Comment: UK: All go for cycling and walking - but where's the money?

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Before the election David Cameron promised to increase funding for cycling to £10 a head across the UK, up from its current £2 outside London, writes Matthew Ford. But with the national cycling and walking strategy coming into force this week, that promise is looking ever less likely to be delivered.

Invest in walking and cycling infrastructure you get more cycling and walking. And unlike with road infrastructure, that doesn't lead to more air pollution, congestion and lost working days.

The aftermath of the general election is well and truly over now. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has presented the first 'true blue' Budget to Parliament in almost two decades and followed that up with a productivity plan called Fixing the Foundations.

Transport is prominent in both documents, with radical changes to funding made, but neither even mentions cycling or walking.

Osborne's first Budget in 2010, as part of the coalition Government with the Lib Dems, gave real cause for optimism for those trying to protect the countryside through better transport.

The first three priorities of that Budget were to deal with the deficit; deliver the Prime Minister's pledge of 'the greenest government ever'; and make the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The Government's final Budget in 2015 had drifted a long way from the final two of these priorities. Support for the oil and gas industry, support for energy intensive industry, and cancelling the planned fuel duty rise were some of its main themes.

One bright spot: the 'Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy'

One of the last acts of the Parliament was the Infrastructure Act 2015, which paved the way for fracking and a return to major road-building.

But there was one ray of hope for those crying out for smarter forms of travel. Multiple NGOs from transport, environmental and health backgrounds joined together behind a CPRE idea to amend the Infrastructure Act and create the first Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

The amendment would ensure that the Government set out long-term cycling targets and guaranteed consistent funding over five year periods.

The idea was initially refused, but after thousands of people wrote to their MPs to demand it, the amendment was agreed. The Investment Strategy will now come into force this Friday 31st July, and the previous coalition Government deserves credit for that.

There's just one problem - where's the money coming from to make anything actually happen?

Lofty aims but no real commitments

In their 2015 election manifesto, the Conservatives stated: "We want to double the number of journeys made by bicycle and will invest over £200 million to make cycling safer, so we reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed or injured on our roads every year."

But there's a catch. They had already committed £175 million to Highways England in their first Road Investment Strategy (RIS) for cycling, safety and integration for the next five years. If the £200 million is simply the RIS fund plus another £25 million, then almost 90% of the cycle funding for this Parliament is about to be spent on cycling related to the motorway and major roads network.

The Prime Minister later went on to declare 2025 as the year by which the Conservatives aim to double cycling levels, along with an aim to raise cycling funding to £10 per head. He also made some bold claims over  funding levels:

"When we came to office in 2010, spending on cycling was £2 per person - it's now at £6 per person", Mr Cameron wrote in his letter to Cycling England on 23rd April 2015. However the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group places this figure at just £2 per head outside London, where transport is devolved.

He continued: "We have made clear our aim to increase spending further to £10 per person each year. The money we're investing in our eight cycle cities and TfL funding in London is already in excess of £10 per person per year, which is a great start."

However this is not actual money on the table. He warned that "this is only possible if we continue working through our long-term economic plan - cutting the deficit while also making the investment needed." While it's billions of pounds of hard cash for road building, cycling has to get by on vague promises.

So beyond one aim and one £200 million pledge for safety, the manifesto made no further mention of cycling or walking. This is a trend that has unfortunately continued into this Parliament. So the way it looks is, we have strategy, but little to no money to put it into effect.

Productivity own goal

The one word that you will consistently hear around Government these days is 'productivity'. In fact, the Chancellor's productivity plan calls it the "challenge of our time".

So it's remarkable that such productive forms of transport as cycling and walking receive no mention in either the Budget or the accompanying productivity plan. Instead, the overwhelming transport focus is on making the road network even bigger.

As productivity is explicitly linked to efficiency it is strange that the Government would focus its productivity efforts on such inefficient means as private road transport. It's been consistently shown that trying to build your way out of congestion is akin to using petrol to put out a fire.

When you make roads bigger the result is more traffic, most of which is travelling very short distances. How even more traffic will contribute to productivity is still not clear.

How cycling and walking can contribute to productivity is very clear. Invest in walking and cycling infrastructure you get more cycling and walking. And unlike with road infrastructure, that doesn't lead to more air pollution, congestion and lost working days.

It leads to a healthier population, which research has shown to take half the sick days of non-cycling counterparts. With health also linked to performance, the potential productivity gains from a significant shift to cycling and walking could be significant. Reducing absenteeism alone could amount to £13.7 billion to the UK economy.

The economic returns from cycling and walking are so good that the Department for Transport has found that cycling and walking schemes frequently offer "high to very high" Benefit Cost Ratios (BCRs).

These are usually in the impressive region of 5 to 1 - meaning that every pound spent produces public benefits of £5. The best performing cycling example, the Linking Communities Fund, had a BCR of 10 to 1, while the best walking example from Living Streets came in with a BCR of 37 to 1.

A blast from the past

The other novel transport element from the Budget and productivity plan was the relinking of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED - more commonly referred to as 'road tax') with funding for roads.

To be specific, VED collected from applicable vehicles registered from 2017 onwards will go into a Roads Fund. This will all be spent on the Strategic Road Network - i.e., the 2% of the road network that consists of motorways and major A roads. 'Road tax' hasn't been ring-fenced for roads spending since 1937.

So the plan now is to use taxes collected from ownership of a polluting vehicle (zero carbon vehicles are exempt) to build roads to make way for even more polluting vehicles.

But still there seems to be no plan for how cycling funding is going to reach the Conservative aim of £10 per head.

It wasn't so long ago that George Osborne and David Cameron liked to be photographed cycling around the streets together. Now the Prime Minister says he finds it difficult to find the time to get on two wheels.

That's okay so long as he and his Chancellor are finding the time to properly fund England's first Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

We need a minimum spend of £10 per head on cycling over the next five years. Achieving that could well be the most productive thing the Prime Minister and Chancellor do in this Parliament.

SOURCE: Ecologist, 27/07/2015,