Whilst I am a firm believer in cycling being an ideal way for ordinary people to get from A to B, the various governments of the UK have either neglected or suppressed cycling over the past few decades. Promoting cycling to individuals as “green,” or “healthy,” is of limited value, most people simply choose the path of least resistance when deciding how to get from A to B. The various governments I have mentioned have gone to extraordinary lengths and spent extraordinary amounts of tax money on making the car the path of least resistance for most people. Promoting cycling rather than ignoring or suppressing it is good for the government.
1) Congestion: Every British government spends billions on increasing road capacity for motorists, either by building new roads, widening existing roads or implementing ridiculous computerised “traffic smoothing” programs into traffic light systems. The end result is always just a greater volume of congestion. Transport demand is a fluid thing, if you don’t increase road capacity then people will choose another method of getting around. If you increase rail capacity, more people will travel by rail, if you build Dutch-style segregated infrastructure more people will travel by bike. All the road widening and “traffic smoothing” in the world won’t solve the issue of congestion when people are encouraged to travel everywhere in a single-occupant living-room-on-wheels. Cycle infrastructure and rail investment will.
2) Health care: Whilst transport isn’t paid for out of the NHS pot of gold, the current transport system takes a huge amount out of it. Around 3,000 people a year are killed by motorised transport and another 27,000 are maimed. The cost of their care is paid by the NHS which is paid for by the same taxes which pay for transport infrastructure. A further 50,000 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution, chiefly produced by personal motor vehicles, which costs even more money. Most British citizens do not get as much exercise as their bodies need, leading to expensive medical complications later in life. By making it easier and more pleasant to cycle and walk, fewer British citizens will choose to drive. Fewer drivers means fewer road deaths, injuries and lower air pollution. More walking and cycling will increase the amount of exercise each citizen gets on average. This is an ideal way to exercise because it forms an ordinary part of peoples’ lives rather than being a conscious decision like using a gym. Regular exercise will also reduce the average spend per citizen on conditions such as depression and reduce their economic burden. The reduction in congestion will reduce ambulance (and fire/police) response times. All of these things will reduce the cost of the NHS in the long run and save money.
3) Foreign Policy: The rate of consumption of oil by the UK is staggeringly high, yet we produce almost none domestically. Purchasing oil from overseas is costly, requiring the government to deal with and support undesirable governments who commit human rights abuses or are corrupt. The military cost of propping up these regimes, or replacing them with more friendly ones is huge, and politically damaging for governments. Purchasing oil from overseas creates economic problems with trade deficits as well. Encouraging walking and cycling through infrastructure will reduce our consumption of oil and reduce our dependency on undesirable governments and the political fallout of doing so, whilst also reducing our trade deficits.
4) Environment: In order to minimise the effects of man-made climate change, we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Transport is a major source of these emissions, and reducing personal car usage will make a much bigger impact than electrifying the current fleet will. Electric cars are not environmentally friendly. Electrified railways and bicycles are.
5) Miscellaneous: Cars are expensive, most are produced overseas. Reducing our consumption of cars with pro-cycling, walking and rail investment will help balance our trade with car-manufacturing countries. The same infrastructural investment is a viable alternative to spending £5,000 per car in subsidy on electric vehicles. Reducing the volume and speed of motorised traffic will bring numerous social benefits, including parents feeling safe allowing their children to play outside and travel on their own as previous generations did. Building, maintaining and staffing new cycling, walking and rail infrastructure will create jobs. Bicycle traffic is much less destructive to road surfaces, swapping a lot of car journeys for bike journeys will reduce the road maintenance bill.
Most of what is written here may seem very obvious. I write it because despite the obviousness of it all, successive governments continue to ignore or suppress cycling whilst subsidising private car travel. The list of benefits to investing in cycle infrastructure are too many and too significant to be ignored.