Tuesday, 29 September 2009

How Not to Encourage Cycling

A house move and lack of internet connection are not conducive to blogging. So, its rather late but I thought I'd write a quick blog about Boris's cycle hire scheme. Dave Hill had the details earlier in August. It is a subject that I am somewhat conflicted on. As I commented in the post itself, it seems rather churlish to have a go at a scheme which might increase cycling generally as this can only be a good thing. My problem isn't really with the scheme itself but in why Boris has determined it to be a such a priority.

Its a problem that commercial enterprises have all the time. Ideas, by their nature, are cheap and almost limitless in quantity. The resources, knowledge and ability to put them into practice are not. The question you're asking therefore is not:
Will this idea produce some specified benefit?
but rather
Will this idea make the best use of the limited resources (whether that's money or something else) that we have?

If you ask the right question then how would cycle hire fare? There are a number of reasons why people are uncomfortable cycling and helpfully Transport for London have summarised them in their Cycling in London report. I'll save you the job of reading it - you won't find lack of a cycle hire scheme in there. It highlights clearly that the number one barrier to people cycling are safety concerns followed by a lack of parking and changing facilities, not the expense or availability of the bike itself. The hard data is backed up by what most people know anecdotally. There are bikes gathering dust in sheds and lofts across the UK. Not having access to a bike isn't the main reason for not cycling.

None of this would matter quite so much if the scheme wasn't so expensive. Boris has trumpeted loudly that he has increased spending on cycling, and indeed he has. What's hidden in that is that the cycle hire scheme is taking so much money (£80 million in Phase 1) that cash is draining from elsewhere. So spending on on LCN+, which directly impacts on cyclist safety, has been cut-back. And there's no attempt to address other areas that might encourage cycle commuting. If you're company doesn't have cycle storage and showering facilities, you'll still be out of luck.

It entirely possible that, at the margins, cycle hire might have an effect, but the fundamental barriers will still be there. Given the evidence on how successful it would be is so weak why would Boris be so keen on it. Well, tellingly on the front page of the LCN+ website, he refers to the need to implement
unpopular traffic schemes

to progress the network. Well, unpopular with who? That's right the type of car driver who doesn't really believe cyclists have any place on the road. There might just be a nice intersection between those people and Boris's core support at the last mayoral election. And that's the real beauty of the cycle hire scheme. It gives everyone the impression that Boris is keen on cycling without him actually take any difficult decision that might improve the lot of cyclists but might inconvenience the odd motorist.

Back to questions. If Boris isn't asking the right question then what is he asking. If you've ever watched Jeopardy! then you'll know every answer has a question. Here's my guess:

Q: What can I do to look as if I am encouraging cycling, without doing anything meaningful or alienating the likes of the SUV-owning class in Kensington and Chelsea that I've already buttered up with a £70 million handout by scrapping WEZ?

A: Implement an expensive but ineffectual cycle-hire scheme
Oh yes.
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