Millions of pounds will be “released as soon as possible so that work can begin at pace on closing roads to through traffic, installing segregated cycle lanes and widening pavements,” says a letter sent to U.K. local authorities on May 27.
“To receive any money under this or future tranches, you will need to show us that you have a swift and meaningful plan to reallocate road space to cyclists and pedestrians, including strategic corridors,” continues the letter, signed by Rupert Furness, a deputy director of the Department for Transport in London.
The letter tells local authorities that walking and cycling are now “essential” forms of transport that can “help us avoid overcrowding on public transport systems as we begin to open up parts of our economy.”
Furness, who works for the Active and Accessible Travel unit within the Department for Transport (DfT), stresses: “We have a window of opportunity to act now to embed walking and cycling as part of new long-term commuting habits and reap the associated health, air quality and congestion benefits.”
£250 million of “Emergency Active Travel Funding” was announced by the DfT earlier in the month, £25 million of which will pay for £50 cycle repair vouchers.
“The first tranche of £45 million will be released as soon as possible so that work can begin at pace on closing roads to through traffic, installing segregated cycle lanes and widening [sidewalks],” adds Furness.
While welcoming the spread of pop-up cycleways, Furness says they could be “more difficult to implement quickly” so local authorities should prioritize “point closures.” That is, “closing certain main roads or parallel side streets” to motor traffic.
Many of these closures, and associated pop-up cycleways, may be temporary but a survey for the local authorities reveals that the DfT will also consider “permanent segregated cycleways” and “new permanent footways.”
Furness’s letter urges speed and boldness, with the deadline for first-round funding closing on June 5.
“Anything that does not meaningfully alter the status quo on the road will not be funded,” states Furness, using no-nonsense language that’s a departure from Civil Service norms.
There’s even a threat: “If work has not started within four weeks of receiving your allocation or has not been completed within eight weeks of starting, the Department will reserve the right to claw the funding back.”
Those local authorities that act swiftly and with purpose can expect to receive further funds “later in the summer to install further, more permanent measures to cement cycling and walking habits.”
The new and startling emphasis on cycling and walking from the government department often sarcastically known as the “Department for Motorized Transport” comes from the very top.
Before he became Prime Minister Boris Johnson was an everyday bicycle commuter and when he swept into power he appointed journalist Andrew Gilligan as his transport advisor. Gilligan was cycling commissioner when Johnson was Mayor of London, and it was Gilligan, not Johnson, that was most responsible for pushing through London’s protected cycleway program.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has taken his lead from Johnson and has become a vocal champion of active transport.
In a May 23 statement given in the government’s daily coronavirus briefing—reporting of which was obscured by the growing scandal over the lockdown breaches by Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings—Shapps said that walking and cycling will become the norm for urban travel, with motor cars pushed to the periphery.
“We will repurpose parking in places just outside town centers” for those who “must drive to major conurbations,” said Shapps.
“So,” he continued, “people can park on the outskirts and finish their journeys on foot or bike or even e-scooter.”
He predicted that we would not “return to how things were” but “come out of this recovery stronger, by permanently changing the way we use transport.”
Shapps stressed that the government would be “speeding up the cycling revolution, helping individuals become fitter and healthier. And reducing air pollution, which remains a hidden killer.”
In March, the DfT released a plan to “decarbonize” transport and in the foreword to this document, Shapps wrote that, in the future, “we will use our cars less.”
Cycling is the answer
Andrew Gilligan—London’s “cycling czar” from 2013 to 2016—has had a low profile since joining 10 Downing Street. He has been working hand-in-glove with the civil servants on the Active and Accessible Travel team, and I can reveal that his fingerprints are all over the hard-hitting letter to local authorities.
Gilligan has strong views on cycling and on the ills of mass motorization. Last year he told Cyclist magazine that the “vast majority of road space is given to the least efficient users of it.”
At the time, he held a dim view of the government department he now works with:
“The DfT [Department for Transport] I’ve always thought were a complete waste of time,” he told Cyclist.
Cyclists are not “complete paragons of virtue all the time,” said Gilligan but he added:
“[Cyclists] don’t emit any pollution; they don’t create much congestion if any and they’re not a safety risk. Occasionally cyclists alarm people by riding on the pavement or something but the number of people killed by cyclists in London averages out to about 1 or 0.5 a year. The number of people killed by cars in London is about 100-200 a year I believe. It’s a silly argument.”
His is the most radically pro-cycling voice inside 10 Downing Street since the entrance of, well, Boris Johnson. (After getting his bicycle stolen in 2007, Johnson joked that “I’m calling for Sharia law for bicycle thieves.”)
Gilligan told Cyclist last year: “I don’t believe that the answer to London’s transport problems is a vast slew of new railways or transport links. I think the answer is cycling actually.”
Article updated on May 29 with fresh information on the role that Andrew Gilligan has had behind the scenes at 10 Downing Street.