Thursday 24 June 2010

Cycle paths are "too expensive"

A few posts ago I pointed out that the Netherlands spends around 487 million euros per year on cycling infrastructure. That is what is spent in this country of 16 million people. The world's best cycling infrastructure costs: 30 euros per person per year.

It perhaps sounds like a lot - especially in these days of "austerity". British people, and those from the USA, Australia and other countries with little cycling, often claim that a lack of money is the reason why proper cycling infrastructure cannot be built. It's not true, of course. It's just one of many excuses.

By the standards of most government expenditure, this is actually not such a huge amount of money.

Britain's budget, just announced, is full of cuts to services. However, while 4 billion pounds has been cut from the transport budget, that still leaves 22 billion pounds allocated to transport.

There was no increase in the cost of fuel for motor vehicles. Such an increase may come later due to the rising cost of oil, but the British government is trying to minimise its effect on drivers by keeping the price of motor fuel down.

Meanwhile, cycling will be expected to continue on virtually no funding at all. Around 0.3% of the transport budget in the UK is spent on cycling. This continued under-investment is what has lead to the hostile environment for cyclists, and the bad safety record of cycling in the UK.

However, even now, investment in cycling should not be seen as a cost. Cycling has many benefits for society as a whole. If people cycle, this helps the economy by reducing the requirement to import oil and has many health benefits. Encouraging cycling is good economics. It's been shown that even in the UK, investing one pound in cycling brings four pounds of benefits.
In 1949, British people travelled 23.6 billion kilometres by bicycle vs. only 20.3 billion kilometres by car and taxi combined. In the Netherlands now, people cover about a tenth of the kilometres each year by bicycle that they cover by motor vehicle.
Instead of trying to keep the cost of motoring down, Britain's drivers could instead be helped by reducing their dependency on cars. British people were not always so dependent on cars. Rather, over the last 60 years the British public has been forced to drive for an increasing proportion of journeys due to there being few other good options (i.e. options which are attractive, offer direct journeys, have a high status and good subjective safety). If it were made easier for people to make a choice other than the private car, more could / would cycle.

Yes, I know people make other excuses, but mostly the concerns are simply about safe conditions for cycling. I've dealt with most of the common excuses before.

Of course, even when we're supposedly short of money, some things are immune to budget cuts. While there is "not enough money" for proper infrastructure, other more "important" things continue to have plenty of funding.

For instance, Britain may be heavily in debt, but the country is still keeping its nuclear deterrent, upgrading of which is expected to cost 65 billion pounds over the next few years.

I also recently learnt that Britain's adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 20 billion pounds over the last 9 years. That amount is in addition to the usual defence budget (around 40 billion a year, and not being cut with the budget), and does not include either troops' salaries or care for the wounded. This alone comes to 37 pounds per person per year for that period - a larger amount than the Dutch spend on cycling infrastructure.

I'm not even slightly convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified. In 2003 I marched in in London together with a million other people and all our voices were ignored. It's part of the reason I grew disillusioned with the UK. The reason given for starting the war in Iraq was bogus, and obviously so from the beginning, the cost in human lives has been enormous, and it seems that violence simply continues to escalate in Afghanistan. So what exactly is the point ?

If money is short, which is the best use of it ? Destroying another country's infrastructure and killing hundreds of thousands of people, storing up hate for the future, or building up ones own infrastructure and saving lives in the process ?

For more cycling, what Britain, and the other countries with little cycling, need is very simple. More decent quality cycle paths.

Update May 2014
Quite apart from all the wasted lives, resources and political good-will, we now know that the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 30 billion pounds. i.e. enough to fund cycling at Dutch levels for at least 25 years. Well managed, that could have been enough to catch up with the Netherlands.

Of course, to talk about cycling as a cost at all is actually short-sighted. The Dutch have repeatedly shown that GOOD cycling infrastructure is cheaper to build than not to build. What's more, cycling has been shown again and again to have many positive effects both in society and even for business, all of which lead to cycling having an overall positive effect on the economy.

Britain isn't alone in spending more than it can afford on the military. I made a comparison of several countries a little while back.


christhebull said...

Actually, the cost of fuel will go up with the 20% VAT rate; unfortunately nearly everything else will go up in price with it. Like, er, bicycles and related paraphanalia...

Anonymous said...

Some years ago the municipality in Copenhagen payed a big engineering/management advisory company to calculate and make a report on various forms of transports economic influence on society.

The conclusion was that building car roads was a drain for society, but building bicycle paths was a net benefit for society because of the side effects.

Severin said...

I love the mythbusters posts like this. Thank you.

freewheeler said...

I'm afraid 'there's no money' and 'there isn't the space' are the standard defeatist kneejerk responses from many British cycling campaigners when you suggest Dutch-style cycling infrastructure.

My local council even raids the paltry cycling budget for road resurfacing, on the grounds that this benefits cyclists.

£27 million is being frittered away on London's so-called Cycle Superhighways, which is money that would have been better spent on proper segregated cycling infrastructure than wasted on painting narrow on-road cycle lanes blue.

Anonymous said...

The spending on war versus green transport is very telling. I accepted Tony Blair's case for the two wars on the basis that it was his job to make those decisions and that I didn't have the "intel" to make the choice. That said it now seems that he alcked the intel too.
I certainly don't accept the lack of spending on green transport.
Note that the BBC often have hand wringing programs about the number of British Service personnel killed, for Afganistan, it was as of yesterday, 303 over ten years. Few people compare that with the number of domestic road deaths, probably around 35,000 for the same period (double this if you add in air pollution, and add some more for the effects of poor health due to lack of exercise). That is not seen as a problem by anyone - the voters, the drivers, the press or the politicians. Selling cars and petrol, even if these are imports so have little economic benefit, drive the policies forward and I can't see this changing under the new government.
If the nuclear weapons could be swapped for cycle paths good enough to make the Dutch envious it would be fantastic. We don't lack money, we lack intelligent leadership, it has always been so.
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

Unknown said...

Thanks david for your incisive comments. I run, one of the larger cycle and instructor training companies in london, so have to deal professionnally with many of the issues you describe. I really value your concise writing, much better than some of the other campaign groups. These are difficult issues to explain, even to local authority officers, so keep up the good work. Paul

Anonymous said...

Show me a design for a decent cycle path from an engineer in Britain and I will support it. Good, well maintained infrastructure, backed up with robust traffic law and its enforcement works - of course it does. None of that happens in Britain, so why should anyone support those sub-standard farcilities, that yield priority at every side-turning?

David Hembrow said...

Anonymous: I agree with you. No-one should accept the low quality nonsense that gets served up in the UK as cycling infrastructure.

But for Britain is ever to make any progress with encouraging cycling as an activity for more than a small minority the country will eventually have to start building infrastructure of a decent quality.

Anonymous said...


I've heard others voice a similar opinion elsewhere. The question is: what do we do when local municipalities provide low-quality or useless bicycle infrastructure? Well, one thing we can do is simply abandon any efforts at getting good infrastructure built and continue to promote on-road 'Vehicular Cycling' as the only feasible option for bicycle riders. This is the path of least resistance but, so far, it hasn't led to any major growth in the use of bicycles in most of the world (and in particular in the Anglophone world). The other option is to highlight and point out what US/UK urban planners have gotten wrong so far and what Dutch planners have done right and advocate for *good*, usable infrastructure. Politically, this seems like a daunting effort in many ways but those seem to be the options we're faced with. That's why I love David's site, its a great tool for advocacy thanks to how well written it is.

I agree with you completely on all of your points. I live in the US and I feel that our government's priorities are completely off-base. The only thing that gives me hope, at least when it comes to the issue of transportation, is that I live in Los Angeles, arguably the most car-centric city on the planet, and cycling has made some good progress in the past few years.