Beware ministers bearing targets

The Transport Secretary says the government “want half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030.” But targets are useless if you don’t have a plan to make them happen.

In 1996 — 25 years ago this July — a tired Conservative government, wounded from a broad backlash against its road building programme and fearing a rejuvenated Labour party promising progressive transport policies, launched the National Cycling Strategy (NCS). It set a target for mode share: 10% of journeys in the UK would be cycled by 2012.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about this policy was that it didn’t need the government to do anything.

I recall transport journalist Christian Wolmar demanding Sir George Young, the secretary of state for transport, to tell us where the money was.

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 ran for the best part of a decade, giving us a load of advance stop lines and little bits of “cycle facility” that looked like conceptual art installations. But, adrift from the rest of transport policy and national and local planning, with little in the way of action, money or plan to back it up, it made absolutely no discernable impact on modal share — in fact, Britons were making fewer journeys by bike in 2012 than in 1996.

The NCS is just one of many pledges, “ambitions”, “visions” and targets that have been made by nearly every government, devolved administration and major party over the past quarter of a century, each declaring that they would like to see X% mode share for cycling by Y date. Councils pick up these numbers and write the same empty promises into their Local Transport Plans. And as the date slowly creeps close enough to start feeling real, while zero progress has been made, the target is quietly forgotten — or, if campaigners are persistent enough, history is rewritten so that the target was never a literal target, but a representation of our aspiration.

Like setting climate emissions targets to keep atmospheric warming below a set level, we set a 10 year target, procrastinate for 10 years, discover that the problem is now even worse than it was, and we need to set a correspondingly bigger 10 year target.

Visions are important… and dangerous

And so to Grant Shapps, who some readers will be surprised to learn, while others will be surprised when they remember (though none more so than he is himself) is the Secretary of State for Transport. Reports that he has confirmed the government have a “vision for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030″ got top billing in the active travel sphere this week, and a few people even got excited about it.

Much of the response has been that a vision is great, but it’s pointless without the action and money to back it up. And they’re right. Visions are great, they get everyone on the same page, and enable them to design and plan the right policies to deliver it. And they’re right, a vision alone is a waste of everyone’s time if you just wish for it without working for it.

But visions and targets can also be dangerous, when they create the illusion that the situation is under control. Consider this example from 2017, in which Sustrans commissioned a study into air pollution so that they could press release the results and use them to raise awareness. Here’s how it was reported:

Death from air pollution would be cut if UK hits walking and cycling targets

If the UK hits government targets for walking and cycling more than 13,000 lives and almost £10bn would be saved over the next decade, according to a new report.

The UK isn’t hitting government targets for walking and cycling, of course, it is failing again and again to hit targets for walking and cycling. But that’s not what a casual reader hears from this story. To the casual reader it looks like air pollution is a problem, but the government has the problem in hand. They have targets. They must be doing something about it, and this story says that good things will result from the government’s target. Good on the government! If Sustrans’s intention was to increase political pressure on the government to deliver by raising public awareness of the problem, this is surely a flop.

Beware of visions and targets. A vision without a plan for a delivery is just a fantasy. But if you let it, it can delay and diffuse pressure until the clock ticks down and it’s time to reset the target.

You can’t plan the mode share of one mode anyway

The other big failure of targets for cycling and/or walking mode share, even when they are backed up with some kind of plan or policy or funding, is that you can’t plan the mode share of individual modes in isolation. Mode share is by definition a proportion of all journeys, it is dependent on the forces acting on all the available modes, a tangled web of economic, cultural, social and personal pressures. Ministers love to say that they want more cycling and walking, but they’ll start getting nervous when asked to actually engage with what that statement inevitably means. “I don’t want to give the impression that somehow cars are bad,” Shapps was quick to add to his vision for walking and cycling.

Changing mode share means engaging with what trips people are currently making and identifying which ones you think are currently not walked or cycled, but should be. The Tory line on this is that their vision can be achieved simply by encouraging walking and cycling, just by making those options more attractive — that there is no need to look at the broader transport system. But they don’t want to look into that assumption in case it turns out not to be true.

If you started looking at what is actually generating trips, motivating modal choice, and considering transport policy as a whole, you might discover that the government’s own policies are pushing against cycling. They might discover that their cut-back, laissez-faire planning system is further exacerbating the decline of town centres in favour of ring-road business park sprawl. They might discover that their infrastructure funding for pump-priming new house building is creating more car-dependent neighbourhoods. They might discover that they are spending £27 billion to encourage more driving. They might discover that they are permanently severing cycleable journeys with other new build transport infrastructure for the sake of saving a few thousand pounds on a multi-billion megaproject.

That’s not to say that the carrot is in any way not the right thing to do. The carrot is essential, we need it desperately and we need lots of it. But there are only so many journeys that it will enable to be walked or cycled. You can not say it’s a vision for increasing mode share when at the same time all your other policies and actions are also going to increase the number of journeys that will inevitably be driven, erecting new barriers to active travel and encouraging trip generators to move beyond reach of walking and cycling. Transport policy can not consist of a series of siloed visions for individual modes and some Treasury-friendly discrete projects.

Support the people at the coal face

The NCS failed because it was expected that a national policy would be delivered by local authorities, but those authorities weren’t given the support that such a task needed.

Half of them simply weren’t on board with the policy, and there was little oversight to ensure that they seriously engaged with it. At best, they made token gestures, and at worst, they misappropriated what little funding there was into old-fashioned motor capacity schemes with a veneer of cyclewash. There are signs that the current government might have learned this much from experience, and is expecting councils to meet standards, under threat of losing funding.

But even those councils who claimed to be on board with the aims of the NCS completely failed to deliver. They were naive about just how big the task was, and how radically things needed to change. They lacked technical expertise, design guidance and best practice examples. There wasn’t nearly enough money available to make any kind of meaningful impact. And every system, rule and process they had to operate under, from consultations to funding analysis, was stacked against delivering the government’s professed policy. Some of those have been fixed. Many of them haven’t.

We now have several councils and metro mayors who genuinely and dearly want to deliver on a vision of more of the journeys in their towns and cities being made by walking and cycling. But if they’re going to succeed in delivering on a central government vision, they’ll need central government to smooth the path for them. Councils are the ones getting the flak from opponents, the motoring lobby, and knee-jerk reactions. Councils are the ones getting their time and money wasted with legal reviews over technicalities. 

Not only does this vision need the plan, the legal framework, and technical guidance and the money to back it up, it needs central government to stand up for it, and to stand up for the councils delivering it — including by tackling those misunderstandings, misconceptions, and outright lies propagated by their own party’s councillors and activists.

How many journeys are even cycled and walked in towns and cities now?

So I went off on this rant, and then it occurred to me: I don’t know exactly what the current modal share for walking and cycling in towns and cities is these days, so I don’t actually know how ambitious a target of half of all journeys even is. But I knew the National Travel Survey would have the answer, so fired up the spreadsheets

It’s 30%.

(Caveats: NTS is a survey of a sample, the data is far from perfect, especially once you start slicing it up, but it’s the best we’ve got, and good enough for a rough idea.)

So we’re talking about shifting 1 in every 5 trips — or 1 in 4 of the trips that are currently not made by walking and cycling. Another way of looking at these big numbers is what that would mean for a typical individual, assuming this modal shift falls equally across the population.

In the NTS’s sample of residents of “urban conurbations”, the average for each person was 254 walking trips and 14 cycling trips per year. They also made 486 trips per person as a driver or passenger of private motorised modes; and 141 on public transport.

So, assuming we’re not expecting each person to make 359 entirely new trips a year that will be walked or cycled, and we’re not simply eliminating 359 trips altogether from those that are currently not walked or cycles, we’re talking about the typical person switching 179 trips per year from other modes.

If those trips all come from cars, that’s more than 1 in 3 car trips. (If they all come from public transport, we’ve completely wiped out public transport.) If they all go walking, we’d be increasing walking by 70%. If they all go cycling, we’d have nearly 14 times as much cycling as we do now.

None of this has told us anything new, and yet thinking about the big numbers in this way helps to bring home the fact that a vision of 50% of urban journeys being made by walking and cycling within just 9 years, when currently only 30% are, needs to be backed up with a pretty damn radical plan to implement it, some serious changes to other government policies which currently work against it, and some pretty serious money. It needs diggers in the ground fast, and capacity building to ramp up construction. It needs politicians who are capable of being clear with councils, Highways England, house builders, and other delivery partners about the scale of what is required of them, and capable of being honest with the public about the need for a third of their car trips to change, of selling the benefits to them and bringing them along during the inevitable disruptive transition that will come with making this change in just 9 years.

I swear, if after this they announce that the vision will be achieved with bikeability training, workplace travel plans, and another tiny pot of funding that councils can fight for…

The amnesia cycle

Transport is one of the unglamorous government portfolios that rarely gets ministers with any genuine interest or expertise, and over the past decade austerity has left the department barely capable of functioning at all, so it’s best not to expect too much. But we’ll no doubt be back here again soon enough. Ministers come and go fast, but the problems stay the same, so each one will discover anew that walking and cycling is the solution, each one will set a 10 year target, each one will discover the same cheap and politically easy policies, and each one will find out for themselves that actually modal shift is more difficult than that.

Unless we find some way to break the amnesia cycle and say that a vision is not enough.

One thought on “Beware ministers bearing targets”

  1. (If they all come from public transport, we’ve completely wiped out public transport.)

    Not necessarily a bad thing notwithstanding some of the disabled—but insufficient on its own, outside London. Reduction in motoring overall pro rata by carbon emission share morally preferable. Do motor aeroplanes feature in NTS? Making up a small proportion of journeys, but long-distance and high carbon per unit distance; probably ought to be the first candidate for any wiping out to be considered.

    Further modal shift to walking only really practical for very short journeys in current land use/ mobility terms. If there really were a plan for shifting the shortfall to cycling, there might have to be some away from walking. Also not necessarily a bad thing.

    All of the other flaws identified with this aspiration spot on.

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