Tag Archives: department for transport

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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The DfT’s crap cycling manual

No sooner had I posted a list of things for Norman Baker and his colleagues to be doing — to prove that they were doing things that will actually make a difference, rather than just passing the buck to under-resourced and poorly supported local authorities — than they acted. Baker and road safety minister Mike “Petrolhead” Penning have written a letter to local authorities, encouraging them to, er, look at their junctions and invite businesses to sponsor cycle lanes.

I don’t think many people have fallen for this charade. There is little point in simply suggesting that local authorities rebuild junctions. If they did — and they’re not going to on any significant scale unless and until they find the money from somewhere (and that’s unlikely to be from sponsorship), but suppose they did… — they would go through the normal design process and, er, the instructions would tell them to build the same cycling hostile crap as before.

There are reasons why we have atrocious junctions and crap cycle facilities. Our engineers and lowest-bidder contractors have been trained to build these things. They are also told explicitly not to build the sort of high quality infrastructure that we need. If we are ever going to make any significant advance, the government — central government — needs to do something to help our engineers into the 21st century. The first and most obvious step is to revise the guidance — the manual — that makes local authorities build crap.

The Department for Transport have, over the years, produced a number of guidance documents that tell council officers and consultants how to build roads and streets. Things like the “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges”, which tells you how to build a motorway… or city streets, if you like your streets to look and be used like a motorway. Better streets are built according to the principles of the more modern and civilised “Manual for Streets 2”.

“Cycle Infrastructure Design” (PDF) — commonly known by its serial number, “Local Transport Note (LTN) 2/08” — is the document which sets out the principles for building for cycling, and all the technical details of the government’s recommended facilities. The devolved administrations in Scotland and London have produced their own manuals which vary slightly from LTN 2/08.

Some cycle campaigners are fans of LTN 2/08 and think that if only it were strictly followed things would be better. In their briefing to The Times last week (PDF), for example, cyclenation say:

DfT publication LTN 2/08 (Local transport note no. 2, 2008) is generally good at setting out guidance for cycling provisions, but frequently goes unheeded.

I understand where cyclenation are coming from, and I think no ill of them for writing this. Because most British main roads and cycle facilities are even worse for cycling than LTN 2/08 recommends. Following the manual would be an improvement. But not much of an improvement. Saying that LTN 2/08 is good shows just how abysmally low our expectations have sunk.

The manual largely consists of guidelines rather than strict rules, and the guidelines are frequently broken. Certainly there are, as the cyclenation briefing says, cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with crap cycle facilities. But there are also cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with something far better than would have be provided had it been followed: some of the best (and yes, in this country “best” is hardly “great”) examples of on-street infrastructure — the tracks on Camden’s Royal College Street, for example — break all of the rules of LTN 2/08. And all too often — through a combination of poor training in how to use the guidance, competing political demands like “smoothing traffic flow”, and the many fundamental failings of the guidelines themselves — the guidance is heeded, and the result is still a crap cycle facility.

Because LTN 2/08 isn’t good. It frequently endorses the wrong things. It recommends against international best practice infrastructure and omits almost every detail of it. And it fails right from its first fundamental principles, which is why anybody can “heed” the guidance and still build whatever crap they like. I think that LTN 2/08 is a greater hindrance than help for cycling and that replacing it is a necessary step.

The introductory section of LTN 2/08 is the most widely endorsed. It contains a series of underlying principles for designing for cycling. Some of it is very good — the need for “convenient, accessible, safe, comfortable and attractive” space for cycling, for example, and the need to think at the level of the network, not just streets and routes. There is something of a disconnect between these principles and the rest of the guidance, and the good principles rarely shine through in the built designs. But it is also far from the case that the underlying principles are all good.

The first problem that leaps out while reading the introduction is the Hierarchy of Provision. I’ve written before about why the Hierarchy is the wrong approach to the problem, so I won’t here, except to reiterate that the Hierarchy is not fit for the role that it has been given — that of central formula for deciding which solution is appropriate — which is one reason why so many inappropriate solutions have been implemented.

The second fundamental problem is that LTN 2/08 endorses “dual networks”. It correctly identifies that different cyclists have different needs and abilities, but from this fact it draws some very wrong and damaging conclusions. “Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others. In order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to create dual networks offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority.” That is, new, nervous and child cyclists will be grateful for a crap facility that gives way to every side road, or a winding backstreet route, while confident cyclists will want to be in their natural place — on the road, with the traffic, riding in the vehicular style. Indeed, the former category are expected to eventually cast off their training wheels and graduate into the latter  category.

I would have hoped that “dual networks” could have been the one thing that might be able to unite cyclists in opposition. As cyclenation say in their briefing to The Times, crap cycle facilities can do more harm than good when other road users get indignant at your refusing to use them. But I know there is one cycling campaigner and consultant who is proud of his dual network, and just in the past few weeks LCC’s Go Dutch campaign has also taken a turn down the dual network path. I think this is the wrong path: when you stop designing infrastructure that’s good enough for everybody, you tend to end up with stuff that’s good for nobody.

The effect of the “dual networks” principle in LTN 2/08 is that neither “network” is satisfactorily designed. The low-traffic “network” can be designed down: it can concede priority, take circuitous routes, share busy pedestrian spaces, and even advise dismounting — yes, LTN 2/08 says elsewhere that those solutions are undesirable, but, hey, this is just the training network, they’ll soon graduate onto the road so what does it matter? And when it then comes to fixing the main roads and busy junctions, engineers will “take into account the type(s) of cyclist expected to use it”, conclude that the inexperienced and nervous cyclists will be usingthe other “network”, and design the roads and junctions accordingly. You can see the wretched result of the dual networks principle all over our cities — famously on the Euston Road, where the cycle route leads you along “a sort of fiddly thing”, while Real Men like Boris Johnson prefer to “scoot down the underpass“.

Theoretically the dual networks don’t have to be substandard, of course. But if you design infrastructure that isn’t substandard, there’s just no need to think in dual networks. The Dutch also recognise the variety of cyclists. Their engineering manual recommends designs of sufficient quality to accommodate that variety. Their designs work. The idea that cyclists will want to graduate on to vehicular cycling — that it is aspiration rather than a survival strategy — is perhaps one of the reasons why LTN 2/08 entirely omits quality separated infrastructure… except where it gives spurious reasons not to consider it.

The authors of LTN 2/08 have obviously not looked at Dutch solutions or the Dutch manual. There are a total of three references to the Netherlands and three further references to the continent in the document. Three of those references are about cycle parking. One is in an aside about roundabout geometry. A Dutch study measuring overtaking distances — probably irrelevant to current British conditions — is mentioned. Finally, the authors have this to say about modern European cycle track design:

“As a result of concerns over the safety of parallel cycle tracks crossing side roads, it is becoming common European pratice to reintroduce cyclists to the main road in advance of a junction. Cyclists pass the junction on the carriageway and then rejoin the cycle track.”

It’s just bonkers.

The final fundamental conceptual problem with LTN 2/08 is not explicitly stated, but is written right through the guidance. Despite being the cycling-for-transport infrastructure guidance, despite being introduced with a reminder of why cycling should be supported, the document just doesn’t treat cycling as a serious form of transport. That’s not a problem specific to LTN 2/08, obviously, and it will take more than just revisions to a document to change the entrenched culture of the nation’s highways departments. But it’s especially dissapointing to find the document so riddled with it. It is clear that the authors are stuck in the car-centric paradigm and lack imagination for how things could be.

“Advisory cycle lanes,” for example, “are not recommended where they are likely to be blocked by parked vehicles.” Not, “car parking should be restricted in cycle lanes.” We’re told that we like cycling in bus lanes: “They are preferred over off-road facilities as a result of the advantage of remaining in the carriageway and therefore having priority at side roads” [my emphasis]. This is the guidance for providing for bicycles and it can not even imagine a world in which bicycles might have priority over turning vehicles. This is especially bizarre given that, technically, pedestrians have priority over turning vehicles — though pedestrians bold and brave enough to take it are ever rarer. To me it seems so blindingly obvious that the natural arrangement would be that anybody continuing straight would have priority over those turning, regardless of the means of travel of either party. The authors of LTN 2/08 can’t imagine that world — can’t imagine that there could be any alternative to our might makes right of way world.

What of that top-of-the-hierarchy solution, “reducing traffic volume”, if highways authorities can’t even imagine a cyclist having priority over car parking or motorists leaving their driveways? This is a problem that obviously goes far wider and deeper than this one document — Karl’s experience of the LTN 2/08 in practice illustrates the cultural problem we face. But replacing this document has to be one of the first steps to changing that culture. This is the document that Norman Baker says “provides comprehensive good practice advice on a range of practical infrastructure measures to help cyclists,” when he tries to shrug off the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. It doesn’t. It’s part of the problem, and it’s his problem.

These are just the problems with the fundamental underlying principles. Just wait ’till I get around to listing the ridiculous details — the crap facilities it recommends and the almost complete absence of of best practice solutions from this “comprehensive good practice” guide…

Big roads, crap cycling and bendy buses in the Development Pool

While London’s attention is turned to Blackfriars Bridge, those blissfully unaffected by the bumbling buffoon Boris* might like to take a look at the 45 proposals that councils around England have submitted to the DfT’s Development Pool in the hope of being picked for a share of the current £630 million available for local transport projects.

Heads of council transport departments and engineering consultancies have dusted off the bypasses, relief roads, distributors and links that they have been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and resubmitting for funding for fifty years.

Look at your local area in the Development Pool and you’ll find them all there. They’ll be called something like “town centre improvement”, “bus rapid transit”, or “cycle route enhancement and congestion relief package.”

Things like the Weston-super-Mare package, which will provide better bus services and enhanced cycle routes, by, erm, widening town centre roads and ensuring that they have substandard and probably unusable shared pavements alongside.

Of the Cross Airfield Link Road, proposed to open a large brownfield site to light industrial and retail developments,** the Weston package says:

The approval is for a single carriageway road 2.4km in length, four roundabout junctions and parallel shared-use foot and cycle ways. The proposed road is 7.3m wide single carriageway. A 3.0m wide segregated shared pedestrian and cycleway will be provided along the northern side of the new road with a 3.0m footway along its southern edge. Both the cycleway and the footway will be segregated from the carriageway by 5.0m verges which are to be planted with trees to create a boulevard along the road’s length. The scheme design includes Toucan crossings in strategic locations.

This sort of stuff should be illegal — I mean that, actually legislated against. Proposing a shared pavement as a transport route in a built-up area should mean automatic rejection from the Pool, pending a suitable revised design. Three metres should be the bare minimum width requirement for a two-way dedicated cycle track on busy roads like these, where large trucks are expected, and even then the council/agency should have to provide a very good explanation for why a 4.0m track or a pair of 2.5m unidirectional tracks would be unreasonable. Weston are proposing to spend our money on a future facility of the month, and that should be against the law.

There is a pattern to the Development Pool proposals. Another Westcountry project is the “South Bristol Link”. It’s a Bus Rapid Transit route, and definitely not the South Bristol Link Road, the extension to Bristol’s southern bypass that the council has been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and re-submitting for funding since the sixties. It just happens to be a road, and to follow the route of the South Bristol Link Road. But it has bus lanes, which makes this a Bus Rapid Transit project, and definitely not the same old bypass. Bristol has grown since the road was first proposed, but the route was set aside, leaving a strip of undeveloped land surrounded by housing. Here’s the artist’s impression of the Bus Rapid Transit system:

Look at that lovely 3.0m shared pavement — in this case divided into equal shares of 1.5m footway and 1.5m bidirectional cycle track. Doesn’t it look so inviting, riding against traffic, alongside the car parking bays, in a space barely wide enough for one bicycle. One bicycle is presumably all that the council are expecting: there is no provision for two bicycles travelling in opposite directions, or travelling in the same direction at different speeds. The council will no doubt seek a solution to that problem if and when it ever arises.

It’s a classic British road mockup. Hide all the cars and clutter and put unnaturally large pedestrians and cyclists in the foreground. The road would be carrying thousands of vehicles per day, swelling with induced demand, but here it’s all free flowing, and just a single homeowner parks a car in their neat free parking bay, gift from the council. Perhaps all the other cars are parked in the city centre because neither a 1.5m bicycle track nor a bendy bus to an edge-of-town park and ride interchange are attractive methods of getting to work?

A 1.5 metre bicycle track will be of no use to anybody. The parking bays will, if you let them, fill with second and third cars, and spill out over the drop kerbs and green spaces. Within a few years the city will discover, to everybody’s surprise, I’m sure, that there is limited demand for a bus between suburban housing and an edge-of-town park and ride interchange, and the bus lanes will quietly be turned into general traffic lanes.

I’m really quite embarrassed for Bristol, having praised them for exceeding our (low) British expectations on Redcliffe Bridge. Seriously, what the fuck, Bristol? “The country’s premier national and international showcase for promoting cycling as a safe, healthy and practical alternative to the private car for commuting, education and leisure journeys.” Bristol’s “cycling city” status clearly hasn’t really sunk in for the highways engineers, who plainly have no experience of cycling or how to provide for it, but who confidently give it a go anyway having read something once in an instruction book.

The city council are cutting hundreds of jobs, and I think I’ve spotted where a few of them of them could go.

While cutting those jobs, the city is seeking £43 million for this bypass Bus Rapid Transit line. I think the Cycling City team could use the money far more profitably, retrofitting the city’s existing big roads with wide, fast, direct, prioritised, attractive tracks, and could never support Bristol throwing the money away on the South Bristol Link. But even for an urban road project, and even leaving aside the contemptible crap cycle facilities, this is an especially bad scheme. The one potential benefit of a bypass is to have a designated road on which to push traffic from city streets. But to capture that benefit you have to reclaim those city streets immediately — make it unattractive to drive on them for anything other than essential property access and loading — otherwise people will just find new ways to fill the old streets with more ridiculous car journeys. With a southern bypass Bristol could close ratruns through the southern suburbs; take back space on the main southern arterial roads — the A38 through Bedminster, for example — for the pedestrians and cyclists who spend more money in the shops along them; it could even close some more of the inner ring road. Bristol failed to capture those benefits when it previously built big bypass roads, on the northern and eastern fringes, and it would fail to capture any potential benefits of a southern bypass, proposing to make it a little bit less attractive to drive only on a couple of residential streets and a country lane:

Take a look at your local schemes on the map. There are potentially worthwhile projects in the pool too, like rail upgrades and even reversing railway closures. More has been written about the bids by Sian Berry and George Monbiot. The DfT are soliciting comments on development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk, deadline TOMORROW, Friday — though I’m not sure why, and whether anybody will ever read them.

* but we’re all affected, sadly, due to London’s unfortunate influence over the nation.

** it’s actually one of the least indefensible of the new roads, and one of the least bad sites for such developments, being on brownfield located alongside a railway and within walking and cycling distance of the town’s population and railway stations. I’m sure they will fail to make good use of all that potential, but it’s still progress over road-only out-of-town greenfield sprawl.

The speed camera conspiracy

The petrolhead community have long fought to expose the conspiracy behind speed cameras. In the name of transparency and ending The War On The Motorist, the DfT have collated some of the data on speed cameras. And guess what? At a couple of camera locations, there have been more injuries. With over five thousand cameras and data reported for both minor and serious injuries, what are the chances that campaigners who scour the data will be able to find one or two camera locations where one or the other measurements happens to have risen? It must be a significant result.

But wait, I’ve discovered something even more sinister in this speed camera conspiracy. Using the speed camera map, I discovered that there are speed cameras in Bath, Lewisham and Leicester, and more speed cameras in Worcester, Cambridge, and Southampton.

Don’t you see what this means?

This isn’t just any conspiracy. This is a Jewish conspiracy!

Based on an idea from Stephen Colbert (unfortunately I can’t find a video of the time he found a star of St David in CNN’s weather map), and with a tip of the hat to Matt Parker’s alien navigation system.

DafT’s deeply regressive fantasy formula

Flicking through Google Reader, catching up, something caught my eye in George Monbiot’s latest:

Cost-benefit analysis is systematically rigged in favour of business. Take, for example, the decision-making process for transport infrastructure. The last government developed an appraisal method which almost guaranteed that new roads, railways and runways would be built, regardless of the damage they might do or the paltry benefits they might deliver(8). The method costs people’s time according to how much they earn, and uses this cost to create a value for the development. So, for example, it says the market price of an hour spent travelling in a taxi is £45, but the price of an hour spent travelling by bicycle is just £17, because cyclists tend to be poorer than taxi passengers(9).

I was vaguely aware that the government had complicated infrastructure cost-benefit formulae that included attempts to put value on people’s time, but I wasn’t aware that they had gone so far as to value the time of cyclists versus the time of taxi passengers.  So I followed the reference #9.  I’ve read some absurd documents in my time, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this.

When deciding whether a transport project — a road “improvement”, a high-speed railway, a bicycle path — is value for money, the Department for Transport consider the value of the time that users of the new infrastructure will save.  When deciding how much time to give each phase of the traffic lights, or whether a bicycle lane gets priority over road, transport agencies will consider the value of the time of the competing users.  In particular, DafT are interested in the value of the time that employers will save, because your time doesn’t matter, but the time you waste at work does.

How does DafT determine the value of an hour that an employee spends cycling for work, compared to one that the employee spends on a train or behind a steering wheel?  All it needs to know is the average hourly wage of employees using each mode.

It uses the 1999-2001 National Travel Survey.  Specifically, there is a dataset that counts all journeys made by mode and by income band, so we know whether the rich and the poor are more or less likely to drive, cycle, ride the bus, etc.  If a mode is over-represented amongst the rich and under-represented amongst the poor then DafT consider the time of users of that mode to be more valuable.

No, really.

If you can’t spot what’s wrong with this, and why I am cringing, I don’t know where to start.

Perhaps with the fact that we’re trying to derive the value of time “wasted” on travel-for-work from a dataset of travel modes that the rich and poor use outside of work?  A dataset, indeed, that includes students and the unemployed.

Or the fact that we’re specifying the average value of an hour of time to two decimal places, despite the vast range of values being averaged.

Or with the idea of specifying the value of one Great British hour, despite the massive variation in income and modal share between cities and regions?

Or the assumption that time spent travelling is always time wasted (my favourite office is a good long off-peak and under-crowded train ride with a netbook and an android), and that time “saved” by faster journeys is converted into economically productive time?  (Rather than, e.g., additional journeys.)

Maybe we should go back to the silly assumption that the work of the highest paid is the most economically important?

Or perhaps point out the critical fact that the demographics of users of a transport mode prior to investment do not necessarily reflect the demographics of users after investment, and that investment which enables modal-shift can “save” time too.

Or question what DafT are doing using inflation-adjusted figures derived from a decade-old version of the National Travel Survey when there is not one but eight more recent datasets?  In 1999-2001, the railways, the buses, and cycling were all at their very lowest ebb.  Were DafT to use the latest numbers, the value of an hour on a bicycle would be considerably higher.¹

The whole thing is absurd.  According to DafT, if I take a taxi to meet my client, there is more value in their giving me a faster taxi ride than in enabling me to get the meeting even quicker by bicycle.

This is cargo cult mathematics and cargo cult economics.  These numbers — given on the DafT website down to the exact pennies-per-hour — are pure fantasy.  I am actually embarrassed for the department that they are not only using these numbers, but are proudly publicising the pioneering way that they have been derived.  Were it not for the fact that transport policy and funding is such an unsexy topic, the press would be in gales of laughter at this nonsense.

And I would be gales in laughter were it not for the fact that, as I understand it, this crap is the foundation of a deeply regressive and damaging political programme.  When modelling the impact and benefits of investment in a transport intervention, the Department factors in this hypothetical “value of time” of users.

That is, because a taxi passenger is more likely to be very highly paid than a cyclist, when all other variables are equal the department should invest in schemes that favour taxis ahead of schemes that favour cyclists.  Aberdeen Cars is right: traffic light timings remind the economically-inactive cyclist that she does not matter.  Stabiliser can find some answers in this policy.

It becomes a positive feedback loop.  Invest in trains ahead of buses and the rich will use the trains while the poor ride the bus.

Imagine this happening at the Department for Health.²  Should we invest in cutting the waiting lists for lung cancer surgery or prostate cancer surgery?  Well, we value the time of the average prostate cancer patient more…

This is more than absurd.  This is a fraud.  This is a crude imitation of science and statistics being employed to disguise political decisions — to invest in transport for the rich and not for the poor — as pure objective economics.

1. Here  is the 2009 NTS.  The dataset we want is NTS0705.  Do the maths properly if you like, but even a glance at the journeys-by-mode-by-income table and it’s instantly obvious that cycling has flipped from being highly under-represented in the richer categories in 2001 to being very slightly over-represented in 2009.

2. I mean, imagine it happening this blatantly.  I would be surprised if there were not many many ways that state healthcare is subtly weighted in favour of the rich, whether designed and deliberate or not.

As usual, this is hastily bashed out heat-of-the-moment blog post, not a careful scholarly article.  The thesis I am certain of, but the details are always open to amusing malapropisms and embarrassing subtle errors in calculations.  If you are distracted by them, point them out and I will fix it.