Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Funny Old Dream

I had a funny dream last night. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.

It started with lots of people writing to their MSPs about what more spending on active travel would mean for them. Letters and emails from the 30% of children who want to cycle to school but can't because the conditions aren't right, from the adults who want to get fitter but find the roads too intimidating to walk or cycle, from the health professionals who are tired of treating the effects of too little exercise on a population whose towns and cities are laid out in a way to discourage them from traveling anywhere on their own two feet.

And my MSP, Jim Eadie, took up the cause, and told parliament about the great things that Edinburgh city council would do for active travel if they could get partial funding from the Scottish government. He told them about proposed links from Haymarket to the segregated cycle lane on George street that would make it possible for people arriving by train to do the last part of their commute by bike. He told them about the proposal to link the other end of George street to the bike lane on Leith Walk, making a continuous link from Haymarket down to the foot of the walk possible. And he told them about things that are already in motion in Edinburgh, such as family friendly routes from the canal to the meadows, and then on to the old Innocent railway path. MSPs from Glasgow chipped in to say that their local council has a commendable strategy for local transport that won't go anywhere without matched funding.

Some questioned whether it could be right to spend money on luxuries such as active travel when the NHS is in crisis, but my MSP replied that, as every good doctor knows, it's better to treat a cause than a symptom, and that inactivity is costing the Scottish NHS 94 million per year. Some argued that Scotland does not have the money to spend, but my MSP pointed out that the money being on one road project alone could be used to provide 10 pounds per head spending on active travel for the next sixty years! This isn't about the money available to Holyrood, it's about the choices that Holyrood makes. He showed them the Department for Transport statistics that show a 5.5 to 1 return on investment for building cycle lanes. Some argued that the responsibility lay not with the Scottish parliament but with Westminster, my MSP explained that transport was a devolved issue, and that, despite fine visions and soaring rhetoric, the current Scottish government finds its policies on active travel less progressive than those of Edinburgh city council, less progressive than those of Boris Johnson, less progressive than those of Westminster, less progressive even than those of The Times of London. He said that people love it when the SNP promises a greener, healthier Scotland, but that it needs to back up its promises with action.

And so, remarkably, the Scottish parliament pledged not only to properly fund investment in infrastructure for active travel for Scotland this year, but guaranteed that this funding would be maintained in the years to come. And councils were able to make long term plans, safe in the knowledge that money for investment in cycle lanes would be significant and sustained, and a great network of cycle lanes was built throughout the land.

Now this is where the dream started to get interesting. Because cycle lanes make the roads less intimidating for all users, the number of pedestrians increased dramatically. The roads became safer for everyone. And since bikes and buses no longer slowed each other down, bus journey times decreased, and congestion decreased for all road users, and so the air pollution levels in Scotland, which kill 2000 people a year, began to decrease. Bike lanes even made journey times shorter for car drivers.

Local shops found that, for the first time in a generation, it really was possible for large numbers of shoppers to get quickly and conveniently to the centre of town, and just as is happening on George street which has seen footfall up 9% since the bike lane was installed, sales grew. And so our city centres beat off the challenge of out of town shopping and internet sales, because they had once again become pleasant places to spend time and money.

And so the politicians were lauded for having taken such a simple, effective and astonishingly cheap step to build a better Scotland. Scotland was greener, happier and healthier, and my MSP was reelected with a large majority.

Anyway, funny old dream it was. I must have eaten too many mince pies or something.

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