Today’s report ‘Action for Roads: A network for the 21st century‘ contains more details behind the UK government’s spending review a few weeks ago, specifically as it relates to the billions of pounds being poured into road building.
Many will be pleased, no doubt, that rough roads will be made smooth, potholes filled and that some areas where there are poor road connections will be improved. As a person who occasionally drives a car, I am pleased to see some of this.
I read the report primarily, though, for another reason: I am cross.
I still am; just like the thousands who have been protesting in London after 3 people riding their bicycles have been killed in the past 3 weeks by people driving lorries. The mother of one of those killed called on the Government to act.
VULNERABLE ROAD USERS
What did this government report have to say about the vulnerable road users – people who walk and cycle on or near roads?
What will be done to make their journeys safer?
What encouragement will be given to get more people to walk or cycle to work, or to nip down to the local shops?
My interest isn’t all about ‘saving the environment’ – it stems from the joy of cycling; the massive cost savings for taxpayers; and the boost to the economy that cycling on the high street can bring.
It seems, though, that this government is intent on going back to the DeLorean days of the 1980s, as if nothing has been learnt about the folly of building more roads to combat congestion. Put simply, people drive more when there are more roads to drive on.
Paragraph after paragraph in the report goes on about the need to prepare for the coming surge in traffic – a surge the government predicted before and which has not happened.
UPDATE: it turns out the Government is predicting a fall in the number of people choosing to use a bicycle.
UNCLEAN ELECTRIC CARS
The government also try to get back to their election promise of being ‘the greenest government ever’ by tooting how much they are splashing out (of our taxes) on supporting the electric car industry:
We also need to use this chance to prepare our network for the rise of ultra-low emission vehicles, to reduce air pollution as well as to combat climate change.
But wait! What’s this I read in this month’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum magazine?
The professional organisation of electrical engineers – the ones who would benefit from seeing electric cars sell like hot cakes – says, ‘Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems‘.
So not only do cars take up more space on the roads – congestion! – and have none of the health benefits (and cost savings) of cycling, we now know that electric cars aren’t all that much better for the environment after all.
There has been a push – a big one – by many people in the UK to improve road design to make them safer for people who cycle; spearheaded by an on-going focus on bicycle safety by The Times newspaper (after a person driving a lorry ran over one of their reporters who was riding a bicycle).
The Government says today that it wants to “cycle-proof our [road] network, and minimise the situations where major roads are a barrier to walkers and communities.”
Yet it doesn’t back this up in any substantial way (just 20 intersections in the entire UK are to be fixed).
Worse, the Government puts no pressure on regional governments who manage the local roads to do anything to improve them for people who cycle – instead, they are just going to ‘encourage’ local road engineers to ‘think’ about cyclists.
A NETWORK FOR CYCLISTS AND WALKERS?
Now, 45 pages into the report, we get to the section about cycling on roads.
Earlier in the report, a very good statement was made:
A well-maintained highway network…can also help reduce traffic congestion by encouraging safe cycling and walking.
Then in this section it was expanded beyond the scope of just filling in potholes (a good thing) – my emphasis added:
Cycling and walking are an important and growing part of our transport system. Not only do they improve health, but they reduce the environmental impacts of travel and can also help to cut congestion by reducing the number of cars on the road.
Yes! That is it! Precisely! Give us a road network like the government in The Netherlands funded which encourages people to cycle safely instead of using their car whenever possible. It will free up the roads for those – eg lorry drivers – that continue to use them.
So what will the UK Government do?
We want to ensure that changes to local roads take better account of the needs of cyclists
Yes. But how? And what more will be done?
Bypasses can reduce through-traffic and help reunite communities.
So nothing to make the existing roads safer, then?
What about leadership? Or in the words of noted transport commentator Christian Wolmar (who is running a campaign to become mayor of London), “It needs a lead from central government to take responsibility, to provide inspiration and initiative.”
But this is all the leadership our government could muster:
We will continue to encourage highways engineers working for local authorities to think about the needs of cyclists in their designs for new schemes.
In its final point about cycling, the Government – who own the Highways Agency and gives it direction – all but gives up on being a leader:
The Highways Agency will need to think strategically about how it can best support non-motorised traffic, to stop the network being a barrier for walkers and cyclists.
A CHAMPION FOR THE MASSES
So, if the Government doesn’t want to be a leader (!) then who will take care of ensuring our government-backed Highways Agency does useful things?
Ah! A motorists’ champion.
The government will set up a role to make sure the views of the masses are heard!
The person filling this role at the newly reorganised Highways Agency will survey users (defined only as ‘motorists’) and “compare the costs of building and maintaining strategic roads in the UK with that in other jurisdictions” and perhaps “use research findings to help to determine what should form part of the Roads Investment Strategy” after which, if they have any time left, could go about “championing other duties”.
I do not hold my breath for a moment in thinking a motorists’ champion will have any time whatsoever to consider the safety of vulnerable road users, let alone put in place a network of routes that Get Britain Cycling.
Now, I hope, you can understand why I am still cross.
A copy of this article has been sent to my MP, the bicycling baronet, and Chief Whip, Sir George Young.