investment for private businesses – particularly train companies. “Say you have a business appointment a mile from Norwich station,” he says. “At the moment, people don’t know how to get a mile beyond the station, so they drive all the way. If you could guarantee that a bike would be available for you at Norwich station, you might take the train up there and cycle the last mile.”

That is true, but just having bikes available isn't enough. If you don't know Norwich and you have any fear of busy roads, you'll want to know that there is a network of safe cycle routes that are well-signed and reasonably direct. If you have a business appointment, you'll want to know the route is asphalt and kept reasonably clean so your suit trousers don't get covered in dirt. Train companies may be able to provide bike hire at the station, but they can't provide a cycle route network, in the same way that an airport may have car hire but they don't build roads. Infrastructure is a government job. Everybody benefits, so it needs to be paid for through taxes. Fine if you can get different businesses to club together and fund the infrastructure, good luck with that. In my experience most businesses are more concerned that their customers can park their cars than trying to persuade them onto bikes.

Are there any examples of private sector-backed alternative transport schemes across the country? Yes: the new Barclays-sponsored cycle hire scheme in London. Further afield, a pilot scheme is due to be launched in Leeds by Dutch company Abellio in conjunction with Northern Rail. The ‘Cyclepoint’ will provide a hub for bike storage, rental, sales and repairs right next to the station.

It's true to say that London cycle hire has private-sector involvement, but it's not a private sector scheme. It was devised, planned and mainly implemented before Barclays got involved. Serco are managing it, but the scheme exists only because the Mayor decreed it. All Barclays did was pay for advertising space and sponsorship. I don't know the Leeds Cyclepoint scheme, but it sounds like a bike shop with a bit of cycle parking. There's a difference between a bike shop and a cycle scheme. Renting a couple of bikes is not going to change transport habits in any measurable way. Cycle parking is great and is necessary, but without safe cycle routes the market for both cycle parking and cycle hire will remain limited to diehard cyclists.

I cannot say that Norman Baker's words have inspired any confidence that cycling is going to do anything other than flatline under the Coalition. They seem to be abdicating all responsibility for it, and leaving it to local authorities, which generally have a track record of failure.

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