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Funding for cycling: are these crumbs from the table or a turning point?

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£20m more for cycling, and new guidance from NICE, but will these have much of an effect? Experience from Europe suggests political will needs to be combined with sustained investment over decades to grow cycling. Chris Peck examines the recent history of funding for cycling.
Sustained funding and political will can create better cycling conditions
Sustained funding and political will can create better cycling conditions

£20 million isn't much in transport terms - barely 40p per person. It follows £30m funding announced earlier in the year, bringing the total for 2012 to £50m 'extra' money for England, outside London. 

Although that's far from impressive, it's still an improvement on previous years - and still welcome.

But how does this announcement - and previously announced funds - compare to financial settlements in previous years?

When Cycling England first started in 2006 it was awarded an almost insultingly small budget of £5m. Of course, local authorities also spent some money on cycling, but this amount - which is approximately 10p per person - was the only direct Government expenditure on cycling.

Soon, though, things changed. The budget was doubled when a new Secretary of State came in. Incrementally, funding rose - but remained highly marginal, particularly compared to road or rail projects, such as Crossrail (£15 bn).

Cycling England's demise

Cycling England eventually obtained the (not very lofty) budget of £60m per year by 2011, when the current Government decided to scrap it. The official view at the time was that instead of having dedicated funding for each mode of travel, they would group some scattered funding together and hand it directly to local authorities through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF), which provided £560m to be spent over 4 years, up to 2015.

Initially, post LSTF, the Government stuck to its line that there would be no more ring-fencing - no more pots of cash directly for this project or that mode of transport. Such things were in the past, they said - all decisions on how to spend resources now needed to be made at a local level.

That line lasted a few months. The Times's Cities fit for cycling campaign changed the game - the Government relented, gave £15m for junctions in London, then another £15m for junctions in England. 

The lessons from elsewhere in Europe, have always been the same: to achieve substantial increases in cycling, you need to sustain high levels of spending (at £10-20 per head), consistently, for a long period. That was rammed home in findings from the Cycling Demonstration Town programme, where rates of cycling growth were obtained similar to that in Denmark or Germany, but funding was curtailed after just a handful of years. If those towns had continued to be funded, the research implied, they would be at Dutch or Danish levels over the same period that the transformation of those countries had achieved it (several decades!).

Cash in, cash out

Turning the funding taps off in the Cycling Towns meant the expertise built up in those local authorities often was lost, with staff transferred to work on other projects. Promotional campaigns, such as those demanded by new NICE guidance, were foreshortened and their influence lost amidst the cacophony of other messages that people are bombarded with.

Capital projects, such as new cycling infrastructure, often takes years to plan and implement. A 3 or 4 year funding settlement just isn't enough time to give local authorities confidence to plan really ambitious cycling networks within their budgets.

And then there's political will required to dedicate space and budgets to cycling. Outside London, we're beginning to see signs of progress - Birmingham and Manchester have begun to make encouraging noises of late - but both still have a long way to go.

What we now need is for these initial useful spurts of cash - £15m here, £20m there - to turn into torrents - real, top-level leadership to make sure that cycling is funded as other countries would. 

 

 

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