April Cumming is Vice-Chair of the left-wing think tank the Scottish Fabians. Here she writes for Better Nation about the opportunity for Labour to seize on a progressive agenda and change the way transport works in Scotland.
I cycled to my office this morning. There’s nothing remarkable in this fact, thousands of workers across the country also prefer to take the bike where it is possible rather than its more cumbersome road-fellow. What is remarkable, however, is the number of times on a weekly basis this activity brings me close to an unpleasant and untimely demise. It’s not that I’m an unsafe cyclist; I indicate, I use the correct lanes, and I keep a safe distance from the frequently indifferent or incensed cab drivers, vans and buses. The issue, I believe, is that those who prefer ‘active travel’ as a means of navigating Edinburgh’s streets are still perceived as an awkward inconvenience rather than a road user of equal status. This is reflected in the lack of any real infrastructure to facilitate safe cycling in the city. Without the provision of a network of well-maintained cycle routes, cyclist will continue to exist as second class citizens on the roads of our nation’s capital.
But why is it that as a country that invests so heavily in roads and large scale public sector infrastructure projects we continue to fall behind our more pro-active European neighbours in investing in relatively inexpensive but hugely effective active travel networks? We appear to be besotted by the idea of the extravagant glamour project, for example HS2 and the Forth Bridge Replacement project; these are the status builds that mark the era of an ambitious government. However, ambitious projects do not always a wise investment make, and in this time of stretched budgets we must look at expenditure choices that cover a wide range of policy objectives. Active travel infrastructure in Scotland is not only a necessary facility for allowing citizens of all backgrounds to transport themselves and their families on short to mid-range journeys. It is a vital mechanism for reducing our carbon emissions and vastly improving the health and wellbeing of our nation. Effective town planning can vastly improve the living standards of urban residents, bringing diverse communities closer and acting as a social leveller; this is no less the case with active travel infrastructure as with housing and public spaces. As a resident of Leith the capacity for good transport networks to create a more coherent flow between city centres and respective limbs of Edinburgh is not lost on me. However, this does not simply mean catering to the needs of drivers above all others. Short trips need to be made by alternative means, for the good of every Edinburgh resident and to achieve the long-term goal of an improved, accessible and human-friendly city. Only central policy that pushes local authorities into action can ensure this is achieved, with adequate budgets put in place now to start that long-term modal shift. Spend the money now and reap the rewards in future. For a government whose focus has long been on endorsing a model of preventative spend this should not be rocket science. As a case in point, a study in Copenhagen showed that when the health benefits, time saved and reduction in congestion and car crashes are taken into account, society makes a net profit of 1.22 Danish kroner (around 13p) for every kilometre cycled by one of its citizens.
This is a process that starts with good policy at the centre, and encourages local government to bring forward plans for action that meets the needs and characteristics of specific localities. The case for active transport networks was argued vociferously in the transport and infrastructure committee and through the forum of the cycling CPG, with bodies like Sustrans and Spokes highlighting that a more hands-on approach was necessary. But to this point the rhetoric of successive governments with regard to building the infrastructure and vigorously promoting healthy and active travel options has fallen far short of the actions taken.
We live in a time where household budgets are being stretched and the cost of maintaining and running a car has become gradually less affordable. At the same time a growing number of issues relating to health inequalities are yet to be tackled, and the infrastructure of our major urban hubs has been left in dire need of repair. Most importantly, for the second year running we have failed to meet our emissions reduction targets. The Scottish Government has set laudable and challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050. The need for a more resilient and accessible active transport network, linked in with our local public transport routes, has become glaringly obvious and yet we are still to see the kind of focused attention on bringing forward a workable and practical plan that we see in other pioneering countries like Denmark. This is a country whose government has tapped into the psyche of cyclists, has understood the specific needs and problems faced by travellers and has reacted with innovative technologies that not only assist but promote active travel. Trains have entire carriages that may be adapted to accommodate cyclists. Points of cultural interest have stations where bikes may be left and public transport hubs have facilities to hire bicycles to explore the city further or get to work. There are even resting curbs specifically designed for cyclists at traffic junctions. One third of journeys are made by bicycle, while car usage is falling. A quarter of two-children families own a cargo-style bike to get around the busy streets, encouraged to use the 346km (215 miles) of segregated cycle lanes, maintained by the relatively low budget of €10 million (£8 million) per year.
Current central and local government policy advocates investment in active travel (walking and cycling) over the private car, due to the multiple benefits it brings to society. The Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CA PS) has a vision that “by 2020, 10% of all journeys taken in Scotland will be by bike.” However, to date only 1% of journeys could be classified as “active” and Scotland’s current transport funding decisions, which largely prioritise major schemes such as the Forth road bridge, promote delivery mechanisms that fail to make the most of our capacity to lead on small-scale, local active travel initiatives.
I believe that in the absence of real progress the onus is on opposition parties, namely Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens, to come forward with a logical and achievable pathway to real, sustainable change. This means looking at the models adopted elsewhere and realising that this is an investment worth making.
As a regular attendee of events run by the think tank Nordic Horizons, I am a great advocate of looking to examples of best practice from other shores that may help us to bring forward policy suggestions based on evidence; such an approach allows more ambitious, innovative planning. There are other cities in the Nordic region that have succeeded in not only creating the necessary infrastructure for modal shift but also lauding the practise of active travel and giving it an immense sense of social worth. The communal aspect of walking and cycling is seen as something of real cultural value; it is a leveller that provides the individual with the ability to transport themselves and their family across the urban space, regardless of wealth or class background. As such it is not only a practical necessity but also serves as part of the fabric of that nation’s social makeup. Recognising the need to challenge imbedded cultural attitudes to active travel and promote a shift away from our national vehicular fettish will be part in forcing the hand of central government. Key to this is emphasising the benefit changes to our infrastructure will have on policy objectives across the board: reducing obesity, achieving carbon reduction targets, promoting social integration, opening up our city centres, making roads safer, and more generally enhancing our personal and collective well-being. We stand to gain so much and yet have achieved so little.