Issue 13


By Dave du Feu, Spokes

A better form of transport for the environment

One of the most politically sensitive issues in terms of the social change required to achieve a low carbon future is that of transport.

The Scottish Government is wedded to transport policies which pull primarily in the wrong direction as regards climate. Expenditure on motorways and trunk roads is high and rising, with rail funding down in the draft 16/17 budget and active travel investment (i.e. cycling and walking) stuck below 2% of total transport spending. Early populist policies including the abolition of Forth and other Bridge tolls and hospital parking charges are now followed by the intent to scrap Air Passenger Duty. Such policies redistribute resources from the general taxpayer to car owners and air passengers; they also encourage more use of unsustainable travel means and, in a vicious circle, the dispersion of jobs, homes, facilities and holidays - all of which impact negatively on sustainable transport modes and on emissions.

… contrast to the all-Scotland picture, cycle use in Edinburgh has risen consistently over many years,

It is little surprise, therefore, that whilst Scotland's total greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 28% between 1990 and 2013 those from transport were allowed to remain almost static, falling a mere 2%. Transport emissions grew from 16% of total emissions in 1990 to 24% in 2013. For this and other reasons, the Committee on Climate Change in its 2015 report on Scotland's climate emissions specified transport as being “of particular importance for the achievement of Scottish targets.”

The role of cycling as a means of transport

A big increase in cycling for transport purposes is recognised by the Scottish government as one of several transport changes vital to achieving climate targets. In 2010 the government published a 'vision' that, by 2020, 10% of all journeys in Scotland will be by bike. Subsequently referred to as a “target” by then Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP and more recently as a “commitment” in the Infrastructure Investment Plan 2015, the 10% figure has become embedded in government policy documents on climate (and indeed on public health) such that if it is not achieved then replacement policy measures will be needed in order to achieve overall climate (and health) targets.

Sadly, however, cycling has suffered from a plethora of such words and bold promises backed up by funding at levels way below what would be needed to realise those ambitions, and way below that of European cycling comparators. For years a wide range of public health, environmental and other organisations have called for 10% of transport budgets to be invested in cycling and walking, see 2.1 of Spokes evidence to the Scottish Parliament on the 16/17 draft budget – but for years the actual figure hovered around 1%, albeit increased to somewhat under 2% in 2014/5.

It is no surprise, therefore, that far from approaching the above 2020 cycle-use ambition, cycling has remained at around 1% of all trips for many years, rising to its highest recent level, just 1.4%, in 2014. The proportion of people cycling to work has hovered around 2% for the same period, reaching a peak of only 2.6% in 2014.

However, in contrast to the all-Scotland picture, cycle use in Edinburgh has risen consistently over many years, with the commuting figure roughly doubling every decade from 1% in the 1981 census, to nearly 12% (+/- 4%) according to the 2014 Scottish Household Survey [table 1]. Unique amongst Scottish councils, between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, Edinburgh also achieved a fall in the percentage of people who drive to work.

Cycling Growth in Edinburgh

So what are the factors behind Edinburgh's big success relative to other councils? We cannot adduce reasons such as growing interest in public health or environment as major factors, since they apply everywhere. Nor is it just a general rural v. urban phenomenon (though there is an element of that) as is clear from English urban data comparing 2001 and 2011 cycling levels - which ranged from a 60% rise in London, Brighton and Bristol to falls of over 20% in, for example, Hull and Warrington.

Rather, changes in cycle use which differ dramatically from the norm must result in large part from specific local factors.

If the Scottish Government is truly serious about a low carbon future then its approach to transport should learn from Edinburgh's achievement.

Consistency is a key factor – consistency of campaigning, since the late 1970s when Spokes formed, and consistency of infrastructure funding by the Council, from the time when the council [then Lothian Regional Council] started to take cycling seriously as a form of transport in the early 1980s. Other local authorities have seen bursts of enthusiasm for a few years by the council and/or by campaigners, but progress is always incremental, and can move backwards, making consistency vital.

In terms of campaigning consistency, the printed 12,000-copy Spokes bulletin which is aimed at decision-makers as much as at cyclists, has for many years been delivered thrice-yearly to around 2000 politicians, transport and health officials, transport consultancies, community organisations and others. The Spokes Edinburgh Cycle Map, now in its 9th edition, has sold over 100,000 copies. And, rather than trying to act as a sole point of cycling pressure, Spokes has always emphasised the importance of individuals contacting their own councillors and MSPs on cycling issues that concern them (and doing so in a constructive and positive way). Factors such as these have helped keep cycling in the minds of politicians, press and public.

Council consistency has in part resulted from this consistent campaigning. Politicians and officers dealing with transport have varied in their understanding of and support for cycling's potential as a form of transport, but there has always been sufficient consistency to maintain a basic level of cycling budget and staffing. Importantly, Edinburgh has been blessed with a few Transport Convenors who really understood the role of cycling and showed political leadership in pushing it forward - notably Labour councillors Alistair Darling, David Begg, Andrew Burns and Lesley Hinds, and Lib Dem councillor Gordon Mackenzie. Alistair Darling (the future Chancellor), although not a cyclist himself, implemented his party's manifesto to set up Edinburgh's (and Scotland's) first ever specialist cycle planning team. Councillor Mackenzie introduced Edinburgh's unique policy of allocating a specific % of the transport budget to cycling – starting at 5% and rising 1% a year up to 10% - a policy now widely quoted throughout the UK.

Cycling infrastructure is vital, making cycling look and feel normal, accepted and safer. With cycling now admired as a part of a healthy life, it is difficult to remember that in the 1970s it was widely seen as eccentric and dangerous – and so it was in those days, with just 1% cycling modal share!

The 1980s saw extensive cycle route development on disused railways but, for all their delightfulness, these were largely invisible to the public. In the 1990s-2000s coloured on road unsegregated cycle lanes were introduced extensively. Whilst such lanes are rightly seen as inferior to physical segregation, their widespread visible presence in Edinburgh was revolutionary in helping change public perceptions of cycling from eccentric to normal and accepted, and played a big part in growing cycle use . At that time, segregated on road provision was politically impossible as it requires removal of traffic space, moving and parked. But the continuing growth in cycling in turn helped politicians see that policies were working, giving them the confidence to be more ambitious, as we now see with plans for major on road segregated routes.

Finally, Edinburgh is well known for its community activism in many spheres, with cycling development no exception. The early Community Bike Workshop grew into the Bike Station Edinburgh Bicycle was founded, and then things exploded – the Innertube map, the online Cycling Forum, Sustrans Scotland, Pedal on Parliament, and now the amazing Festival of Cycling – all starting from small beginnings and some now major fixtures, adding hugely to the understanding and development of cycling as a form of transport in the city and beyond.

Overall, whilst there have of course been setbacks, Edinburgh has shown what can be achieved for sustainable transport, and notably cycling, through consistent funding and political commitment. If the Scottish Government is truly serious about a low carbon future then its approach to transport should learn from Edinburgh's achievement.

Dave du Feu is a long standing member of Spokes

 Photo credits
Kim Harding
Chris Hill
Dave du Feu

By Dave du Feu, Spokes

Issue 13


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