In November last year the Department for Transport invited the great and good of cycling to Bristol to hear the deputy prime minister announce the coalition government would be giving £214m of new cash to eight English cities to bolster their efforts in promoting cycling (and walking). Nick Clegg said he was passionately in favour of getting Brits out of cars for their health and well-being. He told a receptive audience that the NHS could save billions of pounds if more people cycled to work. Just days later Clegg was seen on TV being passionate about lavishing £15bn on "the biggest road building programme in a generation", a plan that can only but lock Brits into car-dependency, and bad health.
Bike engineer Keith Bontrager has a famous aphorism: "Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick Two." Here’s a revised version of that: "Motoring. Cycling. Walking. Pick two. (And not the motoring one.)” If the government was truly in favour of saving money on the NHS and getting more people travelling actively it would rein back car-use. This won’t happen for the obvious reasons that building more roads to "cure congestion" seems to be a no-brainer to most people; the Treasury is addicted to the money that motoring generates; and we live in a democracy where the majority are motorised.
Despite its popularity as a solution, building more roads will not solve the problem of congestion. History teaches us that adding more facilities to drive creates more reasons to drive. The theory of induced demand has been proved right on so many occasions it’s as solid, although not as well known, as the theory of gravity.
Induced demand ain’t all bad – it could work for cycling and walking: build it and they will come. But it’s not good enough to build wider pavements and oodles of kerb-protected cycleways, motoring would have to be restricted in towns and cities at the same time. I don’t mean blanket bans for all motor cars at all times (although cities such as Helsinki and Basel are doing just that) I mean equitable roadspace reallocation.
So, should we pin all our public realm hopes on the expectation that the coalition government will get booted out at the next election? Sadly, it seems a change of administration will make little difference. Michael Dugher, the new shadow transport secretary, criticised the government’s road building plans for not going far and fast enough. Dugher has also made positive noises about cycling (and walking) but by buying in to "predict and provide", the DfT’s long ago discredited plan for clogging up the nation’s roads, he has shown himself to be yet another politician without a firm grasp of what the future holds if car dependency is so lavishly encouraged.
The overwhelming number of daily journeys are pitifully short (most are less than 5 miles, and a truly amazing amount are less than one mile) but the majority of people still drive everywhere. In the long-term this is unsustainable. Think traffic is bad now? If all the new roads get built congestion will get a whole lot worse.
This industry of ours manufactures one of the solutions to gridlock. Transportation cycling would grow faster (and be more friendly to newcomers) if the government truly supported it, and supported it with the sort of guaranteed long-term funding that motoring is now being promised. I live in hope that one day we’ll get a bunch of politicians who’ll champion mobility not motoring.