The (local) Politics of Bike Infrastructure
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Safe cycling infrastructure - why is it such a challenge to deliver?
Safe cycling infrastructure. Three words that are like a panacea to so many bike riding advocates and yet at the same time the cause of so much angst. Right now, in the midst of a bicycle boom and calls for further measures by central and local Government to introduce more measures to protect anyone riding a bike and to limit the amount of vehicles on the roads, those advocates (or some of them anyway) are frothing at the mouth in frustration.
The focus of their anxieties? Mainly local government. Probably Grant Shapps would get it in the neck if he was in their cross hairs, but the most obvious target is the council. Why so much frustration right now? Because the Government has made it clear that anyone not using a vehicle and not using public transport to move around during their daily existence is doing us all a favour. If you walk, or just ride a bike then in effect, you are a transport hero. And heroes need protecting right?
Yes, they do. But it is not that easy. Painting a line is the easy bit and we know it is almost worse than pointless. Paint doesn’t protect anyone.
HM Government – Boris and Grant – has made old new money available for councils to implement traffic management measures to help with social distancing as we emerge from COVID19 in a new normal. Accessing that money is not so quick or easy. Closing dates for councils to apply for the first tranche of the money – and they needed to put in plans to win the cash – was early June. Some far-sighted councils with cash to spare have begun doing some traffic management work – widening footways and inserting protected bike lanes.
But a lot of these councils are hamstrung by either the smoke and mirrors world of accessing central Government funding – the current zeitgeist of ‘make public announcement now, worry about the actual spending later’ - lack of expertise, lack of leadership or straightforward arguments about what schemes to implement. Recent praise for the City of London foresight is laudable. But has the Square Mile got the same issues as inner-city Nottingham, Glasgow, or Northampton?
We spoke to one council policy manager last week. They said: “I’ve just spent an hour on video conference discussing what schemes to implement. We have no idea what money we will get from government. And we have to cover the whole county. Too many councillors don’t have the foggiest idea about process; health and safety; contracting; procurement; traffic Regulation; land ownership and lots more. That’s not to defend them, it’s to say officers are working really hard to deliver, and councillors are often making it quite a lot harder.”
Politicians are stoking up arguments, jumping on bandwagons and generally lacking expertise. It used to be the case that politicians would blame other politicians, but since this government decided blaming civil servants was an easy way out of a sticky situation of their own causing, this has come down the line to local authorities as well. One could argue that social media isn’t helping either. However, if you navigate carefully there is a lot of excellent advice from not just advocates of active travel, but cyclists and pedestrians that have an inside view on traffic management and street planning.
Who knew that introducing improved cycling infrastructure during 2020 was such a minefield? Some of those guys on twitter knew and so did the council officers – who often cannot do right for doing wrong. It is fair to say that some cycling infrastructure is rubbish. But is also reasonable to argue that most is improving – but that it is not a quick fix by any means.
One thing we do need to focus on is that cycling – just riding a bike – helps communities. Streets can be brought back to life, shop sales boosted, exercise can be taken, and a social atmosphere lifted with the right decisions made by a combination of transport policy teams, highways engineers and politicians. They need a bit of time. Given the time they will choose to implement the right walking and cycling plans in the right areas – not middle class treelined avenues but some of the inner city areas where life needs to be allowed to flow freely and where good planning, backed by sensible political words and a decent budget can revitalise a community.
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