Minister – What’s stopping you?

Roseburn_002Humza Yousef has set up an Active Travel Task Force to work out what are the barriers to getting Cycling and Walking improvements built. So far, they have had one meeting and have now asked for public evidence.

So here are my views gained from the experience of the proposed East-West City Centre route in Edinburgh, which was met with strong opposition in the Roseburn section. I was part of a group that supported the route and witnessed how the opposition had been mustered around misinformation and stoking fears of any change to the status quo, although nobody was satisfied with the status quo and the local community council had once put out its own wish list for changes to the infrastructure.

From that experience I would say that the very real barriers to implementing high quality walking and cycling projects are:

– Insufficient funding from central government

– Insufficient political buy in to changing the status quo

– Insufficient linkages to the wider benefits to health and quality of life

– Information void which can be filled by those fighting against the schemes

Insufficient Funding from central government

Funding for Active Travel at less than 2% of the Transport budget will not create a modal shift any time soon. To get people out of their cars, we need a network of routes going where people want to travel. A route is only as good as its weakest link and the key is a network rather than singular routes. It’s also hard to show the model shift a network can generate by only building one route, which makes winning over doubters very difficult.

Edinburgh Council has committed 10% of its transport budget to active travel, which is excellent, and starting to show rewards but deeper pockets are needed to make real change.

The Community Links Plus scheme does encourage high quality bids, but with only 1 scheme winning each year progress will be very slow and many councils will not want to spend the effort to develop a bid without certainty of success.

It’s an additional hurdle for active travel that doesn’t exist for other transport infrastructure, which indicates its poor position in the Government’s pecking order for investment. Where’s the competition for the next bridge, bypass or dual carriageway?

A more significant and guaranteed investment level would encourage local authorities to plan networks and build up the expertise to deliver high quality infrastructure. It would also send a clear message that the Government was taking Active Travel seriously.

Insufficient Political Buy-In

Whilst there are some supporters on Active Travel schemes within the political parties, it is far from widespread. There is a wide disconnect between national party policies, which all support more active travel, and on the ground support by local councillors. I understand local councillors fearing making an unpopular decision, however the vast majority (72%) think things would be better if people cycled more. What is less understood by many, is how you do this.

The politicians need to understand what works for increasing active travel and what doesn’t and be confident in taking a position for positive change. More information would help them, but they have to want to read and understand it. More importantly there has to be an acceptance that real change won’t be made by attempting to satisfy everyone by compromising designs too far.  There are people who won’t be happy unless they can drive/park everywhere regardless of the impacts on others but thankfully these are a minority.  For years we have had poor infrastructure built for fear of upsetting people through roadspace reallocation.

By the final decision for Roseburn, all parties supported Option A, which shows that political consensus can be found but that was a hard fought battle and took a lot of efforts both inside and outside of the Council to ensure the implications were fully understood and the right decision made.

Insufficient linkages to wider benefits

There are great societal benefits to having a more active population, but this isn’t at the forefront of the debate on Active Travel schemes. The costs to the Health Service from Obesity, Inactivity and Pollution related illnesses is huge, not to mention premature deaths and poor quality of life from sufferers. The Health Service should be putting money & support into active travel, like it has done with schemes for stopping smoking.

Lessening the impacts that motor vehicles have on our streets can make a big differences to our communities. For instance, the streets should be a natural playing and hanging out space for youngsters. Too many children spend their life indoors before being ferried to school or friends or activity by car.

The debate needs to be widened out into how much we can all benefit from more people taking active travel and away for cycle infrastructure just being for current cyclists.

Information Void

What Roseburn has shown us is how easy it is for individuals opposed to the scheme to whip up a furore on an Active Travel Scheme based on misinformation. Reallocating roadspace away from the status quo will be a shock to some people who have been used to our car-centric society, but with solid information the issues can be fully understood and doubters convinced. It was apparent in Roseburn that whilst everyone was concerned with the current high levels of pollution and the viability of the local shops, there wasn’t a clear view on the future for Roseburn. At the heated public meeting, we had arguments against the scheme coming from people who wanted wider pavements, more loading, more parking, bus priority and faster car traffic flows. Clearly these couldn’t all succeed at the same time and an informed debate on what we do with our roadspace is needed. The best way to achieve this is to base the discussions on evidence rather than misinformation or unsubstantiated opinions.

There should be more done centrally to set out the arguments for active travel so the debate is had once rather than on every scheme across the country, with evidence of the experience from other European cities eg Munich, Copenhagen, Seville.

With Roseburn, Council Officers and supporters were having to break new ground to convince the doubters of the benefits and even then most positive examples were dismissed by opponents in the belief that Roseburn is too different for valid comparisons.

Roseburn Cycle Group

Minister – What’s stopping you?

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