Opinion: Simple road schemes can achieve world-class cycling at a fraction of the cost

This article was published in 2021, in Magazine 152.

Robin Heydon
Robin Heydon

Ihe Department for Transport has recently published an interesting document called Decarbonising Transport that outlines how they will stop people ‘being poisoned by the very air they breathe’. To do this they would ‘make public transport, cycling and walking the natural first choice for all who can take it’.

They are proposing spending ₤2 billion over five years with the aim that half of all journeys in towns and cities will be cycled and walked by 2030. Not only that, but they say that they will deliver a world-class cycling and walking network in England by 2040.

That number, two billion, is a very big number. But it is spread over five years, so that would be ₤400,000,000 a year for the whole of England. The most recent population estimates I’ve seen suggest that there are 56.3 million people resident in England, which means that spending on walking and cycling would be approximately £7 per person per year.

How does that compare with the Netherlands? The most recent figures I could find suggest that they spend about €30 per person on cycling per annum. That’s approximately £25 per person per annum.

There is a saying that you shouldn’t listen to what politicians say but look where they spend the money to determine their policies. This means that even though they say ‘world-class cycling’ they are not spending the money at the rate that world-class cycling countries are spending. Over approximately the same period, the government is proposing to spend £28.8 billion on widening roads or building new ones. Spending on roads is over 14 times what is being spent on cycling infrastructure.

According to the Roads funding information pack (June 2020), the money for building new roads comes from the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). Interestingly, electric cars pay no VED and as the number of electric cars increases this road budget will decrease. By 2040, when every new car being sold will be electric there will be little money left for building or repairing roads.

Basically, if you want world-class cycling you need world-class spending. That would equate to £7.2 billion over five years in England – significantly higher than the £2 billion proposed, and still much less than the £28.8 billion being spent on cars.

There are some things in the strategy document that are good. There is strong support for school streets where through traffic is not permitted while the kids are arriving or leaving. There will be a new body called ‘Active Travel England’ to enforce standards. It would become a statutory consultee on planning applications for larger developments. With any luck, this will mean that junctions into these new developments will be designed to accommodate half of the traffic from the development being cycle traffic and not zero, and that the ‘cycling’ infrastructure is not just a path around the outside, but the main route through the middle, with the cars going around the outside.

How much money would the £2 billion mean for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire? Assuming there are about 280,000 people living in and around Cambridge, that would be only £2m a year for cycling. That’s not enough money for a single greenway, or trail, or any major road or junction improvement.

Closing a road like Carlyle Road to through traffic is a proven way to increase cycling.

Of course, there are very cheap ways of increasing cycling. Road diets, road pricing, and closures. These are proven ways to increase cycling. Road diets are expensive, moving kerbs lines and drainage. Road pricing requires lots of infrastructure and a payment structure. Closing a road to through traffic is easy, and cycling will increase. It is cheap, simple, and effective. Given that there is no money to do anything better, which roads would you close today?

Robin Heydon is Chair of Camcycle. This article was first published on 9 August, 2021, in the Cambridge News, where you can read his column each week.