Tag Archives: coalition government

What the ministers will say today

I’ve mentioned before that parliamentary select committees tend to be pretty good. Slightly less of the absurd archaic jargon and formality and front-bench pantomime of the House of Commons and slightly more incisive discussion and in-depth inquiry. At their best, they will ask all the right questions and won’t accept evasive non-answers. This morning, the House of Commons Transport Committee will be putting their questions on cycling to junior ministers — Mike Penning, Roads Minister, and Norman Baker, Under-Secretary for The Bits Of Transport The Government Doesn’t Really Care About. I don’t know whether it is a good or a bad sign that they are [choosing to / have run out of ideas and been forced to] turn to twitter for inspiration on what to ask. I’ll choose to interpret it as an acknowledgement of the extent to which online discussion has moved the cycling argument and campaigning forward over the past couple of years.

Lots of great questions have been tweeted. A few of them are spot on. A few of them are completely bonkers. Most of them are nice, but completely wrong for this forum. “How do we make this an 8-80 cycling country?” Right question, wrong situation. This should be a proper forceful cross examination. Given their record, the ministers should feel like they’re on trial.

The exact questions that come up are not the most important things about the session. Whatever opening questions are thrown at them, we know that the ministers will bring out their stock evasive statements. We know that they will say these things because it’s what the ministers always say when questioned about cycling, and because it’s what so many of their predecessors have said for thirty years or more. The only thing that could stop the ministers from saying these things is if a member on the committee has been so taken in by the evasive statements that they say it themselves before the ministers have a chance to. I have already judged the ministers for the fact that will be saying these things. I will judge the committee by whether they let the ministers get away with it.

The ministers will say:

1. “Cycling is booming.” Mike Penning said it just last week in questions in the house: “Cycling is very popular in this country, and becoming even more so.” As we’ve seen, at a national level, there is little more cycling now than there was when cycling hit rock bottom in the early 1970s. Cycling has seen small fluctuations and localised booms and busts, largely unrelated to cycling-specific policy, for three decades. If government policies and actions are responsible for the current levels of cycling, then that does not reflect well on the government. Even if it were true that “cycling is booming” now — as politicians have claimed so many times before — the ministers should have to explain how they are going to capture and build upon the boom this time around and avoid, as in previous “booms”, the bubble bursting.

2. “We’re funding Bikeability.” Despite pantomime bad guy John Griffin’s recent claims that cycling proficiency is “not on the agenda any more”, cycle training is one of the few things that the current government has a relatively good record on — as it never passes up on an opportunity to remind us. There are several interesting problems with cycle training (which I’ll probably get around to discussing on the blog one day), but on balance, it’s probably a good thing that the government are funding it. Governments have been boasting about “promoting” cycle training and “encouraging local authorities” to fund it for at least as long as they’ve been talking about the “boom” in cycling, but it wasn’t until 2006 that central government (through Cycling England) finally gave up prodding reluctant local authorities and started paying for it themselves (Scotland, as usual, beat England to it by a few years; London still hasn’t caught up with England: the mayor continues to rely on the patchy coverage of the boroughs). It’s a good thing that this government decided to save the Bikeability training programme from the ruins of Cycling England, but it’s time they stopped using this fact to distract from the still gaping policy, strategy, expertise and funding gap left in Cycling England’s place. Bikeability on its own does nothing to deliver a cycling policy. The government promised very early on to fund Bikeability for the duration at a rate of £11 million per year, and they confirmed this in the local transport policy paper in January last year. That’s it. Job done for the term of this government. It’s time they stopped putting out new press releases “announcing” the funding every few months, and stopped citing it as evidence that they are working hard and making progress.

3. “Local authorities can bid for LSTF funds: it is right that local authorities decide what to do in their area, we can only encourage them.”  The we’ll-scrap-everything-and-call-it-localism thing. We’ve tried this approach to delivering on cycling policy before. For quarter of a century, in fact. In 1982 the Thatcher government had a policy for growing cycling. They “encouraged” local authorities to include cycling projects in amongst all the big road projects that they submitted for central funding. In 1995 the Major government went much further and created the National Cycling Strategy, which set a target of quadrupling the cycling rates by 2012, and they “encouraged” local authorities to implement it. These policies came and went, failing to make the slightest difference to the national cycling rates because they relied entirely on reluctant local authorities to implement national policy. Authorities took the grants, generated plenty of work for their highways departments, but rarely managed to generate any cycling. The same thing can be seen now with grants for sustainable transport, a large part of which seem to be cleverly diverted into road schemes disguised as things like “bus rapid transit routes” or “town centre pedestrianisation (with diversionary routes)”. Few local authorities have the vision or the expertise to do really great things for cycling with the grants on offer. That is itself a problem, but especially so when local authorities are expected to deliver national policy on cycling. It is, after all, why the ministers don’t rely on “localism” in the delivery of cycle training.

The Blair government, after eight years of continuing this course while repeatedly revising down the targets of the National Cycling Strategy as the deadlines flew past without a hint of any real “cycling boom”, finally acknowledged that this doesn’t work:

The Government are committed to encouraging more cycling in England, given the benefits in terms of transport, public health and the environment. Today the Department for Transport is publishing a review of the 1996 National Cycling Strategy… The key findings of the review are that:

  1. whilst investment in cycling has increased substantially in recent years, there has been no commensurate increase in cycling levels;
  2. The Government need to get a better return on their collective investment in cycling—for transport, sport, leisure and tourism;
  3. cycling is not sufficient a priority for local authorities that we can rely on them as exclusively as we have to date to deliver an increase in cycling.

And so Cycling England was set up — not to ride roughshod over local councils and local people, but to lend to them expertise and oversight to ensure that what little money the government did give to cycling would be spent efficiently and effectively. It was the first sign of progress after 25 years of trying the same things over and over without any growth in cycling, and during its tragically short lifetime it managed to do more with the little resources it was given than the sum of local authority achievement from the previous quarter of a century of “encouragement”.

As Earl Howe, Conservative minister at the Department of Health, described the very much not “booming” cycling rates in 2008 when still in opposition:

How the Government have allowed that dismal situation to come about is not particularly difficult to diagnose; they took their eye off the ball. They did not manage to hold local authorities properly to account for delivering on the targets. The ball was picked up again in 2005, when Cycling England was created…

The present coalition government burned Cycling England on the bonfire of the quangos. It was one single sentence buried in a gesture to briefly placate right-wing newspaper editors. They didn’t just drop the ball, they kicked it into the long grass. And so we are back in the same position as 1982, 1995, 2005, and every year in-between: a national policy ostensibly to enable and encourage cycling, but which relies on usually underfunded, often unwilling, not infrequently incompetent, and always misadvised local authorities for implementation. When the ministers admit that, yes, their government abolished Cycling England, they will point to the LSTF and claim that the money is still there. But the point is not that the funding was taken away. It is that the ministers have deliberately opted for, in the words of the 2005 report, a worse return on their investment. If, that is, local authorities consider it a priority to put in bids for cycling projects at all.

If the ministers don’t say these things, or use any of the other tired stock distractions and excuses of thirty years of failing to deliver, I can at least be consoled in my embarrassment of being wrong in public by the pleasant surprise that the stuck record has been changed. But I think they will say these things. They always say these things, and these things have always been said, since the policy to “encourage” cycling was set more than three decades ago. I hope that the select committee don’t let them get away with it. The ministers should feel like they’re on trial for what their government has done.

Privatising roads might be silly, but does it really matter?

So the government is looking into some form of privatisation of the motorways and trunk roads that are still under their control — that is, the English Highways Agency network.

It sounds radical, it sounds like it could be frightening, it sounds almost like a parody. Actually, it’s boring. It’s probably even more boring than the familiar private roads like the M6 Toll and all our big motorway suspension bridges. It will probably turn out to be about as boring as the management of motorways and trunk roads in Scotland, where private companies manage and maintain the roads using railways-style regional franchises. You’ll know them by the names and emergency contact numbers plastered over the countryside on massive signs, but otherwise, the difference they make to the road user is entirely hidden: the roads are still toll-free and they’re still full of potholes. As far as I can tell, the main purpose of this kind of “privatisation”, like with Network Rail, is as a quick way of fiddling the accounts on the national debt. The extra billions that these things inevitably end up costing taxpayers are apparently worth it for the extra tens of billions of borrowing being kept off the national books, so that George Osborne can appear to be on trajectory for his arbitrary debt reduction target.

I wouldn’t worry too much about any implications for cyclists. England’s trunk roads network is way beyond the stage where anybody would dare cycle on it. We’re talking about motorways and motorways in all but name.

Where things might matter is with the prime-minister’s suggestion that privatisation might allow large-scale road construction programmes to recommence, with the idea that companies who build new roads could collect tolls on them capturing the headlines. It would be a shame if this happened. The Tories should try to think back and remember why they abandoned that approach last time.

But do we actually have to worry about a return to large-scale motorway construction led by private investors? I not sure we do. Quite aside from the many reasons that forced the Tories to abandon that unpopular policy last time around, I can’t imagine the private sector wanting to invest in a dying technology.

Local Transport Today reported this week that, despite private motor vehicle use in London being in near constant decline for thirteen years, the Department for Transport are standing by their prediction that in two decades time, traffic in London will be a whopping 43% above 2010 levels. Similar predictions are made for the rest of England, with 44% in the country as a whole. Given the exodus of young people from learning to drive, who do they think will be driving this traffic in the mid 2030s? What technology or fuel are they expecting to be an affordable means of powering all this traffic? Where do they think it’s going to go? This is the city whose streets are famously “too narrow”, whenever you propose giving some street space to something other than private motor traffic, but which apparently have room spare for 43% more of that.

Look at it. Just look at it.

Look at it. Just look at it.

What purpose could such absurd and crudely fantastical forecasts of traffic growth and confident rejections of the idea that motoring has peaked and is passing have? Is it perhaps meant to be the prediction in a predict-and-provide programme? Or is it less a prediction and more an ambition, for this greenest-ever-government? Are they pining for The Great Car Economy?

It’s true that car use fell in tandem with the economy, but if we want to stop the plummeting economy, we have to come to terms with the fact that both falls are merely symptoms of the fact that the cheap fuel that powered both cars and economy is a thing of the past. The lines on that graph simply aren’t possible these days.

Whatever. I can’t see private investors having such confidence in roads as a growth market that’s worth putting their money in. Unless someone can give them plausible answers to the questions like “by the time the road is built, who will want to drive on it?” and “how will they power their vehicles, and how will they be able to afford that?”, I’m not sure they’re going to want to take the risk on a the basis of a made up graph.

This quite aside from experience with the M6 Toll Road, whose operating income still doesn’t, and didn’t even during the economic boom times, come close to paying off the annual interest on its construction costs, despite attempts by the road’s owners to encourage new development around its junctions. Turns out that, despite their moaning, most people are quite happy to sit in traffic jams on the old roads if it saves a few quid on the toll.

But there is potentially another reason why Cameron might want to offload our motorways, beyond fiddling the national debt or encouraging new construction. The old Severn Bridge is falling down. The Scots are spending £790 million replacing the Forth Road Bridge (though nearby infrastructure projects suggest that the final bill might end up at £7.9 billion). Who knows how much the emergency repairs to the Hammersmith Flyover will end up costing London? The main motorway and trunk road construction boom began in the late 1950s, and a big chunk of engineering is about to reach the end of its design life, corroded and crumbled by rock salt, ice and billions of truck movements. What if privatising the motorways is just preparation by central government for distancing themselves from the difficult decisions of whether to repair, replace or abandon our collapsing concrete highways in the sky?

Nudge nudge, do you follow me?

Call me a stereotype of the scientist buried in his own irrelevant little world, but it occurred to me that I know far more about how to manipulate the behaviour of transformed cell lines than that of people. The War On The Motorist™ was, of course, part of the great evil Labour project to change some of our more anti-social and self-destructive behaviours. So I thought I should probably find out about how these government-led behavioural change projects work.

There are, of course, all sorts of different ways that governments can try to reduce destructive behaviour, from outlawing it to asking nicely, via making the bad options harder and making the good options easier:

(This table, incidentally, neatly describes where the chaps at Cycle Chat slipped up when claiming that the rise in domestic recycling rates demonstrates that we can achieve mass cycling without cycling facilities: mass domestic recycling required a change in the physical environment — kerbside recycling boxes — exactly equivalent to the changes to the physical environment that are required before we can expect most people to cycle.)

The current government has an ideological bias against some of these varieties of behavioural change, and in favour of others.* Regulation and taxation is, of course, off the agenda. Rather, the government says it wants to influence behaviour by making it easier for us to make the right choices. It will do this, it claims, without making the bad choices impossible or even more expensive, and without even requiring our conscious deliberation. In the fashionable pop-economics terminology, it’s going to “nudge” us in the right direction.

The pop-economics writers have some favourite examples of “nudges”. Changing the environment by putting the fruit bowl in plain view and easy reach, without banning the junk food option. Or reducing laundry loads by changing the hotel bathroom signs from “hang your towel on the rack if you are going to reuse it” to “most guests hang their towels up and reuse them”. The environment or the information nudges people into making the right choice, without actually taking choice from them.

It all sounds very nice, but I wonder what the evidence says about the government’s approach? Does it really work? Are they doing it right? And what does it mean for transport and The War On The Motorist?

Luckily, the House of Lords Sci & Tech select committee are ahead of me. I like select committees. So far as I can tell, their job is to closely and carefully scrutinise what the government is doing (or failing to do), point out when the evidence indicates that they’re messing things up, and then to be completely ignored by government, media, and the unfortunate oblivious electorate. The HoL Sci & Tech committee produced a report a couple of weeks ago looking at the present government’s approach to behaviour change programmes, and in particular, the extent to which they were informed by the evidence of what works and what is worthwhile. I’ve been scrolling through it and will probably dump a load of thoughts on the blog this week.

My initial concern was that, though it speaks of nudges and wanting to avoid limiting choice through regulation, it is not regulation that the government is really trying to avoid: it is spending money on doing a job properly. We’ll see if I’m at all reassured by the time I’ve finished digesting it and posting about it…

* Of course, the far end of the libertorian wing will object to any and all government-led behavioural change, but I will assume for now that we all understand why we need it, and why we need it done properly

This pretense of neutrality

On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:

LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:

“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”

Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose.  Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.

People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train.  Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.

It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world.  And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision.  Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics.  These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.

This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport.  Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.

A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).

First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built.  The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East.  But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made.  So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed.  Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it.  Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way.  The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”.  Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.

Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored.  The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network.  In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway.  About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted.  Why?  Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk.  The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.

There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world.  That difference is latent demand.  There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands.  The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.

(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)

London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around.  Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available.  Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t.  Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved.  Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis.  The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options.  That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.

I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.

Punch and Judy town planning policy

“Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government put these words in a press release and today 221 national and local newspaper journalists* copypasted them into their newspapers, noticing nothing nonsensical in their conjunction.  Great job, The Media.

The press release was announcing the abolition of two ten year old Labour policies: Planning Policy Guidance 13: Transport (PPG13), and Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing (PPS3).  The department spin this as the abolition of an “encouragement” to local councils to charge for town-centre car parking, and of a rule that limited car parking in new developments in the hope that fewer residents would own cars as a result.

Given that the war “on” motorists is a war between motorists as ever more of them compete for increasingly scarce land and resources, these policies will of course merely serve to make people’s lives even more miserable as they sit in a whole new level of congestion.  Not that I expect there to be any noticeable difference to most people’s lives as a result of this policy — it’s a drop in the ocean given the mess that we’re in.  And anyway, the policy merely devolves these decisions to local councils, who are unlikely to make any changes given their own dire situations.

Philip Hammond said, “this Government recognises that cars are a lifeline for many people.”  Which is interesting, because a lifeline is “a line to which a drowning or falling victim may cling to.”  The person on the end of a lifeline did not intend to be there, and he does not intend to stay there.  To get there, something has gone wrong, and the lifeline user intends to leave the lifeline behind as soon his feet are safely back on solid ground.  Lots of people will tell you that they have no choice but to drive a car, but most of them would rather they didn’t have to.  The car is a lifeline that have grasped after the doctor’s surgery closed, and then the butcher and baker closed, and then the library closed, and then the post-office closed — all because of the rise of car-dependent development around them.  These people don’t want to have to drive twenty miles to town.  They want their services back.  Philip Hammond’s policy is to encourage new developments that force people to use a car against their will; he’s pushing you overboard and expecting you to be grateful as you’re dragged along on a “lifeline”.

On the announcement, “Decentralisation Minister” Greg Clark said something that is actually mostly true:

“Limiting the number of drives and garages in new homes doesn’t make cars disappear – it just clogs residential roads with parked cars and makes drivers cruise the streets hunting for a precious parking space.”

But this is no excuse for giving up.  It is a fact that there is far more wrong with recent development patterns than just car parking; car parking alone does not create car dependent communities.  But we have to tackle all of the problems — we need more action, not less — and car parking was a start, at least.

And of course, Hammond again plugs his hoverboard development programme.  I know I should have no reason to be surprised by the depths to which British politicians and newspapers can sink, but the scale of the current farce is just amazing.  It looks like Hammond’s entire tenure as transport minister will be based on the recurring pantomime of riding his magic car to rescue the beautiful Motorist from the nasty Labour men and their War.  Apparently this is the “new kind of politics“.

* or, rather, 221 websites indexed by Google News, which is an overlapping, but not identical set.  And some of nationals at least didn’t swallow the line whole.

Pickles and Hammond to end the war on motorists

The Coalition Government Don’t Care About Your Transport Needs

The Telegraph today got hold of a leaked document detailing the quangos the government plan to scrap under their brutal “spending review”, which has felt more akin to a knife in the gut than a budgeting exercise. Amongst those for the chop are Cycling England and the Disabled Person’s Advisory Committee proving yet against that the Tories and Lib Dems don’t care about your transport needs. Cycling England work hard to deliver, using a very limited budget to get thousands of children and adults cycling. This pie chart shows how negligible the spend on Cycling England is in comparison to the total transport spend:

Even the Department of Transport’s own figures show a benefit to cost ratio of 3:1(links to PDF) Cycling England do excellent work, with a high profile for a team of only three full time member sof staff, getting school kids cycling by identifying safe cycle routes, helping to build cycle racks, and coordinating the national institution that is the Cycling Proficiency Scheme. If we’re to combat childhood obesity, doing things like cutting Cycling England and cutting free swimming are the stupidest things imaginable: they lower the likelihood that exercise becomes part of peoples routines at an early age, and have such high returns for such low costs that they make no difference to the spending of the public sector. Until, that is, 30 years down the line, heart disease and stroke rates implode. Just yesterday, ministers reported that school sports were growing, but not fast enough and that interest in cycling was surging. And now they are cutting an organisation that fosters exactly that.

The loss of the Disabled Person’s Advisory Committee is indicative of the lack of consideration towards disabled people and their transport needs that has become endemic. Recently, as reported here by Adam Bienkov, the Tory London Assembly Members walked out of a debate on staffing at TfL ticket offices whilst members of disability rights group Transport for All campaigned outside. It’s tough enough to get around cities and rural areas with a disability, without having local and national government decide they’d rather save a few pennies than ask you what you need, or how you’d like to get around the streets and community you call your home. But when a government reduce society to pennies, pounds and economic terms instead of people, families and community bonds, that’s what we get.

So in summary, this government don’t care about public transport. They don’t care about eco-friendly transport. They don’t care about transport that benefits people. They don’t care about transport that benefits the marginalised. They don’t care about transport that works for the poor. They don’t care about the type of transport that most people in cities use. They hate bus passes, they hate bikes, they love cars. I hate this government.

–Dawn