Thursday, 3 January 2013

Windfall For Tourist Route But Will Cycle Plan Bear Fruit?

It’s the season for resolutions and judging by headlines proclaiming a “boost” for “cyclists” it would appear the Scottish Government has decided to turn over a new leaf. It must be feeling guilty about its traditional over-indulgences in motorways, out-of-town supermarkets and lashings of North Sea oil.

But has it really heeded its own advice to get on its bike a bit more?

Last year I grew positively queasy at the repeated references to “shovel-ready” capital projects that Finance Secretary John Swinney said would revive the flagging economy. I’m no Robert Peston but I’ve always wondered how you guarantee employment and local spending in the long run by building a shiny new asset. Surely the point of a capital project is that you spend a decent chunk of cash in one go so it cuts your costs over time? Not exactly a gift that keeps on giving.

In November Swinney’s shovel-readies changed. His new wish-list to Santa Osborne suddenly included a mysterious £3.9million for cycling infrastructure. Green MSP Alison Johnstone asked what these projects were and was given a somewhat terse response: “Individual project announcements will be made as and when funding becomes available.”

It’s the sort of answer you give to a visitor to your lair as you spin round in your chair while stroking your cat.

It turns out the bulk of the £3.9million is for improvements to the Great Glen cycle route between Oban and Inverness, a part of the world I’m very familiar with. I recall an excited meeting of the Highland Cycle Campaign (there were at least six of us at the Spectrum Centre that night) when a man from a civil engineering contractor came armed with OS maps to show us the proposed route using the old railway line to Fort Augustus and forestry tracks on the less-busy south side of Loch Ness.

Without doubt a great addition to the tourist offering. But sadly not what cycle campaigners across Scotland have been calling for.

It does seem ministers are instinctively attracted to the idea of spending big pots of money on a handful of headline-grabbers that need ribbon-cutting ceremonies upon completion. Instead we could fund hundreds of smaller works that make a difference to daily lives.

They’re also in the habit of waving copies of action plans and strategy documents like they mean anything. They’re just bits of paper, or if you prefer, clunky PDFs.

The other answers Alison Johnstone got to her questions speak volumes in my opinion, confirming we’re an extremely long way off from a Dutch or Danish-style cycling culture. For example, an assurance that cycling isn’t just viewed as a transport issue and that discussions have taken place between different government ministers such as health, environment and sport about the benefits of making cycling easier. And the evidence for that assurance would be?

It has been suggested the transport minister convenes a meeting of Scotland’s 32 heads of transport to stress the importance of building a cycling culture. We’ve not to worry; he’s on the case. Or rather a chap at his agency is on the case with a view to organising something in the summer or autumn. Woah! Slow down there buddy.

Finally, the most intriguing response was to the question of what the consequences would be for the government if it fails to meet its stated target of having ten per cent of all journeys made by bike by 2020. (The current rate is just one per cent.) The answer simply stated that they are “committed” to the “vision”. It’s difficult to interpret this as anything other than “a wee bit more cycling would be nice to have”.

The uphill struggle looks set to continue.