Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Cycling to decline????

Cast your mind back to August - David Cameron, a man who is happy to be seen on his bike to boost his green credentials - told a grateful nation about his aspirations for cycling: "The government wants to make it easier and safer for people who already cycle and encourage far more people to take it up"

Heartwarming stuff. An opportunity for the prime minister to be photographed alongside cycling greats like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton. And to deliver the welcome news that the government was setting aside more money for cycling infrastructure.

Fast forward to this month. In response to a parliamentary question, the transport minister Robert Goodwill blithely declared that the Department for Transport reckons this cycling lark is just a fad.
Ok, he didn't quite put it in those terms, but that's the thrust of his department's most recent traffic forecasts. It reckons the annual total of cycling trips will increase to 1.4bn in 2015 from 1.2bn in 2010, but then decline to 1.3bn by 2020 and stay at around that level until 2030.

Let this sink in: the Department of Transports boffins reckon the number of trips we take by bike will fall in the latter half of this decade, and won't recover for at least 10 years, while motor vehicle use keeps increasing.

This has nothing to do with the recent spate of cycling fatalities in London putting people off getting on their bike - but has everything to do with the the convoluted way that the department arrives at its figures. Its statistical model takes into account factors such as the ageing population - older people cycle less it thinks - and economic growth, which will mean people growing richer and therfore being able to afford to use cars more often.

Outside the computer models of Whitehall the findings fly in the face of most cyclists' everyday experience: the popularity of cycling is growing and shows no sign of a decline.

So what, you might say, if a few academics get the figures wrong? Well, it matters a lot, because although the predictions are little noticed in the real world, local authorities base spending plans on them. If the government is predicting a fall in cycle use, councils are unlikely to spend on infrastructure to make cycling easier and safer. But if they don't invest in it, fewer people are likely to take it up. In other words, the Department of Transports forecast becomes self-fulfilling.

Make no mistake - the actions of local authorities have a real impact on patterns of transport use. In London, investment in public transport and the congestion charge led to a fall of 7.8% in car traffic in 2003-10. Meanwhile cycling boomed.

We should worry when the government predicts that the increase in cycling will grind to a halt - such forecasts undermine the rationale for investment in facilities to make bikes more popular. Recall what the prime minister said: the government wants to make cycling 'easier and safer' - we hope he keeps his word.

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