Hat Tip – Two Wheels and Beyond
The Cycling Demonstration Towns have reported their findings, despite the body overseeing the scheme, Cycling England, being abolished in 2011. The total budget of the Chester Cycling Demonstration Town scheme was reported as £4,437,034. This may sound like a lot of money was invested in cycling in Chester, but it actually only represents a single one-off investment of approximately £13.50 for each person in the borough of Cheshire West and Chester. In comparison, nThe Netherlands invests in cycling to the tune of approximately £25 per person, every year. For further context, last year’s unjustifiable fuel duty cut costs each person in the UK approximately £97 each year; and represents a subsidy of those who already well-off enough to own and run a car. Needless to say, the budget for the project really is small change; before the project began it was inevitable that what it could achieve with this relatively small, one-off investment would be fairly limited.
The scheme had some successes, such removing some of the barriers to cycle permeability in the city. There are still a great deal of one-way systems from which cyclists are not exempted, although the government is only just coming around to the idea of allowing this exemption to be done easily and cheaply (as in much of the rest of Europe) just a little bit too late for this scheme. Unfortunately, the archaic inner ring road remains untreated, acting as a huge barrier for those wishing to access the centre by bike; not only unpleasant to ride along but difficult to negotiate a way across when using the quiet back-street routes.
Sadly, two major infrastructure schemes were scrapped due to costs exceeding expectations. This is extremely unfortunate due to the fact that major infrastructure projects (such as fixing main roads) have the greatest scope for increasing cycling rates by making cycling feel safe and viable as a transport mode for the average person. The report does not specify much about what these infrastructure projects would have consisted of.
Beyond this, the Chester Cycle Demonstration Town project seems to have suffered by trying to do too many things with the limited resources available to it. Making a lot of minor improvements, some aimed at existing cyclists and others at occasional leisure cyclists can be an attractive option when running a project such as this, as it may feel like the limited funding is being spent in a way which would benefit the largest number of people, even if only marginally. It is however worth considering whether this rather confused splitting of focus between many small changes, some aimed at experienced cyclists using bikes for transport and some at less-experienced cyclists using bikes for leisure actually has a greater effect than simply investing all of the money bringing a single section of main road which is a major desire line for cyclists up to Dutch standards.
Unfortunately, where the project did involve cycle infrastructure it approached the subject from the baffling perspective of a ‘dual network,’ where inexperienced cyclists are provided with infrastructure to use until they become experienced enough to ‘graduate’ onto the main road network, implying that the infrastructure is not for existing, confident cyclists. The problem with this approach is that by being aimed exclusively at a subset of a subset (that is, a subset of cyclists who are already only a tiny minority of road users) there is little incentive for this infrastructure to not be like this; being simultaneously inconvenient and dangerous for inexperienced cyclists and making experienced cyclists who understandably shun it into the subjects of abuse from motorists who believe that all cyclists should be using the ‘cycle infrastructure.’ This approach has not worked anywhere else in the world and it doesn’t work here. In The Netherlands, cycle infrastructure is built to accommodate cyclists of all levels of experience and skill, from school kids to roadies. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, and spending money on unproven ideas like the dual network we should be copying measures with a proven record of success such as The Netherlands’ model.
The project also had a strong focus on cycle training. Whilst I have nothing against cycle training per se, I feel that the importance and usefulness of the current style of cycle training common in the UK in increasing cycle rates is extremely limited. At present cycle training is designed to help those who wish to cycle on the UK’s incredibly cycling-hostile roads to mitigate the dire situations they will find themselves in on a road network designed exclusively for the facilitation of high volumes of fast & prioritised motor vehicle journeys, at the expense of all other road users. UK cycle training focusses on a very narrow, assertive and fast type of cycling which will never be an attractive or viable transport option for the vast majority of people. Whilst helping those who are willing to cycle in the present conditions is laudable, it can not be the basis for the long-term growth of cycling.
The Cycling Demonstration Towns initiative was a good idea which was let down in several ways: The confusing splitting of focus between cycling as transport and cycling as leisure, limited financial resources (and trying to do too many things at once with those limited resources) a legal framework which makes infrastructural improvements for cycling far too difficult and ultimately, the current government’s choice to abolish the body in charge of the initiative; Cycling England. I have described previously what my own vision for a ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’ (or rather, an experiment clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of different approaches to increasing cycling rates) would be. Whilst initially geographically more limited, spending all of the money given to the cycling demonstration towns by Cycling England on ‘Assenizing‘ a single town would have provided it with greater legacy; one single town with a Netherlands-level of cycling and absolutely no doubt remaining as to the cause; the infrastructure.