Partition is a panacea

The title for this piece is borrowed from an old article whose author creates a straw man to argue against pro-infrastructure views. The title of that piece came to mind again recently when reading reports in June of the UKs worse-than-expected quarterly growth. This was also around the same time that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wrote an open letter to Nick Clegg urging for some of the infrastructure investment being discussed at the time be directed to provide Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure. The title of that particular old post came to mind because the failure of austerity policies in reviving the British economy has been leading to ever louder calls for a different, more Keynesian approach; in addition to the many proven benefits which come from actually having dedicated cycle infrastructure, right now we stand to benefit from significant wider societal effects from the process of actually buying this infrastructure too.

At a time when unemployment (particularly of the young) is staggeringly high, imagine the benefits of a project as grand in scale as finally making Britain’s roads fit for purpose, for all users, regardless of transport mode. As many of the detractors of cycle infrastructure are quick to say, reconfiguring our entire road network to something resembling that of The Netherlands is a big and expensive job. However, right now this should be seen as an opportunity in itself; we have a huge number of young (and plenty who are not so young) people who are desperate for work and who are on the verge of becoming a lost generation if they do not do so.

A project to reconfigure the entire nation’s road network would create a huge number of jobs, in every corner of the UK. Those new to the world of work would be given a chance to learn a trade and earn a wage; the jobs wouldn’t just be limited to obvious areas such as construction, a huge amount of design, planning and legal work (to name a few) would also be required. Such a project must be handled correctly, through publicly-owned enterprises paying a living wage, rather than private contractors whose ‘cost savings’ are typically provided by driving down wages, which subsequently have to be topped up with tax credits, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on, negating any real savings to the public purse. Even worse would be to finance it through private finance initiatives.

The knock on effects of boosting employment this manner are obvious and the same as for other big infrastructure projects. However, unlike other many other infrastructure projects such as traditional roadbuilding or motorway construction, once built cycle infrastructure actually pays dividends. Reduced healthcare spending, reduced congestion and its associated costs, increased employee productivity, increased wellbeing of citizens to name but a few, the benefits of high-quality cycle infrastructure are well-studied and broad. Added to the significant economic benefits we could reap from merely building cycle infrastructure, it really does start to look like a panacea.

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4 thoughts on “Partition is a panacea

  1. on Radio 4 this morning they were discussing the benefits of investing in infrastructure, cars, lorries, trains even airplanes all mentioned but bicycles did not get a look in…The local area is very important to the people that live there, its not just about the national or global..people need to be able to move about without owning a car. It baffles me that something that would certainly benefit the wellbeing of everyone using a local network built for feet and bicycles is not being discussed in the main stream. To build growth you need to build from the bottom. Investing in the people where they live would perhaps be the start of growth nationally. Maybe the fact that that growth and wellbeing benefits are not quantifiable, works against such plans..but investing in the people where they live with improving local infrastructure for non motorized vehicles makes good sense to me.

    • There seems to be a huge gap between what has been shown to work and what our elected officials are actually willing to do. It gets better with some governments and worse with others, but the disparity is always there.

  2. Great post. 100% agree.

    I think growth and well-being factors are being better quantified. For example, in France they’ve worked out they could save €15bil a year on healthcare costs if 10% of journeys were made by bike. That implies a one-off French cycle infrastructure capital spend of up to around €1 trillion might be justified, solely by health cost savings. Liverpool’s NHS sees health benefits in residential 20mph and has invested in it. Even without “intangible” benefits, the case for active transport infrastructure is starting to fall into place with solid numbers behind it.

    The downside is that such schemes may be politically unpopular because they would restrict motorists’ freedom. I’m not so sure. I remember visiting Holland in 1992 and being shown a newly constructed segregated cycle road. This had involved restricting motor traffic. Our host family were extremely proud of what had been done and that their kids could cycle to school in absolute safety. They were not cycle advocates or car haters or anything: just an average Dutch family with average 1970’s house, two cars and two teenage kids. From their perspective, it was a very positive development that would have seen politicians re-elected, not hated.

    People like the IoD don’t really look at these factors and they have huge influence. They base their opinions on surveys of their members who, perhaps naturally, as ever want faster roads and more runways. There is some hope from this perspective though: my local science park recently responded to demand and doubled bicycle parking. Previously they had lobbied local bus companies to extend their routes to the park. This makes me think there’s some hope that businesses may soon join calls for better cycle infrastructure. But Government machinery has huge inertia: we’ll do what we always have done, we’ll build more roads!!

    Similarly with the railways upgrade: I don’t really want to shave 10% off my journey time through vast capital investment. What would help is more capacity (longer and more frequent trains) and a fast+reliable internet connection throughout the journey. Then time on the train is not wasted, it is work time or time for connected leisure.

  3. To work out how investment in cycle infrastructure will happen you need to interpret politicians’ pronouncements. The coalition government is committed to localism. That’s actually a good thing for cycling because it means that improvements can be decided and funded at the local level.

    The Local Sustainable Travel Fund is available for councils to bid – success depends on the relevance of their proposals. It’s for all of us to lobby local councillors with suggestions for the improvements that would most benefit cycling in our local areas.

    In London, the congestion charge, the bike hire scheme and increasing pressure for Dutch-style infrastructure will ensure progress. I think the significance of the Olympics cyclists in London this year will be seen as a tipping point. There are signs that other cities are following – Manchester has declared its intention to play a lead role.

    As has been mentioned, the public health benefits of increasing cycling are huge, translating into enormous NHS savings. There will be more incentive for local councils to act when they assume responsibility for public health next year.

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