Edinburgh City Council’s decision to cut road repairs to fund cycling is short-sighted and likely to cost more in the long run.
The council has acted fast in recent years and allocated more money to attack the huge backlog in potholes brought on by successive bad winters and historic under- funding.
Does it really think that the pothole problem is solved in Edinburgh? Are all the roads and pavements perfect? Far from it, I fear, with worn-out roads and poor quality utility repairs adding to the problem every day, and that’s before a new winter kicks in with full force.
Scottish councils have been rightly criticised for their feast or famine approach to roads funding in the past. Without a long-term commitment it is impossible to plan a proper road maintenance programme that targets the worst roads, so hard-pressed engineers have to fall back on make-do-and-mend patching which never lasts. The council may think that a couple of good years equates to a long-term approach but Edinburgh drivers are unlikely to agree.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists supports the growth of cycling and accepts it has a role to play in a healthy green future for the Capital, but any notion that Dutch-style cycling levels can be achieved soon is very wide of the mark. It took Holland decades to redress the balance in urban design, car priority and new infrastructure to deliver its cycling heaven.
The Dutch did it by investing in all forms of transport and by spending large sums on cycle-friendly roads. The scale of the changes needed to meet cycling targets are so huge that the council must explore new funding streams if the economy is not to suffer as other budgets are raided.
For better or worse the economy of Edinburgh is inextricably linked to an efficient road system for motorised users and diverting funding away from it risks stunting growth just when things are starting to pick up. We have already seen what can happen when one huge project such as the tram system is allowed to disrupt the life of the city. The council must not allow its cycling vision to be the next tram project soaking up funds, causing daily frustrations and then ultimately failing to deliver noticeable improvements in congestion or pollution.
I do believe that the council’s mythical anti-car image has been improving of late with better transparency on parking and the welcome extra investment in potholes. Of course, the common hate figure of the tram has united all road users in Edinburgh as never before! There is a public relations risk in this week’s announcements that anti-cycling feelings will be re-stoked and the recent consensus building undermined.
Cyclists need segregated facilities but they also often cite the state of the roads as a reason for not cycling more. Hitting a pothole can be expensive for a car owner but potentially fatal for a cyclist. The IAM believes in sharing the road safely but that should not mean favouring one set of road users over another.
Anyone starting cycling today is at risk due to poor facilities, inadequate road repairs and lack of knowledge among car drivers about how to deal with increasing numbers of cyclists. If the council and the Scottish Government are serious about cycling then they should treat it as a big project to be delivered as quickly as possible.
It’s a classic chicken and egg situation in that many drivers will not quit their cars until they can see that it is safe to do so. It’s a difficult message and a delicate balance has to be struck but in my view the priority should be to keep the roads moving until a real choice to cycle is available. That will be expensive for the authorities but if they really believe in the benefits they should be willing to put real new money up to pay for it.
Neil Greig is director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists.