“This should be a new golden age for cycling.” So spoke the British Prime Minister in Parliament on 6 May. “Today I have written to the Prime Minister, outlining plans for short and medium term cycle routes for Cambridge and Peterborough,” tweeted Mayor Palmer on 7 May. Transport Minister Grant Shapps published statutory guidance on 9 May instructing councils to implement temporary schemes to facilitate safe, physically-distanced walking and cycling. Furthermore, schemes that can be made permanent should be, “embedding a long-term shift to active travel as we move from restart to recovery.”
Let’s not quibble just yet about the £2 billion being made available to fund these schemes, which was first announced in February and represents less than 8% of the £27 billion budget for new roads. There’s a much bigger problem to be addressed with public transport – bus, rail, ferry and air. Transport operators are burning through reserves and loans to keep their businesses alive. The government has suggested that much public transport will have to operate at just 10% of capacity for an indefinite period. At that level, fare revenues will nowhere near cover operating costs.
The government must urgently develop a new national framework for funding and regulating public transport, probably based on TfL-style franchising. Private companies would compete to operate services at a fixed cost, making relatively small but consistent profits. Services would be dependable, not here today, gone tomorrow. Rural and other low-patronage services would be subsidised long-term by taxpayers to keep them affordable.
Government will need to pump much more money annually into local authorities to fund bus services. Councils will also need to recruit experienced and knowledgeable people from the private sector to design, specify, tender, monitor and enforce contracts for every service.
When we see the government reallocate the new-roads budget to public and active transport, and launch a programme of assisted re-training for people in the road-building, airline and fossil-fuel sectors (acknowledging they have had their day), then – and only then – will we know it is seriously committed to de-carbonising, restoring the environment and improving public health.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 20 May 2020.