This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 108.
Let’s keep it simple: failures in the bicycle infrastructure are the most important barrier to increased cycling rates. A large proportion of the population is waiting. They are waiting for the bike paths which will get them out of their cars and to their destinations. How much longer will they have to wait?
If you design roads which cyclists perceive as safe, they will come. In large numbers. This is not rocket science. The repression of this demand for cycling is hurting all of us, but so far the road network is letting down those who want to give it a try.
If you want to give more people a choice of healthy and green transport options, then you also have to address the way in which car users (and politicians) have assumed that roads are for cars only. You have to reverse many decades of policy decisions which have favoured and encouraged car use. During this time very large amounts of public money have been spent almost exclusively for the benefit of those who drive a car. This has created a sense of natural entitlement among car users, who not only think the road is theirs, but also that they have paid for it.
During the local elections one (unsuccessful) candidate gave us a good display of this mind set when he repeated the mantra that cyclists do not pay to use the road. Indeed, the candidate failed to realise that road tax was abolished in 1937. But he is quite right to raise the issue of transport costs, and to make a distinction between what is paid by the user and what is paid from general taxation. These are important political questions: should taxpayer money be spent to subsidise car trips? Or should we rather give higher subsidies to train trips? And how much should we invest in cycling?
Every mile cycled benefits the community
Considering these questions, it helps to know that every mile cycled actually benefits the community, whereas every mile driven burdens the community with additional costs. In monetary terms, the amounts are significant. In Copenhagen the social benefits of cycling have been estimated at 26 pence per mile, whereas the social costs of driving a car come in at 13 pence. That is a net gain of 39 pence for every mile if your bicycle-welcoming roads can encourage a driver to hop on a bike instead (see www.sustainablecitiescollective.com/node/38206).
A similar study for the EU has determined that the annual external costs of driving a car come in at £1,359, which means that every resident, including cyclists, contributes £634 to the social costs of a car using the road (see www.ecf.com/news/car-users-pollute-but-do-not-foot-the-bill). Tables turned: those who do not drive subsidise those who use a car.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have now reached the historic high of 400 parts per million. Who could doubt the urgency of reducing the use of carbon fuels? The obesity levels among school children are at 20% and rising. Is it not time to make our roads more welcoming for children on bikes? Looking at the very deserving and exciting bids that have been submitted from all parts of the country for the Cycle City Ambition Grant, it is striking how many local authorities are making great strides in accommodating those who want to get around without a car. They are setting ambitious mode-share goals, they are developing striking visions for healthy and green transport, for better communities. Advancing the transport and health collaborative agenda is at the core of this work. Perhaps the most exciting piece of news, reported in our last issue, is the Mayor of London’s far-reaching plans for a reallocation of road space to healthy and active modes. We are looking forward to working with the newly elected county councillors so that Cambridge can secure and expand its place as a national leader in this area.