Cycling: an under resourced solution supplier
The theme for Road Safety Week this year is 'drive less, live more'. With that in mind, Brake's former senior community engagement officer Philip Goose looks at the cycling infrastructure that is currently in place and how Britain could and probably should follow the lead of the Netherlands in creating road use for all. Road Safety Week 2015 takes place November 23-29.
It is not surprising that our politicians spend most of their time debating the big issues of the day. Stretched family budgets. Rising public transport costs. Congested cities. The death of the high street shop. Creating cohesive communities. Obesity, public health, the strain on our National Health Service. Pollution and climate change.
It is therefore strange that advocates for cycling have to spend so much time trying to put cycling on the political agenda, when it offers a simple solution to all of these problems.
This Road Safety Week our theme is 'Drive less, live more'. We will be encouraging individuals to make positive change by reducing the amount they drive, and recognise the benefits that choosing sustainable options brings.
However we can't make major change in people's transport choices without a major change in how we approach provision for cycling. It is estimated that 38% of all trips in Amsterdam are made by bike, compared with just 2% in London. That is a huge difference. We can't kid ourselves by thinking that this disparity can be put down to the Dutch having a more liberal, eco-friendly character, or that Dutch drivers inherently give more consideration to those who cycle.
As individuals we will always choose the option that is more convenient. The Dutch have been able to make cycling a more attractive option than driving in a large proportion of cases. This hasn't been by penalising drivers, but by creating separate cycling routes to remove the need for people who want to cycle to mix on the same roads as cars and other vehicles. In 2014 113 people were killed when cycling in the UK – and the only reason this number is as relatively low as it is, is due to the low percentage of journeys made by bike in the UK. By creating systems that are safe first and foremost, people in the Netherlands don't have to worry about the risk of potential death or serious injury every time they head out for a journey, whether to head to the shops or to work or school. This also massively widens the demographic of cycling, catering for all regardless of age or gender.
Our road space has always been funded by all. In the UK road tax, paid for by drivers of cars or vehicle drivers, was abolished in 1937, and at any rate never covered the full cost of road infrastructure spending. Other vehicle taxes, not ringfenced for roads spending at any rate, such as Vehicle Excise Duty and fuel duty are related to the harm caused by pollution and fossil fuel use, which could equally be applied to bicycles but would result in zero income. In 2015 the government announced that by 2020 Vehicle Excise Duty would be ringfenced, but only for expenditure on the strategic road network, motorways and major trunk roads – types of roads that bicycles are excluded from by law or by the cycling environment.
The same amount of every individual's tax bill, from their council tax, income tax, VAT, goes toward our road space infrastructure and environment. It is strange therefore that our roads have been designed purely for car dependency at the exclusion of cycling, with many cities increasingly becoming 'motorway cities'.
Around half of UK residents do not own a car, and yet our roads are not designed for them. The debate about cycling infrastructure is also not about making the experience more pleasant for the small number of people who do cycle (although it will). All you need to do is look at pictures of people cycling in the Netherlands to see the number and diversity of people cycling there to realise that there is a latent desire to cycle – to drive less.
In the 1970s the Netherlands were similarly car dependent. By taking a serious and ambitious approach to redesigning their transport network they were able to radically change their cycling environment, helping to contribute solutions to the problems I mentioned at the top of this piece. I hope that as part of Road Safety Week our decision makers are inspired by the calls of people who want to drive less, live more, and help to create the environment for them to do so.