UK £2bn cycling investment: is it enough?

Since lockdown began the uptake of cycling has soared, with an estimated 70% increase. It wasn’t long before cities around the world responded, creating new bike lanes and closing streets to motorised traffic. Now the UK government is following suit, having pledged £2 billion for cycling and walking.

Of course this is great news, but is £2bn enough to create lasting change?

Should we get excited?

Let’s be honest, the government doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to its commitment to cycling.

This year’s budget allocated £1.02bn for ‘green transport solutions’, with precisely £0 set aside for walking and cycling infrastructure. Instead it was reserved for subsidising electric vehicle purchase, and recharging facilities.

This came as a shock to many. Just a month prior, £5bn had been promised to improve bus services and cycle links. Plus, the 2016 Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) had aimed to double cycling figures by 2025. Shelving this target prompted backlash from advocates like Cycling UK, Sustrans and the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.

Now that lockdown cycling has surged, the government is re-committing to its target. £2bn of that initial £5bn is now allocated to walking and cycling, with the first £250m available immediately as an ‘emergency active travel fund’ to boost social distancing.

An updated CWIS will outline transformative measures for cycling, including:

  • Appointing a national cycling and walking commissioner and inspectorate
  • Higher standards for permanent infrastructure
  • A long-term budget for cycling and walking

So is this £2bn investment a game changer?

What can £2 billion buy for active travel?

Asking if £2bn is a life-changing amount for UK cyclists just raises more questions. What exactly will it buy? How much is the spend per head? Will it favour quality or quantity, and will it be temporary or permanent?

Spending breakdown

The £250m investment will fund pop-up protected bike lanes, wider pavements and safer junctions (perhaps Chris Boardman might finally get his zebra crossings), and create cycle and bus-only corridors.

To encourage more people to cycle, the investment will also cover vouchers for bike repairs, while there are plans afoot to develop ‘greater provision of bike fixing facilities’.

What the remaining £1.75bn will go towards is unclear.

Spending per person

Here’s where it gets interesting. On average, the UK spends under £2 per person per year on cycling. This is a stark contrast to the Netherlands, where around £24 per head funds cycling annually.

However, this £2bn injection of cash, shifts the landscape slightly. Per person, this works out at around £30 to spend on active travel. Of course, it’s a one-off, and who knows if these kinds of figures will ever be repeated. For now though, it’s a promising improvement.

If the UK wants to reach its target of doubling cycling by 2025, Cycling UK has recommended at least £10 per cyclist each year, later doubling this as uptake increases.

So how permanent will this investment be?

Permanent or temporary?

The official statement says the initial £250m will fund ‘emergency bike lanes’ and closing some side streets to traffic, which is most likely going to be temporary. However lasting change could still happen, with the remaining investment details expected in June.

The question is how these emergency measures can be part of a long-term plan to improve urban mobility for all (and not just motorists), and not just a stepping stone towards the return to ‘normality’.

If there’s going to be permanent improvement for walking and cycling, and if we’re really going to double cycling by 2025, then the government will need to commit to at least £6.67bn each year, to start with.

Quality or quantity?

£2bn is a good amount of money to spend purely on cycling and walking improvements, however we must question where priorities will lie.

The government has stipulated partial spending on the closure of some side streets and the installation of pop-up bike lanes. To cover as many regions as possible, we may see temporary infrastructure that’s poorly conceived and badly linked together.

On the bright side, temporary measures can prove their value in the long run. Safer roads may invite even more cycling, increasing demand and prompting further investment (and perhaps permanent infrastructure).

The worst-case scenario would be the removal of temporary infrastructure the moment we’re declared ‘in the clear’. Car manufacturers will likely go for the hard sell, with promises of socially-distanced travel, and we may return to pre-lockdown levels of traffic, or worse.

Somewhere in the middle is the possibility that the most successful measures would be kept in the form of painted bike lanes to keep costs down, while the rest would be removed and forgotten.

This is pure conjecture of course, but we should question whether we’re prepared to tolerate ‘magic paint’ solutions when we know more can be done. There’s a host of best practice examples to follow.

Final thoughts

This injection of cash into active travel improvements is promising, though it raises many other questions.

For example, who will benefit most from this? Will these measures prioritise the safety of key workers (i.e. taking up space on main roads in city centres where most commuters and shoppers will need them), or will they favour green spaces for leisure cycling?

What about cyclists who aren’t commuting to the city centre, like parents doing the school run? Will all temporary bike lanes move from the outskirts inwards, or will there be links between neighbourhoods as well? Could this be the birth of 20-minute neighbourhoods in the UK?

Have they got a long-term plan to keep up with the increased demand, like more secure cycle parking, and educating new cyclists about theft prevention?

And what about marketing? As with the case of Stevenage, bike lanes aren’t enough if people aren’t encouraged to use them. Are there funds allocated for a nationwide campaign?

We’ll just have to wait and see what comes out of this. Of course we want the best-case scenario, but only time will tell.