Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Is the government planning to cut funding to bicycle infrastructure before it's even started funding anything in the first place? As German TV puts it: "there are no bike networks" here anyhow.

Germany's main TV station came to London last week and devoted a whole section of its main daily news programme to cycling in London. What was the title of this TV feature? The ARD television people looked at how London's cyclists get to work and called it "transport chaos in London". Kind of says it all, really, doesn't it?

Unsurprisingly, the news clip is in German. But I think it's worth watching, just to see the video selections that ARD chooses. And what I think is really interesting are the themes that the German TV crew pick out as being interesting about London. I've tried to summarise those points below because I think it's really informative to have a look at what London looks like from the outside. Bear in mind that Germany, although not nirvana for cycling, is literally decades ahead of the UK on this stuff. The German government is hosting its national cycling summit this week. Can you imagine the UK government hosting a cycling summit? I can't. In Berlin, the local government is aiming for 20% of all journeys to be by bike by 2025. London is aiming for 5%. The Berlin government, and many of Germany's large cities as well as rural areas are building massive bike networks - the sort of thing that the UK seems singularly unable to do.

Biking in Berlin. Normal folk, normal clothes,
normal thing to do. 
We're busy building more and more roads for driving. The Germans have decided that for journeys up to 15km, the bike is the way to go. And they're going all out to build networks to make people choose bike over car for these sorts of journeys. The UK is simply not keeping pace with Germany on this stuff. That is embarrassing enough in its own right. What's even more embarrassing is the weedy response that the UK government published this morning to a petition by The Times newspaper to encourage the government to really get behind cycling. There have been some rumours in industry press that the government might be preparing to launch an "Office of Active Travel" - a sort of mini version of the Department for Transport that would be tasked with building conditions that make it simple for people to chose cycling and walking instead of driving or taking the bus.

Unfortunately, all we've seen from the UK government to date, however, is an unambitious and profoundly disappointing press release published this morning that repeats the message (for probably the tenth time now) that the government is spending lots of money on little projects here and there that might just about make a difference to a few roundabouts and a couple of junctions. No sign of a coherent national strategy and no sign of any standards that it expects local authorities to live up to. Local authorities big and small all around the country are beginning to want to do something about cycling. They look to the Department for Transport for ideas and standards to help them build good bicycle transport infrastructure. As one senior official put it to me today, "there's just a big hole" at the Department for Transport on cycling issues and standards. That seems true from my perspective. The government is all about cars, cars and cars. Oh, and a few scraps for cycling here and there.

So, back to the German news story.

Pull out section in The Telegraph
last weekend. 
What is the first thing it has to say about rush-hour? Well, the very first observation is that there's no bicycle network. Plain and simple, Germany's equivalent of the BBC observes quite correctly that London simply doesn't have what the Germans would call a bike network. And they're right. The reporter goes on to say "bicycles have to mix with with buses, cars and goods vehicles; if you want to travel through this [on a bike] you need courage, skill and, above all, luck". These are hardly conditions that would encourage most people to use a bike.

49 seconds into the clip is the terrifying scene of a cyclist on Cycle Super Highway 7 who is cycling straight ahead. The cycle highway is specifically designed to make cyclists go straight ahead in the (extremely fast) left turn lane for motor vehicles. What happens? A van overtakes, pulls straight across the guy on his bike and proceeds to very nearly kill him. This is institutionalised insanity. There is no way that a bike lane should be designed to deliberately mix flows of people using such hugely incompatible machines and make them use the exact same space to travel in two conflicting directions. That is a recipe for disaster, again and again and again.

I think what really strikes me about this video are the shots of people whizzing along on bikes surrounded by lorries, buses and masses of motor vehicles. Somehow, listening to it all in German and hearing the incredulity of the reporter at just how ludicrous it all is, it makes you realise just exactly that: it is ludicrous that London isn't developing faster and better bike networks.

The report does point to Boris Johnson's vision for real cycle-friendly networks but, as it points out, this is nothing more than a vision for the time being.

And this is where things get really awkward:

Today's Evening Standard carries a report that states things may never even get off the ground:

"The Mayor’s “cycle vision”, published earlier this year, comes with a £913million price tag over 10 years, of which a £640million is subject to approval by the Treasury.  

A split over potential cycling cuts has emerged between the Mayor and Transport for London, which is  prioritising renewal of existing assets, notably the Tube. 

The cycle vision is one of a range of transport programmes considered vulnerable as Chancellor George Osborne prepares to announce public spending cuts at the Comprehensive Spending Review on June 26."

If the government really does want to cut funding for cycling, then we have a real problem on our hands. Funding for cycling hardly exists in this country. The Mayor has made small steps towards cycling in the past few years but his efforts hardly scratch the surface and he is only now beginning to take funding for bicycle infrastructure seriously.

We'll have to watch this very closely and it may, and I stress, may, be time for people to come together again and start showing very clearly just how impatient they are to see things change on London's streets.