With time running out to deal with the looming climate emergency, it is vital that we create an integrated, accessible and affordable transport network to encourage and incentivise a shift away from reliance on the car. A ‘fit for purpose’ cycling network is just one example of the infrastructure required to enable this, but like many other areas of the UK, Bedfordshire has failed miserably to make any progress at the level required.
In 2011 Central Bedfordshire Council published their ‘Central Bedfordshire Cycling Strategy’ which set out their vision and objectives for the next 15 years. In it the Council describes the importance of cycling and the benefits it brings to society and the community including:
- improved physical and mental health
- improvements to the environment reducing CO2 emissions and reliance on the car
- a reduction in social exclusion and increased employment opportunities.
Link to the full document here: Central Beds Council 2011 Cycling Strategy
The document sets out their vision for cycling across Central Bedfordshire:
“Encourage more people to cycle, to cycle safely and to cycle more often”.
Cycling in Central Bedfordshire was starting from a very low base as can be seen in the statistics below taken from the 2011 Census with only 0.7% of people cycling to work:
Unfortunately looking at more recent data set out below (and I promise the last box of statistics!) the situation hasn’t improved with the 0.7% figure remaining unchanged:
So why is this happening?
This week I tweeted Central Bedfordshire Council asking for information about how many miles of dedicated (separate from road traffic) they had installed since the publication of their report in 2011.
Their full response was “We do not have dedicated cycle routes, all our routes are also for pedestrian use. We are unable to calculate how many miles of these routes have been installed since 2011 as we do not track this number”.
This is at odds with their statement contained in ‘Actions and Interventions’ within the Cycling Strategy document which states:
“The provision of new infrastructure to form a comprehensive and coherent set of routes………it is important that the infrastructure is in place which provides a dedicated, comprehensive and coherent cycle network”.
Leaving aside the perhaps cynical view that the number may be zero, although no evidence has been provided to dispel it, it’s extraordinary that a Council doesn’t have such a basic level of detail that they could be parading as evidence of their green credentials.
One reason why cycle paths need to be dedicated is that there is the perception, founded or otherwise, that cycling is currently unsafe. A National Transport Attitudes Survey conducted by the Department for Transport in 2019 showed that 61% of respondents believed it was too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads. Statistics would seem to show that cyclists are the second most at risk road users, with motorcyclists unsurprisingly most at risk. Only dedicated cycle lanes will both reduce the risk and alter the perception of cycling being a dangerous activity.
The condition of cycle tracks is also critical in encouraging a shift from the car. A muddy track may be brilliant for a weekend of ‘off-road’ trail blazing, it certainly isn’t for the commuter looking forward to a train journey and full day at the office.
Central Bedfordshire Council stated that they would use the current National Cycle Network (NCN) as a central spine on which the local cycle networks can be formed. The ‘Sustrans’ charity is the custodian of the NCN. Although they do fine work promoting the network it currently is a patchwork of broken routes across the UK, often ending in muddy tracks or confusing urban route layouts. In one such example in Biggleswade in Bedfordshire the cycle route runs the wrong way up a one way street, with no protection from cars other than painted white cycles on the road.
As the Council are using a broken spine on which to attach their skeleton cycle network it’s not really any surprise that they have fallen so short in providing an adequate network.
It’s not even clear what some of the routes are and there seems to be little if any effort made by central Bedfordshire Council to promote the routes, with a lot of guesswork about filling in the gaps between the NCN routes.
Central Bedfordshire Council have stated publicly in September 2019 that as it is predominantly a rural area they don’t see the bus as an alternative to the car in Central Bedfordshire. Many believe they are completely wrong on this and certainly public transport systems in other countries such as Switzerland indicate they are a viable option for areas far more ‘rural’ than Central Bedfordshire. As their version of a cycle route seems to be a muddy track and have given no indication that they will invest in a dedicated cycle network it’s not clear what they are doing within their transport policies to address the climate emergency.
There have been some discussions about ‘Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans’. I understand that Central Bedfordshire Council are drawing up its own plan – I note that they were unsuccessful in obtaining funding to provide technical support for this plan, if indeed they applied for it. The Council have yet to consult the public on these plans.
Dedicated cycle paths must be a major part of an integrated and seamless public transport network. These routes must be:
- separated from road traffic
- adequately surfaced and maintained.
We are well off the mark in Central Bedfordshire. Is there a vision and determination to change? On current evidence, the answer would have to be a resounding no!
Let’s start involving the communities affected, let’s start prioritising the cyclist, not the car and let’s start now!