BREAKING NEWS: Nothing has changed

This article has swearing in it. If you don’t like the sound of that then I recommend this article by David Arditti, which covers much the same ground but in a more measured tone. (Also, he published his article before I finished this one, and as always it’s very well researched and written, so I suggest you read it anyway.)

Fuck Norman Baker, and fuck you too if you’re one of those Uncle Tom cycle campaigners who are kissing Baker’s arse over the £20 million bone he’s just thrown on the floor for cycling to gnaw on.

I know it sounds like a lot to you and me (and I even go to Waitrose occasionally) but really it’s nothing. It’s barely even scraps from the table. It’s an insult.

Cycling is the DfT’s mistress for whom he keeps on promising to leave his petrol-addicted wife, but he says he can’t right now because of the kids and the mortgage, and his wife and his boss’s wife are friends, but one day he really is going to leave her. “I love you, here’s £20m to tide you over, spend it however you like. By the way, I can’t see you until after Christmas or she’ll start to suspect something…”

Cycling sighs, “I love you too, Norman. This £20m proves that you must love me back!” But the mistress knows deep down that his promises are hollow words designed to placate her, and she’s never going to get what she really wants.

Well it’s about time we ended this abusive relationship.

You can stick your £20m up your arse

If anyone of power in the DfT is reading this, then can I ask you to take your poxy £20m and give it to your true love – maybe a motorway widening project would make her happy? Because £20m spread across the country is going to do nothing for cycling, except maybe the installation of more of the same kind of crap we’re used to getting, and maybe some more pointless posters to ‘encourage’ people to ride a bike, and more vehicular cycling training which will enable cycling to continue to tread water as it has done for decades.

I wouldn’t mind quite so much if there was some sort of plan of how to spend the money, or some decent minimum standards of cycle infrastructure which local authorities must meet. But there isn’t. The money will just be given to councils with grand schemes to give 35% to consultants, 35% to architects, and only 30% will actually end up on the ground. Or maybe those local authorities who really can’t be bothered at all with cycling will use it to paint a few ASLs and put up a few “cyclists dismount” signs.

Come on DfT! You’re meant to be the Department for Transport damn it! Make some plans, set some standards! The Dutch are making you look like a bunch of cavemen, or at the very least, the worst kind of motorway-obsessed town planners of the 1960s. (Watch this short, edited video and heed his warning – learn from the mistakes of the past!)

But the problem remains that the DfT doesn’t really see cycling as a proper mode of transport. Sure, it acknowledges that there are some crazy bastards out there mad enough to ride on the road, so the they have to pretend to give a shit. But £20m proves that they don’t care about cycling. Even if you add up all the promised amounts this year (as David Arditti has done in the final paragraph) it comes to £65m, and we can then work out what percentage of a shit the DfT gives about cycling: 0.5%.

That’s right, the government gives 0.5% of a shit about cycling. Using the standard imperial measurements as a rough guide, by my calculations that isn’t even one flying fuck.

What does cycling look like?

If you’re reading this blog then you’re probably familiar with the wonderfully safe and pleasant conditions for cycling that exist in the Netherlands, and you’ll have gathered that I’d like to see the same high quality cycle-friendly infrastructure here in the UK.

Well, if you needed any proof that the DfT’s vision for cycling is far, far removed from my own vision for cycling, look no further than their homepage today:

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Yes, the DfT will probably be happy to spend the whole £20m on high-vis vests and ill-fitting helmets to be given away at village fêtes. Maybe that will encourage the population to ride on the roads – after they’ve bought a mountain bike without lights or mudguards for urban use, of course!

That’s how little the DfT cares about cycling – they can’t even get a photo of people enduring the horrific conditions on British roads right.

Campaign groups: stop meowing, start roaring!

All the national cycling campaigns commented on the £20m, and each one was along the lines of “we welcome the money, but the government needs to do much more…” (CEoGB, CTC, British Cycling, Sustrans – they all said more or less the same thing.)

Maybe I’m not being political enough, but why can’t they just leave out the “we welcome this” bit? As organisations I’m sure they have contacts and connections in government that I don’t know about – and some of them receive funding from the government, which they don’t want to jeopardise – so maybe that’s why they won’t rock the boat too much.

But I fear that couching the criticism in kind words of thanks means that it isn’t actually heard. The DfT probably just reads the headlines, sees “welcome” and “praises” and “pleased” and thinks it’s a job well done, everybody’s happy. If cycling campaigners really want to send a message to the government, why wouldn’t they tell the truth and say “we’re disappointed that only £20m has been offered, the government needs to do much more…”?

Because, remember, there isn’t even a plan for more or better-spent investment in cycling – or, in the over-stretched analogy, the DfT isn’t even saying he’ll leave his wife! There’s no plan for the future at all — vague words about cycling becoming important one day are not a plan — yet we’re just hoping it will happen and grinning whenever our name is mentioned.

£20m isn’t good enough. It isn’t even nearly good enough. Even £200m wouldn’t be enough, especially when it’s spread across the country.

We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for the same level of investment that the Netherlands gets. £20 per person works out at £1.2 billion, or 10% of the transport budget. These are the kind of numbers we need to get used to – and start saying out loud – if cycling really is going to become a real transport option for everybody.

There currently seems to be some sort of push to get cycling to become a mainstream activity, it feels like some sort of public awareness is happening, and the cycling campaigns need to get headlines by admitting how much it will cost — as well as how much it will save in the long run, of course. By avoiding mentioning the £1bn+ needed every year, they’re giving the false impression that £20m here and £20m there is a great thing the government is doing for cycling.

Say it out loud, cycle campaigners: “If the government wants to keep its promises, then it needs to invest £1.2bn annually in cycling infrastructure.” Repeat it three times in the morning and the evening, and before you know it you’ll be saying it at meetings and it will start appearing in the Times.

Of course, a £1bn+ cycling budget might never happen – I’ll admit that it sounds far fetched sitting here in London in 2012 – but if we cycling campaigners keep on smiling every time the DfT strokes our hair briefly before returning to his wife, then maybe we deserve to be treated like the bit-on-the-side that we are.

Say it loud, say it proud

It’s interesting to see that I’m not alone in thinking that the government is messing us around with this £20m bullshit.

David Arditti’s article I have linked to already, and I was pleased to see CTC’s Chris Peck write a blog post on the subject, using the same analogy in the headline too!

Similarly, all of the comments on this article are complaining about the paltry sum offered, too.

Perhaps the cycle campaigns are a little out of touch with the wheels on the ground? I would have sung the praises of the first group to say “that’s nowhere near enough, £20m is nothing but lip-service” but, unfortunately, came there none.


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20 responses to “BREAKING NEWS: Nothing has changed

  1. Well said (written?). Where I work, we have a budget of about £2m for maintenance and the same for improvements (all types of schemes).

    By my rough calculation, there are 155 (ish) English highway authorities and so, this case works out to be £129k each. Yes, I am being simplistic and I know this will end up going to who bids for it. Not sure how London will fare as cash will go to TfL in the first instance, some will be kept by Boris and whatever is left will end up in inner London as the outer “biking boroughs” are run in many cases by car loving administrations.

    But, what would £129k give you?

    It would pay for about 3 toucan crossings (nearly 2 if they are on roads a bit faster than 30mph).
    It might be just enough to mess around with a junction to put toucan phases into it.
    It would pay for about 150 metres of 3 metre shared-use unsegregated cycle track.
    It would pay for 95 metres of segregated cycle track (2m footway, plus 3m cycle track)
    It would pay for (I very rough estimate) 100km of cycle lane (those logos are quite expensive in reality)
    It would pay for 1 engineer for a year at about £60 per hour charge out rate (not that the engineer gets paid anywhere near that much!) – broadly similar if using a consultant or an internal charge within a local authority.

    Not much use then?

    • Fruity Blue

      According to these figures, the cost of the proposed improvements at Bow Roundabout would be around £200k. Does that sound about right?

  2. livinginabox

    Effectively, this will be spent on paint and Cyclists Dismount signs.
    Doubtless this will be ‘planned’, ‘designed’ and ‘constructed’ to the abysmal standard that we have come to expect and add yet more candidates for the ‘cycle facility of the month’.

  3. legocyclist

    Calm down dear! Shouting and shaking your fist never got anyone anywhere.

    What we need is a plan. A cunning plan. A plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel!

    What can we as mere mortals do to turn the tide? Lobbying? Petitions? Protest rides? FOI requests? Presenting those in power with a blueprint for success?

    Whatever it is, it needs to be part of a sustained and determined campaign that needs to be coordinated at all levels from Westminster to the local town / city hall. And it needs us all to be singing from the sane hymn sheet. We need to be very clear what we are asking for and how it can best be delivered.

    • David Bates

      “Calm down dear! Shouting and shaking your fist never got anyone anywhere.”

      No, but sometimes it’s quite satisfying to read something that says exactly what I’m thinking and feeling which, even if rational, isn’t always terribly calm and polite.

  4. We should use the same tactics as the Dutch used in the 1970’s. There is plenty of You-Tube videos on the subject.

    Mike Prescott

  5. The Scottish government recently tried the same trick. We weren’t too impressed at Pedal on Parliament

  6. Tomorrows Euromillions draw is for £27m – it kind of puts this latest crumb into perspective.

  7. Paul M

    Picture a slightly different scenario, in a Home Counties market town. On-street parking is beginning to cause significant problems, in terms of obstruction of roads, safety issues for pedestrians who lose sight lines when attempting to cross (and if the ped can’t see the motorist, vice versa probably applies), and economic efficiency – all-day parking by employees of the town centre shops and by commuters ot the local railway station prevents that street space being used by short term visitors who wish to use the local shops or have an appointment with the local hospital or GP surgery. Occasionally it goes so far as to block entrances to residents’ homes.

    The county council suggests a programme of restrictions and charges, and in relation to commuter parking urges SWT to build a multistorey car-park to provide more capacity. (Which can only happen if SWT know that they will not be undercut by competition from free street parking).

    The parking lobby doesn’t waste its breath saying “that’s quite sensible thankyou but could you see your way to a more ambitious/holistic/co-ordinated solution”. They carpet-bomb the (sympathetic) local rag with letters and articles, they canvass shoppers etc on the street to sign a petitition and then claim that this, with perhaps 6% of the local residents’ signatures, is the voice of democracy, they pack council meetings and barrack councillors until they threaten to call the police to eject the protesters.

    They have not got it entirely their own way, but they have succeeded in blocking some measures which would have improved the quality of life for many residents, enhanced the shopping environment and made conditions more pleasant and safer for pedestrians and cyclists, so that they can preserve their “moral right” (copyright Nick Boles MP) to park where, when and how they please.

    We just aren’t noisy enough.

    • David C

      This is a very unsatisfactory parable. Would “the parking lobby ” welcome the development of the multi-story car-park or not? If yes, why are they wasting their time petitioning the media, given that the County Council has already urged a private company to make more car parking available? If no, why does the parking lobby give a witch’s tit about a more co-ordinated solution?

      Anyway, the point of this story seems to be to encourage us to make more noise. Strange that you would make a point like this, bearing in mind that you have previously said: “There are various legal, commercial and political factors which make [most city businesses] reluctant to take a public position on [the bicycle as a form of transport] […]. I know of keen advocates who are top figures in other major firms, including one of the largest UK law firms, but they also cannot, or are unwilling – presumably for the same reasons – to take a corporate position on this.”

      The government knows what these major institutions think about, say, airport expansion. Seemingly city businesses have no issues about speaking to power on behalf of their shareholders, but when it comes to representing the best interests of their employees, they must remain mute.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. £20m = peanuts. A drop in a bottomless ocean. Anyway – I’ve been roaring at Edinburgh City Council about their lamentable ‘preliminary’ designs for Leith Walk which they have £5.5m to spend on. See here for my comments on that particular scheme. One of my colleagues called the roundabout plans ‘a blender for cyclists’, and sent the planning team a link to a youtube video of a Dutch roundabout which is safe for cyclists….

  9. Quite agree, including the swearing borne of total frustration with UK transport planning.

    If we are serious about getting people out of cars and onto bicycles we HAVE to spend a significant percentage of our highways infrastructure budget on cycling. Both to make it actually attractive and safe as a transport option, and also to show real hard commitment to cycling as a mode of transport by “the authorities”. A figure of 10% of the highways budgets nationally would be a good start, a figure of 20% would be showing willing properly. As soon as motorists see pleasant segregated cycle tracks with people whizzing past the jams they’d be off to Halfords and commuting by bike.

    The best bit is that we can skip the decades of learning the Dutch had to pay for, and directly put in infrastructure that is proven to work and proven to be safe.

  10. Paul M

    Just noted your remark about how cash will be split 35% consultants etc. I think it is actually approximately equal thirds between materials & labour, consultants’ reports, *and the local authority’s own highways department* – in other words, grant money is siphoned off to cover the overhead expenses of the local authority itself, presumably to hide a hole in their general budget or to enable them to cut council tax precepts to please the crowd at election time.

    Presumably, if the funding provided were a sensible amount, that last element would become proportionately smaller, but I guess the consultants would still get shed loads of dosh.

  11. By my own (current) experience in a highway authority which uses its own staff (and sometimes consultants) the “fees” part is nowhere as high as 2/3 of a budget (adding “consultants” and “staff” costs together). I would suggest that the total design fee costs are more like 10 to 15% as an average. Our fees include the costs of the various pieces of public consultation we do, dealing with enquiries linked to the project and committee meetings etc. Of course, with many projects, we need a proper topographic survey and buried utility trace which can be perhaps up to about 5% which depends on complexity. Finally, some projects need data for scheme modelling. Data collection can be very costly.

    For me, it is not even a flat percentage, we charge only the actual staff costs taken on a scheme based on time sheets and so are very efficient; and with a combination of external grant funded schemes and fees charged against developers etc, we run cost neutral on the whole. Where we are not neutral cost-wise is having to answer endless stupid letters from the public (I will write a book one day), attend pointless talking shop meetings with other departments who are core-funded and don’t even get me started on the politicians – this gets charged against revenue which we call “the cost of democracy budget” and not linked to specific schemes.

    Yes, many authorities (mine included) charge their engineers against scheme budgets, but are happy to fund lots of other departments (media, regeneration, town centre management etc) which in my view is wrong, but engineers charges are a remnant of a previous government who forced Council’s technical teams to split into “client” and “consultant” with the latter having to bid for work and then becoming easy outsourcing options (remember compulsory competitive tendering).

    There are authorities which have pretty much outsourced to consultants and so there is the consultant’s costs (if people are every spending a third of a budget on consultants alone, they are being ripped off) and the “client” team costs which are core funded. Many “clients” haven’t a clue about construction and cannot control or challenge consultants or know if what is proposed is any good – and they love a pretty architect’s picture (that is a whole other post).

    The final problem is the lack of strategic plans many authorities have and it is often left up to the engineers (if there are any) to try and plan. We are good at it, but it would be so much better if there was plan we could then implement over time and do it properly and strategy is not really the engineers’ job. Finally, it is often the engineers who present the schemes at committee and these committees are made up of politicians who are not signed up to any strategies (if there are any). Often, if people object to a scheme and are noisy, they get listened to, even if a tiny minority interest.

  12. David Bates

    £20m, minus the photographer’s fee for the picture of the happy family and all the money they’ll spend on marketing with other pretty pictures of smiling cyclists….leaves how much again??????

  13. Pingback: Repost: You can stick your £20m up your arse « Cycling Unbound

  14. Paul

    20m would be better spend on enforcing existing traffic laws. Then motorists would learn to respect cyclists.

    None of the “he wasn’t wearing dazzling orange head to toe” excuses. If the penalties increase so will their eyesight.

    Removing incompetent drivers from the road gives a double benefit: a) it’s safe for the rest of us, b) they tend to be heavy footed do were emitting excessive CO2.

    Driving instructors say that the thing you notice about really good drivers is that you don’t notice them. They drive so proficiently that they just slide through the traffic not disturbing anybody else.

    When roadusers respect each other we all get along. You get to where you want to, and I get to where I want to, and we can smile about it.

    • You’re not trying to turn this into an argument supporting vehicular cycling, are you?

    • haagse hop

      I still would’nt like to ride my bike next to big lorries or buses, thank you very much.
      In a perfect world with people whom always are pleasant and polite, not suffering from the usual nasty habits humans tend to have, like haste, bad moods, selfishness etc. then, maybe but not probable, you could have a safe interaction with different forms of traffic. But I would not hold my breath if I were you!

  15. Pingback: As Turbogate trundles on, people wonder what is being done in their name | The Alternative Department for Transport

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