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Review of “Gear Change – A bold vision for cycling and walking.”  (DfT)

November 9, 2020 4:48 PM

cycletrackThis is the government's radical plan for encouraging and funding better infrastructure to get more people more active.

The document starts with a gushing introduction from the Prime Minister Mr B Johnson, which says all the right things except that the sentence, "… this document aims to kick off the most radical change to our cities since the arrival of mass motoring." gives away the main problem with the government's strategy. It's very urban based, and says little about rural areas.

Which is fair enough in some ways - cities and their people are the ones being strangled and poisoned by excessive car use, and they have the greatest potential to resolve that problem by getting thousands of people cycling and walking instead.

It's also in towns and cities where cycling is often a quicker mode of transport than the car, especially with the right infrastructure.

In health terms, being a non-cyclist is equivalent to being a smoker. "Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths (equal to smoking) and is estimated to cost the UK £7.4 billion annually."

As seen during the 2020 lockdown, the number of people who would like to walk and cycle more is immense, but in 'normal' times there are all sorts of difficulties in their way.

Wiltshire Council's current strategy is to bung in bits of cycle track here and there without worrying about where the tracks go to, who might use them, or whether they're of any practical use. New tracks are often paid for by developers as planning gain to go with new estates - these tend to service the estates themselves but again may not be of much practical use.

So here's an amazing paragraph which directly challenges that culture:

"The routes must be direct. They must be continuous, not giving up at the difficult places. They must serve the places people actually want to go - often major public transport corridors - and the journeys they actually want to make. If it is necessary to reallocate roadspace from parking or motoring to achieve this, it should be done."


Here's another radical statement: "Cycles must be treated as vehicles, not as pedestrians."

We get so used to talking of walkers and cyclists as if they were much the same thing. Around town cyclists go at a speed closer to that of cars than to that of pedestrians. Lumping cyclist and pedestrians onto the same track only works if usage is low and the track is wide - generally the best cycle track is the road.

The school run brings out the worst in us as drivers - we break all the rules, we get impatient and arrogant and we're abusive towards anyone who complains about our behaviour. We create danger and pollution for the children but think nothing of it. So the government wants to create "more "school streets". Under these schemes, during term time, local authorities close streets to through traffic and have parking restrictions at school pick-up and drop-off times."

Much of the National Cycle Network is, by its nature, in rural areas. Much of it is also, by its nature, poorly maintained. Instead of seeing the rural network as an asset the paper complains that: "There is a bias towards "leisure" routes in the countryside and not enough routes for commuting or everyday journeys in and around the urban areas where most people live."

In setting up a competition between rural and urban areas, and stating that urban areas should be favoured, the government misses the whole point of having a national cycle network. The different types of route should be complementing each other, not fighting for funding.

A new Quango is to be set up. Active Travel England is the new inspectorate making sure Local Authorities say, and possibly do, the right things. Wiltshire Council should be very frightened of this.

One of Active Travel England's functions will be as a statutory consultee within the planning system. This is good news, and if ATE does its job properly could lead to a dramatic improvement in the standard of cycle infrastructure associated with new development. Developers naturally want to get away with doing as little as possible, and planners lack the will and the expertise to impose useful solutions, which is why so many new developments are rubbish as far as sustainable transport goes.

Not all of the £2bn will go on routes on the ground. The administration of ATE will absorb some, as will the recruitment and training of council officers to do the job of design and implementation. In another revolutionary statement the government says that people who design cycle tracks should know what they're doing, and should even have ridden a bicycle so they know what it's like. Something else which will strike terror and incomprehension into Wiltshire Council Highways!

As should the news that Active Travel England will also begin to inspect, and publish annual reports on, highway authorities, though of course we don't know yet how effective this new body will be. Let's hope their inspection takes them out of County Hall onto some of the bad cycle tracks of Trowbridge.

The government emphasises that, "the main focus will be on medium-sized towns, larger towns and cities." This fails to take into account that towns and cities are surrounded by suburbs and villages where the potential for people to shift from commuting by car to enjoying a ride to work is immense. In many cases some kind of infrastructure may already exist so upgrading it needn't cost a lot. A sensible administration in Wiltshire Council would work to address this.

The growing popularity of e-bikes is recognised. "We will establish a national e-bike support programme, which could include loans, subsidies, or other financial incentives, using the learning from other schemes in the UK and abroad for e-bikes, adapted e-bikes and other e-vehicles."

To finish this review, here are a few more quotes which demonstrate the radical nature of the document and how far we are from achieving its objectives:

"To allow faster cyclists to overtake, and make room for nonstandard bikes, cycle tracks should ideally be 2 metres wide in each direction."

"Too many schemes badged as being for cycling or walking do little more than prettify the status quo, such as installing nicer-looking pavements and road surfaces but doing little or nothing to restrict through traffic or provide safe space for cycling. Schemes whose main purpose and/or effect is aesthetic improvement of the public realm must be funded from other budgets."

"Route proposals should always include a clear programme of maintenance."

"Access control measures, such as chicane barriers and dismount signs, should not be used."

"Schemes should be based on a proper understanding of how people actually behave rather than how they might be expected to behave."

"All designers of cycle schemes must experience the roads as a cyclist."

"Before any specific proposal is put forward, the ground must be carefully prepared, with the public persuaded of the need for change and an attractive alternative to the status quo laid out that people can get interested in."