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More money for Bikeability - but where are the kids going to cycle?

The other day I received an email from the Department of Transport containing some good news from the government.  Funding for the Bikeability Scheme, which teaches children how to ride their bikes safely, is being doubled to allow all school children in England to receive this training.

The commitment will see an additional 400,000 training places offered on the scheme each year, providing children with the core skills to cycle safely and confidently on the road.

The press release contained a gushing quote from Chris Heaton-Harris, Cycling and Walking Minister:

“Cycling is a fun and enjoyable way for children to get to school, the shops or see their friends. It is also environmentally friendly and has a positive impact on their mental and physical health.

“Extending Bikeability training will inspire the next generation to take to the roads as confident and proficient cyclists and will play an important role in helping us meet our net-zero emission targets.”

Obviously, it's great news that Bikeability is being extended, and previously I've written about the unfairness of the funding only covering 50% of pupils.  But of course, as usual with government ministers announcing cycling initiatives, Chris Heaton-Harris is ignoring the HUGE elephant in the room.

There's no doubting the brilliant work Bikeability does in giving cycling skills to kids. But are those children actually able to use them on a daily basis?  How can they get to the school, the shops or see their friends if there's nowhere safe for them to ride?

Unsplash - Sebastian Huxley - cyclist riding on pavement by themselves

It's one thing being given skills, but another entirely being inspired to use them.

But wait, there was even more good news in the press release...... The government has announced that "Expected spend on cycling and walking from 2016 to 2021 has doubled to £2.4 billion"

They go on to say that the government will invest £22 million in a range of national schemes over the next year. £20 million will go to extend the Access Fund which helps local authorities support more people to cycle and walk; £1 million will go towards the Big Bike Revival – a grass roots project encouraging more than 40,000 people to take up cycling who wouldn’t normally consider it; and £1 million will be invested in the Walk to School outreach programmes offered by the Government’s partners Cycling UK and Living Streets.

Just in case you don't know what the Access Fund is, the press release goes on to say "The Access Fund investment will enable more employers to provide cycle training at work, as well as advice to make it easier for people to make the switch towards more sustainable forms of transport. For example - Blackpool and Sheffield County Councils will receive £2.5 million each to fund their ‘Walk To’ programmes for another year, while Devon County Council will benefit from a £500,000 grant to support their “Walking and Cycling to Prosperity initiative”. 

So nothing there to fund safe infrastructure - just initiatives to try and get people out there mixing it with the traffic. How on earth is that going to inspire the additional 400,000 kids receiving training to start cycling to school, to the shops and to their friends?

An additional £22m for cycling may sound like a lot. However, it's not. Donald Trump's state visit to the UK in 2018 cost the UK taxpayer around £18m, and it's estimated that his 3 day visit last year cost significantly more. £100m was bugetted for the "Get Ready For Brexit" Posters.

So whilst an extra £22m sounds great, it really isn't.  Plus the even more impressive sounding figures of £2.4 billion is spread out over 6 years.

I thought immediately of an email I received from Cycling UK the other day.  Here's a few of the phrases within in:

...a huge thanks for supporting our campaign last year for more money for cycling and walking. You were one of thousands of people who either wrote to their MP, the Transport Minister or the Treasury asking for proper investment in active travel.

However, there’s still no sign of any new funding, with no capital investment for cycling and walking set aside for local authorities in England from April onwards.

We’re sending detailed submissions to the Treasury later this week, setting out why we need billions, not millions for cycling and walking. We’ll be talking about how that investment is part of the solution to our air pollution, congestion, climate and inactivity related health crises."

They then go on to ask me to meet up with my MP to ask them to attend the debate (details here if you want to get involved with this).

Of course, the cycling community always has to be grateful for any scrapings from the plate that may fall under the table and can be somehow used to further the cause, and there were the usual messages of thanks.  After all, you can't look a gift horse in the mouth, but I can imagine the difficulty there is in phrasing a thank you that also doesn't let the government off the hook.

Paul Tuohy, Cycling UK Chief Executive, is quoted in the press release as saying “Projects like Bikeability and the Big Bike Revival provide the skills for safer cycling to some of the people who need it the most. It’s fantastic to see the Government continue to back programmes that deliver and are helping thousands of people every year on their cycling journeys.”  I like the fact that he says this is only "helping" them on their journey, and referencing that this funding is only the government continuing to back existing programmes, rather than actually doing anything radically new. He also suggests that it will help "thousands" rather than the entire 400,000 which feels (sadly) about right given the current state of the nations roads.

Xavier Brice, CEO for Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity, made a similar response.   “We welcome the intention to extend Bikeability training to all school children. Walking and cycling for shorter journeys provide great health and environmental benefits.  And with road transport now accounting for 27% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, making them easier and accessible to more people is one of the best ways to reach our carbon-zero targets.”    Meaning of course, that you're going to have to do a hell of a lot more if you're ever going to meet those targets!

Of course any investment in cycling is to be welcomed, but to get to a situation where all children are safe to ride their bikes to school, to the shops and to see their friends, I'm afraid that Chris Heaton-Harris is going to have to have words with his colleagues in the Treasury and Department for Transport.  He needs to go there, not just with cap in hand, but with a no compromise request for some proper money for some proper infrastructure so that people can move easily and safely in their daily journeys without having to get inside a car.

I'd just finished the first draft of this rather ranty blog, when I got another email - this time from Transport for Greater Manchester Press Office.  It was very short and states quite simply:

Chris Boardman, Cycling and Walking Commissioner for Greater Manchester, said: “Giving all children the opportunity to learn to ride a bike is absolutely the right thing to do and you’d be hard pressed to find a parent who would disagree. However if you ask parents whether they feel comfortable letting their children cycle on the streets of our towns and cities today, you’d struggle to find many who would readily raise their hands.

“Without providing children with safe places to continue this habit into their everyday lives, this investment can’t be truly maximised. It’s like training an athlete up for the Olympics and then not putting them on their flight to compete.

“Our world-class plans for cycling and walking in Greater Manchester will enable this safe and accessible network across all ten districts, and kick start the long term culture change that’s happened in places like Copenhagen, where more than 50% of children now ride to school. All we need is for the Government to back us with the funds required to deliver our plan and revolutionise travel for a whole city-region and ultimately, for a nation.”

Bravo Chris Boardman - we need more leaders like you. Leaders willing to take radical steps in our cities, towns and villages - and calling out the government for failing to provide the funding to allow this to be the norm, rather than the exception.

I'd love to hear what you think about the government's new investment in cycling. Do drop a comment in the box below. 

If you enjoyed reading this post, here's few others you may enjoy:

Photo by Sebastian Huxley on Unsplash

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