Some notes on the National Cycling Strategy

I wrote this on Monday, but have been so busy I didn’t notice that I hadn’t tidied it up and posted it. But I don’t have time to tidy it up, so here it is, rambling and unfinished, and probably of interest only to a rather limited audience of campaigners…

A flurry of conversation seems to have broken out looking back at the National Cycling Strategy of 1996. This is good: understanding why past policies and campaigns failed, and learning how to do things differently, is important. And the current conversation is centred on a pretty fundamental disagreement over what exactly went wrong with that policy. Freewheeler has already described the dispute over which history is correct, and expresses some scepticism regarding this version of events which was given by Roger Geffen of the CTC:

Back in 1996, the cycling lobby managed to get some ‘fine words’ on cycling written into a new National Cycling Strategy (NCS), together with some ambitious targets for increased cycle use. It had taken several years of persistent effort, led by CTC, to get that far.

However, at that stage, the Government had made no commitment either to fund the NCS, or to integrate it into wider transport policy objectives. In other words, the targets to increase cycling weren’t seen either as a way of contributing to the wider aim of traffic reduction, nor were the aims of reduced traffic or reduced speed seen as necessary for cycling to flourish.

At the very moment when we needed to focus on securing funding for the NCS, and integrating it into a wider policy framework which supported cycling, the cycling lobby instead broke into a big argument about segregation. This merely provided Whitehall with a perfect excuse to allocate no funding to cycling – “if cyclists can’t agree what they want, what’s the point of funding it?” In other words, we allowed ourselves to be divided and ruled. Hence the NCS never got anywhere near achieving its targets (which were then abandoned c8 years later), and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

I’ve seen Geffen make these claims before, and, like Freewheeler, I’ve looked for corroborating evidence and never been able to find any. Quite the opposite. Having researched and written about the history of cycling policies (you’ll have to wait for that), I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling Geffen’s memory of the NCS with the published history. Geffen’s account doesn’t fit with what was happening either before or after the adoption of the policy in 1996.

Firstly, Geffen’s description of the policy’s context — that it was the result of years of persistent lobbying effort — doesn’t seem quite right. One must remember that transport policy was actually a comparatively high profile issue in 1996. The third major wave of road building, launched with Thatcher’s 1989 Roads for Prosperity paper, had led to the inevitable backlash and fierce protest, with the M11 Link, Twyford Down, Newbury Bypass and with Swampy at Fairmile. Lefty environmentalists hated the road building, but so did conservatives, concerned about the shires, heritage, their homes, and their chances at the looming election. At the same time the “new realism” of transport policy and planning, which recognised that accommodating car use growth can not be a sustainable policy, was spreading beyond the academy. And so George Young, the bicycling baronet, was appointed Transport Secretary in 1995 in order to shift the department’s policy. Road building was scrapped and the NCS was developed. So if the Conservatives and Labour were falling over themselves to say nice things about cycling in 1996, I fear it was less a case of the government suddenly giving in to CTC lobbying and more to do with the fact that voters across the spectrum had united against the extremely unpopular road building policy.

Second, Geffen portrays a policy which was written and targets which were set, but which then failed to get off the starting blocks because funding was cancelled. But this is not the National Cycling Strategy that the official documents describe. Granted, official documents are themselves hardly to be considered reliable histories of policy, but the discrepancy would still seem to warrant explanation. There are discrepancies with the original NCS document itself, but the more interesting contradictions are with this House of Commons brief history of cycling policy, with the 2005 DfT NCS review document (which led to the replacement of the NCS with Cycling England), and with Golbuff and Aldred’s history of cycling policy.

The National Cycling Strategy obviously failed. But not because it failed to be implemented. Far from quietly disappearing in 1996 while cyclists argued, the incoming Labour government — with John Prescott in charge of transport — took up the policy and increased its priority and the available money. Local authorities were instructed to develop cycling plans in their Local Transport Plans (the process by which central government part funded local transport projects back then). This is what Keith Bingham refers to in the piece that Freewheeler quotes from:

Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development.

The NCS was funded, by the mechanism that was (and in essence still is, with minor variations like LSTF) in place for funding such things, and things did get done. The NCS review of 2005 found that something in the region of £200,000 of the DfT’s money had been spent by local authorities implementing their cycling plans, buying enough paint for 674 advance stop lines, 3093 kilometres of gutter cycle lane/car parking bays, and 4072 kilometres of shared pavements, along with several thousand cycle parking places.

This was an era of a great proliferation in useless facilities, and all the while that this crap got built, people carried on abandoning the bicycle as a mode of transport.

(The decline in use private transport over this period is compensated for by a great increase in the use of trains and, in London at least, buses.)

£200k spread across the whole nation (well, the DfT’s jurisdiction of England excluding London, at least) and several years is obviously as good as nothing — worse than nothing when it’s paying for crap like advance stop lines and other useless lines painted on roads. But how were the government to know otherwise? The mantra of the day was that cyclists are cheap to provide for: all they need is some Sheffield stands, a bit of paint, and “improved road user courtesy“, which is easy, right?

The strategy failed not because of a lack of funding but because of a lack of any understanding in government — national and local — about what needed to be done and why. The miserly sums spent on it merely reflect the fact that nobody had any idea of the scale of the problem or of the substantial changes that are required to fix it.

The main fundamental flaw in the NCS is that which was identified by the 2005 review: that local authorities — overstretched and lacking the necessary expertise, and in some cases actively opposed to the policy — were put in charge of implementing national policy, with inadequate guidance and resources. The miserly sums spent reflect less central government’s refusal to pay, and more local authorities’ lack of clue and/or care about what they actually need to do to break down the barriers to cycling. It’s why Cycling England was created to replace the NCS in response to the 2005 review, with an annual budget soon rising to 2000 times the amount the department was spending each year on local authority delivery of the NCS, and close supervision of what the money was being spent on.

The other big flaw — the one which was only partially recognised by the review — was that guidance for what to provide for cycling was not, and (despite revision) still is not, fit for purpose. Advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what authorities were told they should be painting, and advance stop lines and crappy cycle lanes are what got painted.

The lessons from the NCS episode are that local authorities shouldn’t be put in charge of delivering national transport policies, and that there’s no point in having a policy at all if the people in charge of it don’t know what works and what doesn’t and what actually needs to be done or even why they should be doing it.

The final thing to comment on is the claim that another reason for the failure of the NCS is that it was not set in a wider framework for modal shift. In fact, the history of cycling policy that I’ve given is very closely tied up with the wider transport policies, which are documented at length in Shaw and Docherty’s Traffic Jam — a review of policy in the New Labour era. I’ve already described the context of the rise of the NCS: the dramatic demonstration that public opinion was against road building, a shift in policy away from attempting to accommodate growth in car use, and the installation of a transport secretary friendly to cycling. When Labour took over in 1997, we got in John Prescott a very rare thing: a transport secretary who seemed to actually want the portfolio, and who set out a vision, the New Deal For Transport, the opening lines of which reiterate the consensus for radical change in policy at that time, and propose an “integrated” and “sustainable” transport system. Prescott promised investment across the board, including giving 25 cities tram networks.

But the government were shaken when the “consensus” for reducing car use was challenged by hauliers blockading refineries in 2000, and the new deal had the fight taken out of it when John Prescott moved on from transport in 2001. Transport policy was crippled by the fact that there was strong public opinion against accommodating growth in car and truck use, but some equally strong opinions and powerful forces against taking from the road to provide for the alternatives. And so after Prescott a succession of short tenured transport secretaries — bland career politicians hoping to avoid controversy — passed through without really doing anything much at all. Without any leadership, the the tram networks quietly died, “sustainably” and “integration” lost all meaning, and the National Cycling Strategy plodded along without anybody really noticing how ineffective it was until 2005.

I could continue and go into whether it’s really more important to have one united “cycling lobby” than to at least have a clear voice asking for the right things, either then or now, but this post is already long and rambling enough, and I’ve no time for pruning and editing.

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5 responses to “Some notes on the National Cycling Strategy

  1. I feel like I’ve read an excellent history piece. This is a brilliant summary of how good intentions fail if not properly managed. Excellent piece.

  2. I too am going to plead a lack of time in not going over the whole history of the period.

    However, I can say one thing: essentially it comes down to whether government wants to reduce and/or properly regulate motor vehicle traffic. Without this you are not going to properly support cycling.

    Where I think you are wrong is in praising Prescott. He said some fine words about reducing motor traffic, but failed to carry them through – it wasn’t just his succesors. Take a look at http://rdrf.org.uk/2011/03/the-double-disaster-of-john-prescott/#more-305 for an account (although I may have exaggerated the figures ion growth of motor traffic). Anyway, the point is that he made his famous comment about wanting to be held to a commitment towards reducing car use – and car use went up on his watch.

  3. Pingback: Is the CTC helping or hindering bike use in the UK? | The Alternative Department for Transport

  4. Rambling and unfinished it might be, but it is nonetheless useful … my own official stance is not to get sucked into the wretched infighting that seems to plague ‘cycling advocacy’, but in order to do that, I need an accurate account of the history …

  5. One bit which has been missed off Roger’s account of 1996 is what the CTC’s stance was at the time. I assume they were as anti-infra as ever back then, were they the ones causing the argument?

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