Growing cycling in cities: Lessons from the Cycling City and Towns programme

By Lynn Sloman,

Lynn Sloman, a Board Member of Transport for London and a former Board Member of Cycling England, writes about the evaluation of two cycling programmes.

This week, Sustrans publishes a series of long-awaited reports about the monitoring and evaluation of Cycling England’s ‘Cycling Demonstration Towns’ (CDT) and ‘Cycling City and Towns’ (CCT) programmes, which received government funding between 2005 and 2010, before Cycling England was abolished by the incoming Coalition Government.

The reports show that cycling in the 18 towns and cities supported by the two funding programmes increased by an average of 24% (in the CCTs over 3 years) or 29% (in the CDTs over 5.5 years).

Cycling levels increased in all 18 towns, and the overall rate of cycling growth was comparable to cycling growth rates in international cities that had a sustained long-term commitment to cycling. The increase in cycling in the CDTs / CCTs appeared to be city-wide, rather than being confined to those locations where new cycle paths had been installed.

I was fortunate to be a board member of Cycling England throughout its existence, during a period when there was a real commitment to invest in cycling, and to do it in a systematic, thought-through way that would make a difference. Other national funding programmes have been used to invest in cycling since then, but in my book none of them have measured up to the quality and thoroughness of the programme that Cycling England devised.

The CDT / CCT programme set out for the first time to provide funding to towns and cities that was comparable to funding levels in Europe. We estimated that leading cycling cities in Europe were (at the time) spending about £10 per head of population per year on cycling – although we later concluded that this had been an underestimate.

In contrast, the average spend in English cities at that time was about £1 per head per year. The CDT / CCT programmes awarded funding to bring the towns’ and cities’ total annual spending up to £10 per head.

The funding was a mix of capital and revenue. This enabled a whole new way of thinking about cycling investment to develop – we realised that it was essential to tackle all of multiple reasons why people did not cycle. So as well as building cycle paths and cycle parking, the towns were able to develop large-scale cycle training programmes (this was the origin of Bikeability), work with schools (Sustrans’ BikeIt programme came out of a pilot initiative for Cycling England), work with employers (this was where the now widespread workplace cycle challenges first happened), and do lots more to tackle the social and psychological barriers to cycling as well as the physical ones.

That five-year period was an incredibly fertile one, with lots of new ideas being tested in the 18 towns and cities, and the ones that worked being scaled up and adopted elsewhere.

The 18 towns and cities met with each other and with Cycling England on a regular basis, to learn from each other, discuss problems and share ideas.

Cycling England’s Chair, Phillip Darnton, and two board members (me and former Sustrans Chief Executive John Grimshaw) tracked closely what all the towns were doing. We critically engaged with their strategy, and if it didn’t make sense, we worked with them till it did. If there was a problem, Cycling England was onto it straight away – visiting the town, meeting the Council Leader and Chief Executive, and making sure the problem got sorted and things got done. In contrast to the laissez-faire philosophy of more recent programmes, our philosophy was that if places were going to receive public money, it was their – and our – responsibility to do our very best to make sure it was being wisely spent.

The relationship between Cycling England and the officers and councillors in the cities was hugely positive and constructive – the officers appreciated that Cycling England actually cared about what they were doing (whereas in the past, local authority cycling officers had often been low down the pecking order), and we appreciated their commitment, dedication and enthusiasm to make a difference.

For the first time in the UK, we set up a proper monitoring programme – led by Andy Cope of Sustrans Research and Monitoring Unit – so we could understand what effect the investment programme had had. We also tried our utmost – although ultimately we failed – to persuade politicians and the Department for Transport that what was really needed to achieve ‘lift off’ for cycling was a sustained investment programme targeting the same places over at least one decade, and ideally two, rather than a ‘stop start’ funding programme with periods of plenty alternating with periods of funding famine every few years.

The CDT / CCT programme, and Cycling England, were very widely seen as a success – in fact, I’ve not come across anyone since who has spoken about them in anything other than glowing terms. But changing political fashions meant that subsequent sustainable transport programmes learnt next-to-nothing about why it was a success.

Instead, the philosophy was to be ‘light touch’ which meant giving local authorities the money and then leaving them to largely get on with it, except for asking them to fill in a survey once a year or so.

In a way, the most significant long-term effect of the CDT / CCT programme was that it helped to normalise the idea that if you invest in cycling, more people will get on their bikes, even here in the UK. Politicians and policy-makers bought into the idea that it was worth spending money on cycling.

That change of perception at the top has – of course – been a hugely worthwhile ‘win’. And many of the interventions that were invented in the CDT / CCT real-world laboratory, like Bikeability and BikeIt, have continued and grown, and that has been a worthwhile ‘win’ too.

But I sometimes wonder whether the investment in cycling that we’ve seen through the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, and now through Cycle City Ambition, might perhaps be more effective if some of the high-level policy delivery lessons from the CDT / CCT programme had been learnt.

Thankfully there is still innovation, creativity, strategic thinking and consistency of purpose focussed on cycling in at least one place in the UK: London, where there has been consistent political support for cycling for the last 17 years. But elsewhere? …I think it’s about time that Transport Ministers stepped up their ambition for high quality, long-term, proactively-led cycling investment programmes that made best possible use of public money.

Then we might really start to look like a cycling country.

About the author: Lynn Sloman was a Board Member of Cycling England, and is currently involved in evaluation of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund and Cycle City Ambition programmes for the Department for Transport. She is a Board Member of Transport for London. This blog represents her personal views.

Download the CCT and CDT programme reports

Andy Cope explains why investing in cycling in towns and cities works