All eyes on National Infrastructure Commission - BikeBiz
Don't hold your breath

The first National Infrastructure Assessment will be published on Tuesday 10th July, but will it contain anything concrete about cycling?

The chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission said it would be “a watershed moment” in the delivery of infrastructure, but it's not yet known whether the Assessment will call for the kind of investment of cycling that's needed to bring levels of cycling in the UK up to those common in the Netherlands.

The Assessment will analyse the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs up to 2050, and make recommendations for meeting them. As well as transport infrastructure, the Assessment will be looking at water, digital technologies, waste and energy.

Sir John Armitt, chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, said: “Publication of the National Infrastructure Assessment will be a watershed moment for the delivery of the transport, digital, water and energy networks we rely on in our day-to-day lives."

He added: “Robust analysis and research, combined with new and innovative approaches to the subject matter, underpin this vital piece of work."

A 2014 statistical report from the Department for Transport showed that investing in cycling brings huge economic, social and health benefits, with some cycling schemes having a benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) of up to 35 to 1. More normally cycling schemes have BCRs of 5.5:1 – the Department for Transport said this means that "for every £1 of public money spent, the funded schemes provide £5.50 worth of social benefit."

The DfT's "Value for Money" guidance said a project will generally be regarded as "medium" if the BCR is between 1.5 and 2, and "high" if it is above 2. In transport terms, 35 to 1 is most definitely "off the scale".

To put this into perspective, the Eddington transport study of 2006 said the BCR for trunk roads was 4.66, local roads 4.23 and light rail schemes a measly 2.14. The UK's £43 billion HS2 rail project has a BCR of just 2.3.

The Eddington report recommended that the government should prioritise spending on transport schemes that generated high BCRs.

Many other reports come to the same conclusions – that cycling infrastructure is relatively cheap, and delivers many social, health, and environmental benefits – but significant amounts cash for cycling have yet to materialise. On the other hand, multi-million-pound schemes for expanding multi-lane highways get greenlighted almost constantly.

The National Infrastructure Commission was established in 2015, to provide independent and robust advice on the delivery of infrastructure in the UK.

Lord Adonis, the previous chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, warned last year that the UK faces gridlock on the roads and ever-worsening air quality unless the Government tackles the ‘three Cs’ – "Congestion, Capacity and Carbon".

He also said that "cycling facilities" were a "critical part of national infrastructure."

The need to invest in cycling infrastructure was featured in a National Infrastructure Commission press statement last year as well as a "Priorities for National Infrastructure" document, a precursor to the recommendations expected on 10th July.

This document called for more "alternatives to the private car, upgrading and expanding rail and metro systems, better facilities for cycling and walking and improved bus networks."

It also called on cities to "consider how to allocate road infrastructure as efficiently as possible," using more road space for higher capacity modes, such as cycling and walking as well as buses and light rail.

"New public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure is vital to tackling urban congestion and promoting healthy growth," added the document.

It does appear that the National Infrastructure Commission is now willing to call for millions for cycling. In its latest report it highlighted that £200m should be invested in creating better cycling conditions in Oxford and Cambridge.

Published today, the paper –  written by former cycling commissioner for London Andrew Gilligan – examines how cycling could tackle chronic congestion in the so-called "Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Growth Arc."

Gilligan calls for new protected cycleways in the cities to cut traffic congestion by 15 per cent in the next four years. 

His Running out of road report says that roads in the two cities – where up to 43 percent of commuter journeys are cycled – should be reshaped to reflect how people in them actually travel, with new separated cycleways on main roads, new off-road routes and re-modelled junctions to make them safer for both cyclists and pedestrians. 

Despite the high proportion of cyclists in both Oxford and Cambridge, policymakers treat them as marginal, argues Gilligan.

And more buses is not the answer, said Gilligan, pointing out that both cities are already well served by public transport.

"Without transport improvements, Oxford and Cambridge will seize up," claims Gilligan. 

"But none of the usual improvements work. New roadbuilding within these cities is impossible. Light rail is expensive and slow to deliver. There isn't even room in the centres of these cities for more buses. 

"But one simple answer is staring Oxford and Cambridge in the face: the bicycle. Getting more people to cycle is the quickest, cheapest and least disruptive way to relieve pressure on their roads."

And what's true for Oxford and Cambridge is true for other British cities.

In Greater Manchester, Chris Boardman has recommended the creation of "Beelines" – protected cycling and walking routes  – to keep that conurbation moving. Will the National Infrastructure Assessment make similar recommendations?

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