Tag Archives: politics

Rail electrification and HS2? You need some better hot takes

Readers with no interest in the nerdy details of UK railways can look away now. This post is one very long, tedious “actually I think you’ll find” reply that I didn’t have time to make fit into a tweet.

So the railway electrification programme has been cut back, with the entire Midland Main Line electrification scrapped, plus relatively small chunks of the Great Western (at Swansea) and Northern (at Windermere) projects.

And predictably enough, the worst takes roll in trying to blame this on HS2, from people who will believe absolutely anything you say against the high speed project. These are terrible takes. And they’re a problem, because these are the kind of terrible, childishly simplistic takes on complex policy issues that stop you doing anything useful about them.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the situation with electrification — take everything I scribble here with plenty of salt, and factcheck it before you go citing any of it — but I know it’s a bit more complicated than almost any of the takes on twitter.  So, since you asked, here are some alternative takes for you, which I hope might help to shed the tiniest bit of light on just the surface of that deep complexity.

Electrification hasn’t been cut

The first thing you need to understand is what has actually happened, and what Grayling’s announcement is tiptoeing around. The budget for electrification hasn’t been cut to pay for HS2 because the budget for electrification hasn’t been cut. It has been massively overspent.

Railway investment is planned in 5 year chunks (the announcements are happening now because now is the deadline for DfT to send their draft investment plan for the next 5 year period to the relevant organisations for comment).

In the current 5 year period, 2014-19, Network Rail were asked to electrify a lot of things:

  • Great Western (GWML) from Paddington to Oxford, Bristol and Swansea, including Thames Valley commuter lines;
  • Midland (MML) to Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby
  • The main TransPennine line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, plus associated Northern lines around Liverpool and Manchester
  • A couple of comparatively short commuter lines elsewhere — London Overground’s GOBLIN and Birmingham’s Chase Line
  • (Plus a lot of Scotland’s Central Belt. That’s separate, devolved to Scotland, but it’s relevant later.)

Network Rail gave an estimate for these jobs, the government liked it and made the funds available.

So Network Rail got to work on the GWML and immediately began massively overspending and falling behind schedule. So the budget hasn’t been cut. It’s just that Network Rail has spent all of the money before it has delivered even half of what it was supposed to deliver.

This wasn’t even really about electrification

The next thing you need to understand is that electrification is just one part of a much bigger, more complicated modernisation plan which is primarily driven by the need for new trains. It’s no coincidence which lines were chosen for electrification: they’re the ones that need the most new trains, or which maximise the opportunity to bring in new trains so the current ones can be sent elsewhere.

The country already has a chronic undersupply of diesel trains, because we haven’t bought any new ones in years despite passenger demand growing. But the situation is about to become dire, because deadlines are looming for the mass withdrawal of a substantial fraction of the fleet.

On the GWML, and a few other parts of the network, the Intercity 125s are reaching 40 years, a heroic service for an intensively used intercity train. They’re brilliant but they can’t keep going forever. Meanwhile, in 2020, new accessibility regulations come into force. Lots of trains won’t be compliant with the new law, so they either need expensive modifications, or withdrawal. Since nobody is going to waste money modifying the hated 1980s Pacers, those are off for their long-overdue trip to the scrapyard.

So, 10 years ago, people started realising we were going to have a rolling stock problem and something needed to be done about it. They could have just bought a load of new diesel trains. But somebody looked at the problem strategically, and the case was made for killing many birds with one stone. Electrify some lines and then you can solve the rolling stock problem with cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, faster, cleaner and greener trains.

This was an excellent plan.

The plan all depended on the electrification happening in time for the 2020 deadline, so that a complex cascade and shuffle around of fleets could happen. New electric commuter trains in the Thames valley, for example, will displace Paddington’s diesel commuter trains to Bristol, so Bristol’s can in turn replace the condemned Pacers elsewhere.

Now those timelines are all fucked, so a load of new diesel trains have had to be ordered anyway.

Dropping the Midland Mainline is a good thing

When you see that this is a rolling stock project, dropping the MML — and Swansea and Windermere — at this point makes perfect sense. The MML has a relatively small fleet of intercity trains — most of them relatively new — and no diesel commuter trains to displace for use elsewhere. Rushing to try to electrify it will do relatively little to solve a rolling stock problem. Effort needs to be focused on finishing the Thames Valley and Northern areas, where there are the greatest number of diesel trains to release and cascade per mile of electrification, before 2020.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t electrify MML, only that it doesn’t make sense to do it right now, when there are obvious higher priorities.

Slowing down electrification is a good thing

This mess all happened because we bit off more than we could chew — or rather, Network Rail was asked to do, and agreed to do, more than it could possibly do at once. The last time Britain did any substantial amount of electrification was a quarter of a century ago, and suddenly we decided to try to do 6 or 7 projects simultaneously.

That led Network Rail to make a lot of mistakes, spread themselves too thinly, and made it a seller’s market for their suppliers and contractors.

One of the big problems that has been encountered is that electrification is interdependent on other projects, like re-signalling in the Bristol area and rebuilding Oxford station, which have encountered their own problems. Slowing down could enable projects with dependencies to be delivered in a more rational and coordinated way. That would be particularly important on TransPennine, where there are still projects in development to improve line speed and capacity.

The significance of Grayling’s announcement is that he didn’t cancel the rest of GWML, TransPennine and Northern or GOBLIN. That implies that finishing these projects will be what Network Rail gets asked to do in the next 5 year period — 2019-24 — if they don’t get finished in the current one.

That doesn’t mean that Swansea and MML will never happen, but they won’t happen before 2024.

We’ve recognised that everything can’t happen all at once in 5 years, and asking for it all to happen at once in 5 years is a recipe for disaster. Dropping some projects should make the others more secure.

But you’ll still need to fight for them

That said, it’s still a very bad sign that the projects have been explicitly cancelled. There’s nothing to force Grayling to say cancelled. He could have said: there’s only so much we can do at once, so MML, Swansea and Windermere are shelved for this period and we can look at them again the next time we do this funding specification exercise in 5 years time. Instead he chose to call them cancelled.

That’s because Grayling, and perhaps equally importantly the chancellor, don’t get railways.

Take a look at their policies and track records and it won’t take you long to find Hammond’s notorious question about why trains don’t give way to cars at level crossings, or Grayling’s clueless playing politics with London’s suburban rail.

Blaming HS2 would let them off the hook, and they both probably want an excuse to cancel that project too.

But the real problem, and potential solutions to all this, is with the system

We concentrate power centrally in a few hands, and then change the leadership frequently through reshuffles and changes of government. The recent fashion for electrification rose and survived due to support from Transport Secretaries and Chancellors like Andrew Adonis, George Osborne and Patrick McLoughlin (who’s constituency just happened to be on a branch of the MML).

It’s a real bugger that in the game of musical chairs, Grayling and Hammond happened to be in the seats when the music stopped for this crucial phase in the funding cycle. We can at least take comfort that neither will be in the same seats in 5 years time when this exercise next happens.

But we will still be planning investments in a stupid and wasteful way.

With the last major electrification projects having been quarter of a century ago, to make the current projects happen we’ve had to rebuild our expertise, retrain our workforce, and rebuild our supply chains. That’s yet another of the reasons why so much has gone wrong and gone overbudget. We had huge start-up costs. We didn’t have the expertise or information to make accurate estimates. Rookie mistakes were made. And the politicians set Network Rail up for failure by ordering them to do 20 years worth of work in 5 years, because that’s the maximum horizon politicians work to.

Now we’ve flipped political leadership and policy, and we risk losing the expertise and supply chain that has just been built up from scratch, so next time electrification comes back into fashion, as it surely will, we’ll do it all over again.

Slowing down electrification, could be a great opportunity to do it better, more rationally. While the 2020 big bang deadline for rolling stock retirement has now been solved by ordering new diesels and bimodes, there will be a continuous trickle of other diesel train fleets reaching the ends of their operational lives over the subsequent years — alongside continued growth in passenger demand, if current trends continue. It would make perfect sense to continue, at a slower but more consistent pace, a rolling programme of electrification to pave way for electric trains to replace fleets as they reach retirement age.

With the security of a rational, long-term plan, we could retain a committed workforce which builds up the experience and expertise to do an efficient and competent job, and to innovate in delivery. We could support a supply chain that invests in a long-term steady return, instead of handing out a brief bonanza and leaving them bust. And we could plan delivery alongside dependent projects.

(Scotland looks to be slightly closer than England and Wales to having such a plan, with an ambition to electrify their remaining commuter and intercity lines in a 2 decade rolling programme, though even that will be at the mercy of future Scottish ministers who may not share the ambition. Alas, we don’t even have the ambition, and will remain stuck swinging between ideological extremes until somebody fixes the system.)

Blaming HS2 isn’t going to fix any of these underlying issues that stand in the way of electrification continuing.

Electrification’s failures are exactly why HS2 is happening

Your final hot take: everybody complaining that HS2 is to blame for this is clueless not just about electrification but also about what HS2 does.

Electrification is being cut back because it’s massively overbudget. All those people like Richard Wellings at the IEA pulling cost estimates for HS2 out of their ass? The overruns they invent are nothing compared to the 300%-500% overrun on the GWML.

And that just cements the case for HS2. Whatever you think of HS2 (and I say this as somebody who certainly wouldn’t have put it as #1 transport capital priority, or chosen many of the design specifications it has been given), the fact we’ve seen time and time again is that trying to upgrade and add capacity to existing transport routes — by modifying their old infrastructure while trying to work around a live, intensive service — is massively more expensive compared to building something brand new for the equivalent capacity added, and is substantially more likely to run massively more overbudget than the newbuild.

Just as electrification was really a rolling stock replacement programme, HS2 is similarly not what it seems. HS2 is not a high speed intercity programme. It’s a getting intercity trains out of the way programme. The West Coast Mainline out of Euston, MML out of St Pancras, and East Coast out of King’s Cross all need more capacity. There is unmet demand for more local rail commuting in the cities served by these lines, for more regional trains to and between towns on them, and for more freight on the railways. There isn’t capacity to meet that demand because mixing frequent-stopping commuter and regional trains, lumbering freight trains, and high speed intercity trains makes for an inefficient use of a railway line. HS2 creates a disproportionately large amount of capacity for local and regional services by getting the intercity trains out of the way.

People who argue that what the railways need is better local, regional and commuter services instead of faster intercity trains need to explain how those services will be possible without HS2. The only alternative is by making extensive modifications to 3 different Victorian mainlines, on a scale no smaller than HS2 itself, while trying to work around a live, intensive service. The fuck up of electrification has only made HS2 look even more like the preferred option over the terrifying prospect of that alternative.

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What do we want? Marginal gains!

When do we want them? After a statutory period of public consultation

DSC_7155

Oh, wait, no. The chant that greeted commuters on the Aldgate gyratory from the couple of thousand who turned out at short notice for the LCC “flashride” protest was:

Blue paint: not enough.

We always knew that Boris Johnson’s splashes of blue paint on big main roads were woefully inadequate and as we pause to mark the latest inevitable fatality to occur on the most lethal of the lot, CS2, the last thing we need is friends who tell us to be less ambitious in what we ask for.

The people who came to protest at Aldgate on Friday did so because they knew it was worth their time to do so: they know that what they are asking for is worth asking for. Worth fighting for. They came to ask for things that will make a real difference. A phase change.

Not marginal gains. Not splashes at the margins that “dance and dodge around motor traffic”. Nobody ever came out on a march with pickets asking for marginal gains.

Marginal gains are not enough.

But, despite decades of failing to motivate anybody with the prospect of marginal gains, marginal gains are what some would still have us campaigning for. Why? Because the cycling lobby is too weak. There aren’t enough cyclists to hold any sway.

It’s always good every now and again to have somebody new butt in, who hasn’t been paying attention, to run through and remind us of all the canards and zombie arguments. Welcome, Guy Chapman:

We can formalise the argument with a formula. The extent to which a cause is worth fighting is dependent on the magnitude of the payoff multiplied by the probability of actually getting your way. And the assumption is that there’s an inverse relationship between the magnitude of what’s being asked for and the chances of actually getting it. So we get fans of small payoff campaigns telling proponents of high payoff campaigns to “be realistic”.

Problem is, I reckon they’ve got their probabilities wrong. And they’ve got them wrong precisely because of the fact that you’ll never get people out on the street chanting for marginal gains. All except a small hardcore of campaigners will look at the payoff, shrug, and ask themselves what’s the point. Seeing nothing in it for ordinary people, the media will ignore it and politicians will dismiss it as a single issue minority pressure group asking for favours.

Whereas, if you get your strategy right, if you ask for something that is ambitious enough to motivate people to fight for it, you will have a much better chance of achieving your goal. If it’s attractive enough and inclusive enough to appeal to more than just the usual few suspects. If it has something to offer them.

The reason why we so often don’t get our strategy right all comes back to that pernicious way of thinking that is at the root of so much that is rotten in this field, and is so excellently demonstrated in the first of those tweets:

That is, the tendency towards the assumption of monomodality. In this case it causes us to think about cyclists’ issues, and ask ourselves what cycling campaigns can do for cyclists. Even when discussing the issue of what it takes to enable more people to make more of their journeys by bicycle — what we can do for people currently excluded from cycling — too many contributors to the discussion are encumbered by this idea that this must be a job for cyclists.

And there aren’t enough cyclists, therefore cyclists can’t achieve much.

Therefore there’s no point in trying.

When actually, the correct conclusion to all this is that if we are ever to achieve anything worthwhile, what we ask for has to appeal beyond cyclists: beyond those few who are happy to put that cringe-inducing cliché “keen cyclist” beside their name; beyond the hardcore who turn up to campaign meetings. Beyond the sort of weirdoes who tell to their bewildered friends that it’s fine if you “take the lane”. It has to actually have something obvious to offer to people.

Parliament Square

If you want to motivate and mobilise, your vision needs to make an obvious offer of something worth fighting for. (via Pedestrianise London)

At its finest, Go Dutch does that. It motivates and mobilises people who would just shake their heads in wonderment at the campaigns for marginal gains. It at least brings on board what are usually dismissively filed away under “occasional cyclists” — the third of the population who use their bikes on the very rare occasions when they can do so in a safe environment, but who otherwise leave them languishing in sheds, longing for the opportunity to use them more. It even brings on board a few people who aren’t even occasional cyclists, but who can see the possibilities when they are presented clearly in visualisations like those drawn up for Blackfriars and Parliament Square. Go Dutch motives and mobilises people because it has something to offer them. It gets in the Evening Standard because it’s of interest to ordinary Londoners. And it gets the attention of politicians because it’s for their electorate, not for a minority special interest group.

Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like m’colleague opposite, who has taken Bikeability and lives on a 20mph street, but who still won’t use her bike for anything other than recreation because to do so in London is far from fun. Marginal gains have nothing to offer to people like my friend Shiv, who, if you even humorously suggest might “take the lane”, will explain that this is a “fucking terrifying” idea. Since they are not cyclists, they are at best going to ignore any campaign to make life marginally easier for cyclists as having nothing to offer them.

Go Dutch does offer something. They can see it making a difference to their lives. That could be for them. They can sign up to that.

Your country needs you

On Friday:

Join the London Cycling Campaign protest ride this Friday calling for clear space for cycling on our streets

Meet 6pm for 6.15pm start at Tower Hill (where it meets Minories) http://goo.gl/maps/8CzmeThe protest ride will last approximately 20-30 minutes, including a brief stop at the junction of A11 Whitechapel Road and A1202 Commercial Street to pay respects at the place where last week’s victim died
The ride will be marshalled by LCC staff and volunteers, and will finish at Altab Ali Park around 6.30pm

And read more about why at ibikelondon.

On Saturday:

National rally against road-building

Saturday 13 July 2013 at Crowhurst, East Sussex

Come to the Combe Haven valley to raise the alarm about Government plans for a massive programme of new roads. Join campaigners from across the UK for a rally and walk along the route of the most destructive and fiercely opposed new road being built in England – the £100 million Bexhill-Hastings Link Road.

That is all.

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.

The cycle lobby: Andrew Gilligan messes it up

Andrew Gilligan accuses “the cycle lobby” of thinking only of themselves and not “putting themselves in the heads” of non-cyclists. In-fact, failure to think as a non-cyclist is exactly why the policies of Boris Johnson are such failures.

Despite the “cycling mayor” image he encouraged early on, after four years in City Hall, Boris has been getting a beating from folk who cycle in London. His flagship scheme for cycling was meant to be the Cycle Superhighways, intended to “transform” London, “boost safety” and — independently of all other initiatives — contribute to modal shift to the tune of 120,000 more daily journeys:

“I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. No longer will pedal power have to dance and dodge around petrol power – on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them. That should transform the experience of cycling – boosting safety and confidence of everyone using the routes and reinforcing my view that the bike is the best way to travel in this wonderful city of ours.”

Kulveer Ranger, said: “Cycle Superhighways form a key part of the Mayor and TfL’s target to increase cycling in London by 400 per cent by 2025, compared to 2000 levels. From cycling the proposed routes myself, and speaking to a whole range of cyclists, I’m sure that these routes will prove a hugely welcome addition to London’s cycling infrastructure – giving many more people the confidence to ride”.

But this hyperbole soon backfired on Boris when it turned out that the Superficial Cycleways were, except for sections of existing dedicated infrastructure taken over on CS3, little more than £100 million paint on the road — paint that dances and dodges around petrol power, does nothing to transform the experience of cycling on the capital’s busy arterial roads, and does nothing to boost the confidence of the would-be and wanna-be cyclists that Boris claimed would be attracted by the novel hued bike lanes. Although TfL have been able to claim that there has been a large increase in bike traffic on the Superhighways, they don’t really appear to be doing much to enable or encourage non-cyclists: at most, some existing cyclists have been tempted out of the backstreets and onto the main roads; few new cyclists have been created. The most common question Londoners have about the Superhighways is: are they joke?

Since people started dying on his Superhighway at the Bow junction on the East Cross Motorway, Boris has taken the emphasis off the dozen radial routes which were once “central” to his cycling revolution, and when he does talk about them these days he will tell you that the blue paint is a navigational aid — no mention of excluding “petrol power”, boosting safety, or transforming experience. What were originally sold as part of a cycling revolution which would enable and encourage people to take to their bikes have turned out to be, at best, something to help existing cyclists find their way to the square mile.

This is why Boris has failed on cycling: he’s trying to drive a cycling revolution — more people cycling for more of their journeys — by providing for existing cyclists. Hilariously, Gilligan is so clueless about the substance of the disagreement between Boris and “the cycling lobby” that he attributes this problem exactly backwards:

“Cycle lobbyists need to put themselves in the heads of a non-cyclist or politician most of whose voters aren’t cyclists, asking why we should arrange the streets for the 2 per cent who cycle rather than the 98 per cent who drive or take the bus.”

Go Dutch, and The Big Ride, are precisely the product of the London Cycling Campaign “putting themselves in the heads of non-cyclists”, and calling for streets to be arranged for the 98 per cent who currently would never dare to cycle on them. The Go Dutch campaign was squarely pitched at the non-cyclist, showing everybody how, with a determined leader, London’s busy roads could be transformed into places where anybody and everybody can use a bicycle, and share in all the benefits that come with cycling. Gilligan seems to think that the campaign and ride was a demand by existing cyclists that they must be pampered and privileged in their niche activity. Far from it. The point that The Big Ride made was that the “cycling revolution” that Boris Johnson promised will not be delivered so long as he continues designing cycling policies and “Superhighways” for the 2 per cent who already cycle. Indeed, many of those who rode with us on Saturday are, on any normal weekday, part of the 98% themselves.

As part of the two per cent willing to — no, no, as part of the one per cent happy to — cycle on the streets of London as they are, Boris is the last person who should be appointed to lead a “cycling revolution” aimed at enabling the 98 who don’t cycle to take it up. He boasts that “scooting down Euston underpass” and around Hyde Park Corner are “no problem” when you’re “used to it”, and his now infamous comments about the Elephant and Castle being “fine if you keep your wits about you” tell you everything about how far he has penetrated the minds of ordinary non-cycling folk.

Boris’s “cycling revolution” seems to be designed around the premise that there is a large population of Londoners who are just on the cusp of taking up cycling and who just need lessons in “keeping their wits about them”, or blue paint and hire bikes to help them to “get used to it”. Boris understands how his 2% cycle so he designs policies for more of it. But the conclusion of last year’s Understanding Walking and Cycling project (admittedly primarily based on research in England outside of London) was that there is no such substantial section of the population just waiting to take up cycling in traffic, ready to be nudged in by one cheap and simple little thing. The Understanding Walking and Cycling project — which has informed and given urgency to infrastructure campaigns like Go Dutch — “put themselves in the heads of non-cyclists” and found that the 98% will not cycle so long as they expected to keep their wits about them and get used to the Euston underpass. There are very few waiting to join the 2% cycling in heavy and fast traffic: if you want a cycling revolution, you have to try something new and different. The 98% look at the policies of the Cycling Mayor and see irrelevant “Superhighways” which they presume must be good for Cyclists but on which they would never dare to cycle themselves. They look at Go Dutch and see civilised dedicated space on which they might. And Gilligoon thinks it’s the latter who are out of touch and appealing to the minority on cycling.

Boris even came close to showing signs of understanding all this when he talked of not having to “dance and dodge around petrol power”. But like so much about Boris, that turned out to be all waffle and no substance.

The problem with Boris and his cycling revolution, and the many reasons why he has messed it up on cycling, obviously go far far wider and deeper than his inability, as a contented member of the 2%, to understand why the 98% are so reluctant to join him. But I’m not sure I can bring myself to write about, or even think about, it any more. Please, just make it stop.

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.

That Cycling Revolution

I’ve been collecting amusing quotes from the history of Britain’s “cycling boom”, and I thought it might be instructive to overlay them on a chart of the DfT’s annual cycle mileage estimates, adjusted for population. A lot of the quotes are from MPs because Hansard is one of the few publications which is consistently available across that period for free and easily searchable online, making a systematic trawl relatively easy, but I might trawl through additional sources sometime. I haven’t marked every comment from an MP, but the sample is pretty representative of what members were saying about cycling over time. The non-MP quotes are just random things I stumbled across and bookmarked, and I can’t claim they’re representative of a widespread feeling at the time. If you’ve got any more good “we’re in a cycling revolution” quotes, let me know.

The fact that government ministers are saying now that “cycling is booming”, exactly as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, should put us on guard against other aspects of that history repeating — as I will discuss in a future post.

Dave Horton says:

there are two clear and present problems which bedevil UK cycling advocacy: one is the requirement to trumpet any and all gains, however minor or potentially imaginary, in order for us to legitimate and reproduce ourselves as advocates; the other is a rush to interpret any sign of growth in cycling as both ‘good’ and a clear sign that investments in cycling are paying dividends, when a wider and more critical analysis might concur with neither.

Note that there are a couple of reasons why things might not be quite as bad as the graph makes them look — not that they can be much better. Firstly, the annual traffic estimates are based on manual traffic counts for a (large) sample of roads. As I understand it, they don’t include off-road routes like railway paths, which have been slowly proliferating  over the past three decades. Unfortunately, there are not enough such routes to make any relevant difference to the national numbers. Of course, in a few places they might make a difference to the local numbers, which brings us to…

Secondly, they are national numbers, and I’m sure people will still want to argue that cycling in their city is booming. As was pointed out on the London Transport Data blog, cycling did indeed “boom” in Central London — where those MPs spent half of their time — from the extremely low ebb of the early 1970s to the dizzy heights of, er, one in thirty commuter journeys at the turn of the century. But it carried on plummeting in the suburbs as traffic and big roads continued to grow, cutting Outer London off from zone 1’s employment — the latter largely cancelling out the former in the city-wide stats.

No doubt changes in demographics, employment and settlement — in what kind of people are doing what kind of jobs and where — means that cycling really has grown noticeably (though never to anything close to its full potential) in a few (mostly urban) areas. But rarely can politicians legitimately claim such localised rises as a result of deliberate cycling policy. The small rises are usually completely unrelated to their ineffective cycling policies, often the result of undesirable factors — the push of economic recession and bad public transport, rather than the pull of attractive and convenient conditions — and are extremely vulnerable to the sudden cessation of those factors which caused them, or to new negative factors eclipsing them. There will always be an organisation ready to trumpet the rises, and a politician to take credit for them. There are never any to claim responsibility for the falls.

Theobald’s Road / Clerkenwell Road crossing Grays Inn Road on London’s “Silk Road” from the West End to the East End. The result of deliberate cycling policy or of overcrowding on the Central Line? What happens to these crowds when Crossrail opens and east-west public transport is massively improved? When rents in Hackney rise? Or when “smoothing traffic flow” makes junctions on the inner ring worse?

(Thanks to Jack for pointing out the travel distance data.)