How investing in cycling makes sense and makes money

Woman cycling with shopping in her basket
You can think what you like about whether we should invest more in cycling and walking, but is that opinion based on fact or fiction? Cycling UK’s Head of Campaigns Duncan Dollimore suggests the facts are clear – investing in active travel is an economic no-brainer – so why wouldn’t you do it?

You are entitled to your own opinion. But you’re not entitled to your own facts.

When US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan uttered those words, I’m sure that arguments about the benefits of cycling and walking weren’t foremost in his mind.

But it’s a quote that will surely resonate with anyone who, like me, has found themselves responding to the urban myths, ill-informed opinions and assumptions that surround many discussions about cycling and active travel.

Reinforcing the myth

A mistake we can all make is being drawn into responding, to challenge or de-bunk the myth rather than simply asserting the positive case. We then risk inadvertently reinforcing the myth by repeating it, instead of highlighting, for example, the incredible benefits from investing in walking and cycling infrastructure.

One excuse for falling into that trap is that so many myths are peddled, and there are so many benefits from investing in active travel. Sometimes we don’t know where to start!

Don’t forget about the money!

So we talk about the benefits for health, or cycling as part of the solution to various crises including air pollution, congestion and climate change. As we try to cover everything, we instinctively focus on emotive issues like safety, people and things we’re passionate about - and we forget about the money!

I was reminded of this last week when Transport for London (TfL) published a fantastic guide: Walking and Cycling: the economic benefits. In recent weeks, I’ve written various blogs to nudge and encourage people to take two minutes to support our funding campaign for a radical increase in investment in cycling and walking in England (funding in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is a devolved matter).

But, whilst asking the Government to show us the money for cycling and questioning how it hopes to double levels of cycling without doubling investment, I’ve overlooked the economic message that TfL have focussed on: investing in walking and cycling just makes economic sense, and offers fantastic returns on investment. We need to shout this from the rooftops.

Much of the information in TfL’s report isn’t new, and can be found in policy briefings like our own, Cycling and the Economy. In TfL's report they've focused on key facts, statistics and infographics to highlight why spending on active travel makes such financial sense.

Thirteen to one

Here’s some of the headline statistics in TfL’s guide, starting with the ratio 13:1. That’s the average ‘Benefit Cost Ratio’ (BCR) for walking and cycling projects (UK and non-UK), which means that for every pound spent on walking and cycling, £13 is returned to the economy.

Okay, that’s an average, and the Department for Transport’s (DfT) calculations for different UK cycling and walking schemes variously show returns of between £4 to £19 for every pound spent.

That’s officially ‘very high’, with Government guidance on the evaluation of major projects suggesting that a ‘medium’ value-for-money project will have a BCR of between 1.5:1 and 2:1, and a ‘high’ value-for-money project a BCR of at least 2.1.

Done properly, cycling is therefore one of the most cost-effective transport investments, with motorway upgrades and bypasses estimated to typically have lower BCRs of 3.1:1 and 3.7:1 respectively. 

The cost of everything and the value of nothing

We'd love to be able to persuade local authorities, politicians and, most importantly, those who control the future of cycling in Government that they should rapidly ramp up spending on active travel because it’s just the right thing to do for numerous reasons beyond economic benefits.

But let’s face it, there are people who appreciate the cost of everything and the value of nothing. They’re more likely to get the economic argument around value for investment; an argument we don’t make enough, and don’t always communicate in a simple and accessible way.

So, back to TfL, and here’s some figures to shout about, and perhaps flag up with your MP if you can find the time to take action and support our funding campaign by emailing your MP and the Transport Minister to ask for increased investment in cycling:

1.    Cycling contributes £5.4 billion each year to the UK economy.

2.    Walking and cycling improvements boost the high street and local town centres, and can increase retail spend by up to 30%.

3.    Over a month, people who walk to the high street spend up to 40% more than people who drive there.

4.    And abroad - sales tax revenue rose by two thirds in Los Angeles after cycle lanes were built, and there were larger increases in retail sales in New York on streets with dedicated cycle lanes.

5.    Employees who cycle take on average 1.3 fewer sick days each year than those who don’t – worth £128 million to the national economy.

6.    In London alone, if every Londoner walked or cycled for 20 minutes each day, that would save the NHS £1.7billion in treatment costs over 25 years.

I could go on, but you’ll get the gist, and the TfL report is full of fantastic infographics to illustrate most of the statistics. 

Show us the money, and we’ll show you the return

In summary, over and above all the arguments about health, congestion, mobility and reducing emissions, there’s a brass tacks case for spending more money on active travel, and we need to shout about it more - show us the money for investment and you’ll see the return!

As I’ve mentioned in blogs many times in recent weeks, there’s an ongoing Government Spending Review to be concluded in September. This will determine how much money is allocated by the Treasury to the DfT, and how much of that the DfT allocates to active travel rather than to roads investment, rail or aviation. 

None of those transport sectors will be shy in coming forward and arguing why they need greater investment, but we need to change the narrative.

I keep hearing the Prime Minister and Ministers talking about investment in infrastructure; well, how about showing us a transport infrastructure scheme with higher returns than the returns from investment in cycling and walking infrastructure?

On that note, HS2 has been in the news this week, so I’ll just leave this out there.

The estimated BCR for HS2 was 2.3:1, and that was on the basis of the estimated costs, not the widely anticipated final costs. In contrast, there’s an average 13:1 BCR for walking and cycling infrastructure investment, and you don’t have to wait 15 years to build it or longer to realise the returns. Just saying.

Opinions on value aren’t facts

But politicians often don’t realise these benefits, and they have opinions about value for money and investment. And, as I acknowledged at the start of this blog, they’re entitled to those opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own set of facts, and the facts are clear - investment in active travel works and it also makes economic sense.

We need you to help us ram that message home as we continue to push for a substantial increase in investment in cycling and walking.

Shy bairns get nowt

I read a comment on Twitter a few days ago from a campaigner for whom I have a huge amount of time, speculating about whether emails to MPs and Ministers had any effect. A valid question, and there’s a very simple answer: linked with lobbying and political engagement, mass participation campaigns can and sometimes do lead to change, or a different decision being made.

But, as they say in the North East, shy bairns get nowt, so if you don’t ask there’s no chance you’ll get what you want, whereas if you ask you might, and more people asking and loudly increases your chances of being heard.

So, let’s not miss out on increased funding for walking and cycling because we couldn’t be bothered to ask, and keep on asking!

Take action

Nearly 10,000 people have already supported our Funding for Cycling and Walking campaign, but we’ve only got a few weeks left to make a difference. Decisions made in September will largely determine spending on active travel in England for at least the next year, and possibly set the tone for future spending.

So, if you haven’t done so already, please give us a few minutes of your time and send an email to your MP and the Minister with responsibility for cycling and walking, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, to tell them why increased funding is vital, and how much you want them to push for this.

We’ve made it really easy. You can send the editable emails here and, if you think your MP doesn’t really get cycling but might get the argument that cycling makes money, you can always add some facts from this blog about the economic benefits from investing in active travel. 

In the grand scheme of things, doubling the amount invested in active travel currently would be a drop in the ocean when compared to other transport and overall Government budgets. But we have to let Ministers and MPs know how many people are demanding this, and why.

Please help us do this by taking action now.

Write to the Transport Minister