Pedal power: why cycling should be at the centre of Government thinking

The Government is being taken to court yet again over its air quality plans. Environmental lawyers Client Earth have previously defeated both of the Government’s previous attempts at an air quality strategy. This third version has been reduced in scope to an ‘Air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide’, pending a fuller air quality strategy next year. Yet it too has been roundly criticised by transport planners, health professionals, environmentalists, and local authorities alike.

Everyone now agrees that previous governments’ support for diesel vehicles was a terrible mistake. We traded off marginal reductions in greenhouse gas emissions against increases in lethal pollutants. But action on pollution also needs to be linked to other issues too. A 2009 Cabinet Office report, on the costs of transport in English urban areas, found that the economic costs of air quality, congestion, road casualties and physical inactivity were all of a similar magnitude: around £10 billion annually.

Based on this evidence, surely it makes sense to invest in policies that tackle all of these costs by addressing their common cause: too much motor traffic. Transport planners since the 1960s have acted as if congestion was their number one challenge, with the other issues being secondary. Now we risk taking a similarly myopic view of air pollution, missing the bigger picture. Demonising diesels is now commonplace, with electric vehicles being seen as an environmental saviour. They are undoubtedly beneficial both for air quality and the climate – yet relying purely on electric vehicles would still leave us with congested and dangerous streets.

Investing in cycling and walking is, by contrast, a hugely cost-effective solution to all of these problems. Enabling people of all ages and abilities – young and old alike – to get around safely on foot or by bike would not only civilise our streets but would also halt the rise of obesity, type-two diabetes and other inactivity-related conditions, with all their human and economic costs.

But don’t cycle facilities cause congestion and pollution? After all, that’s what the papers keep saying!

Well, that might be true if you put your blinkers on and look only at the immediate impacts on motor vehicle journey times specifically along a street where new protected cycle lanes have just been built. But the opposite is true if you look at the wider road network, and consider the efficient movement of people (rather than motor vehicles), particularly in the longer term. A typical lane of a typical road can carry 2,000 cars per hour, or 14,000 bicycles. Reallocating motor vehicle space as space for cycling enables a lot more people to get from A to B efficiently, and reduces the amount of congestion and pollution they create throughout the rest of their journey. This benefit can be expected to easily outweigh the additional congestion faced by those who continue driving along the road which now has less motor vehicle capacity. London’s cycle superhighways are already carrying a lot more people than they could possibly have done under their previous configuration.

Moreover, this benefit is set to grow. People and businesses will continue adapting to changes in travel times, switching to the most efficient means of getting around. But the really big benefits come from creating an increasingly comprehensive cycle network. So far we only have a few disconnected lanes here and there. It will increase massively as our towns and cities start developing comprehensive cycle networks – as is the norm in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands.

So, what does the Government need to do to maximise the air quality and other benefits of cycling?

For one, it should require local authorities to draw up a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan (LCWIP) as part of every Clean Air Zone. The Government’s recommended approach to planning comprehensive walking and cycling networks is a huge leap forward from our current tendency to provide disconnected cycle facilities where there happens to be a bit of spare space and a bit of spare cash. Yet at present, English local authorities are under no obligation to follow this guidance (unlike their Welsh counterparts), nor is there any financial support or incentives for those who do so. Changing this has to be part of the Government’s wider air pollution strategy.

It also needs to shift the balance of funding from inter-urban road schemes to healthy, efficient and sustainable local transport solutions. The conventional argument for road-building is that it supposedly benefits the economy. Yet this claim has been repeatedly questioned by leading transport academics. And it ignores the adverse economic impacts of a car-dominated transport system on the economies of our urban areas – as quantified in the Cabinet Office report mentioned earlier. Local authorities, combined authorities and ‘metro-mayors’ of all political persuasions are eager to invest in high-quality walking and cycling provision, recognising how this could improve the health of their streets, their residents and the local economy. A shift in funding would enable them to do so, yielding huge benefits.

Alongside this, the Government should coordinate a national framework for urban road user charging schemes, to cover both congestion and pollution impacts. The main reason why the Government keeps losing legal battles over air quality is because of its reluctance to support road user charging, despite having identified it as the most effective measure for tackling air pollution in the “shortest possible time” (as required by law). Instead, the Government has left councils not only to make the political justification for road user charging, but also to work out the charging processes and technologies. It claims that air pollution is a local problem. Yet surely a problem in over 200 locations needs to be seen as a national problem! In the name of efficiency, it needs to provide a national lead on tackling air pollution and congestion. There are huge economic, environmental, health and quality of life benefits to be gained from doing so.

The third is to back this up with financial incentives not only for people to trade in old diesel cars, but also for motor vehicle manufacturers to stop selling them. A scrappage scheme could be funded by a short-term increase in vehicle excise duty for the dirtiest motor vehicles.

Over time though, the financial signals need to shift towards reducing the use (rather than merely the ownership) of motor vehicles – starting in the most congested and polluted areas, but progressively tackling their energy and climate impacts too. Simply electrifying the vehicle fleet, without reducing our use of motor vehicles, would increase our energy demand, which would need to be met from renewables if reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are to be maximised. It could also massively reduce Treasury revenues – by between £9 billion and £23 billion, according to one estimate. There has to be a clear and transparent link between charging that deters the use of dirty and inefficient transport, and investment in efficient, healthy and clean alternatives such as walking and cycling.

Roger Geffen is the Policy Director at Cycling UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Bright Blue