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Harlow, a new town just outside of London, has very good cycling infrastructure. The 17-minute walk from the train station into the town centre gives any new visitor a flavour for this, as the footpath that runs alongside the road into the centre is shared with a cycle lane.
On my sole visit to the town, during which I walked in both directions, I saw a lot of cars using the road. But I did not see a single cyclist. Not one. And this is typical of many cycle lanes I see on my travels.
Reading the manifestos of Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and the Greens this week, as well as last night’s leaders’ debate on the environment reminded me of this experience. They all put walking, cycling or better public transport use at the heart of their plans to tackle our environmental challenges. Build it and they will come. But the track record suggests otherwise.
The decision as to what mode of transport people take results from the weighing up of the costs and benefits of taking a particular mode. In most places, the car is the hands down winner – across Britain in 2011, 57 per cent drove a car or van to work, compared to 16 by public transport and 3 via cycling.
Where the balance starts to tip in the favour of more environmentally friendly forms of transport is in cities which have very strong city centre economies. The daily process of funnelling many tens of thousands of people into the centre of town creates congestion. This reduces the benefits of travelling by car and makes other forms look more attractive. This is why two-thirds of people in London commute via public transport, walking or cycling. And it’s even more extreme for those working in central London — 90 per cent ditch the car because the benefits of other modes outweigh the benefits of driving in.
But it’s seen in other cities too – in Edinburgh, 59 per cent of residents don’t commute by private transport. And in Brighton it’s 56 per cent. But in places where many jobs are spread out on out-of-town employment sites, the numbers are much lower — in Stoke it’s 26 per cent. In Swansea it’s 24 per cent. And in Telford it’s 23 per cent.
And so the point is this — policy has attempted to use a moral argument for many years to get people out of their cars. But the reality is that it is the geography of the economy that dictates how people choose to commute.
It’s easy to make broad statements about boosting non-car usage, with the manifestos being the latest example. But if politicians want to tackle transport’s contribution to air quality or climate change, then they have to start with encouraging more jobs to locate in dense city centres which are more easily served by public transport and less easily served by the private car. The transport infrastructure investment should then follow.
They also have to get serious about using other tools to discourage car usage. If politicians really want to move people out of the cars then they need to increase the cost of driving one, despite how politically uncomfortable this might be. London took the step to introduce a congestion charge in 2003, increasing the costs of travelling by private transport, and has followed this up more recently with the Ultra Low Emissions Zone. While there are now plans to introduce charging clean air zones in some other cities, almost 17 years on no other large city charges drivers to enter their city centres.
Without taking these steps, we’ll invest in more cycling infrastructure or initiatives to get more people to walk. And we’ll get the outcome of lots of unused cycleways that Harlow, Stevenage and many other cycle routes bear testament to in our sixty-year attempt to get people out of their cars.
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