Making Scotland a cycle-friendly nation

The great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.

Enrique Peñalosa

Cycling should be the obvious solution to many of Scotland’s ills. It is cheap, healthy, democratic and convivial, boosts local economies, reduces carbon emissions and transport poverty, and makes the streets a safer place for all. People who regularly cycle benefit themselves – physiologically their bodies are, on average, many years ‘younger’ than those who don’t, and they suffer less from the ‘western’ diseases like heart disease that beset Scotland so. Cycling also benefits others – cutting congestion and pollution by reducing traffic. And yet, even as the Scottish Government makes ambitious plans to cut private car use over the next decade, cycling and active travel still don’t seem to be taken seriously as a part of the solution. 

If we want to see cycling levels rise – and reach all corners of society – we already know what works. We saw people take to their bikes in great numbers during the first COVID-19 lockdown, when most of the motor traffic disappeared – with the greatest increases among women and girls. Yet, pandemics aside, the majority of Scots don’t cycle, largely because they feel it is too risky. Well-designed, joined-up cycle routes that keep people away from fast and heavy traffic both enable and encourage people to cycle who might not otherwise take the risk. This is particularly the case for many women, parents travelling with children, older people and disabled people. Making Scotland safe for walking, wheeling, and cycling and – more importantly – making it feel safe, could transform our cities and villages and the lives of the people who live in them. 

We call on all Scotland’s politicians, of all parties, to sign up to the following three key policies in order to make cycling a realistic choice for everyone, of all ages and abilities, and show the rest of the UK that cycling doesn’t just belong on continental Europe, but in the country where it all began:

  1. Proper funding for active travel – starting at 10% of the transport budget and rising to 20% by the end of the parliamentary term.
  2. Design cycling for all ages and abilities into Scotland’s roads.
  3. Implement and enforce safer speeds where people live, work and play.
little boy on bike
Little boy pedalling on Parliament ©Ros Gasson, Photography Scotland

  1. Proper funding for active travel, starting at 10% of the transport budget and rising to 20% by the end of the parliamentary term.

The Scottish government places walking and wheeling, followed by cycling, at the top of its sustainable transport hierarchy – yet active travel accounts for barely more than 3% of the transport budget, a figure which has not changed much in the past few years. Incremental spending brings, at best, incremental change. Despite many highly trumpeted policies to increase cycling over the years, cycling has barely risen except in areas which have seen real investment in active travel and not just rhetoric.

Unpicking the results of 40 years of car-centric spending will take substantial and sustained  investment. At current spending levels, 20% of the transport budget would amount to around £600m per year, or just over £100 per head – enough to rapidly roll out a dense network of all-ability cycle routes across Scotland, while bringing our footways and crossings up to a standard that makes them accessible to all.  

To ensure that this money is spent effectively, the Scottish government needs a clear strategic plan. Fortunately, it already has a number of policies which point in the right direction, but which lack the budget to back them up. In particular, the latest Climate Change Plan commits the government to a 20% reduction in car kilometres driven by 2030, while Phase One of the second Strategic Transport Projects Review recommends several interventions which would reallocate road space away from cars towards active travel. Fully funding both of these so that they quickly reach every corner of Scotland, would be a strong start.

  1. Design cycling for all ages and abilities into all of Scotland’s roads.

Improved provision for cycling must include a commitment to transforming Scotland’s roads and junctions so that everyone who wants to can cycle for their everyday journeys. The long-awaited revision to Cycling by Design should be kept updated, incorporating best practice internationally, and should form minimum national standards for any new road or any road being substantially maintained or upgraded, whether local or trunk road, and whether or not it is considered a designated cycle route. 

The government should work with local authorities to plan the creation of a dense network of direct and dedicated cycling routes, particularly on busy roads and paying special attention to junctions. Cycling infrastructure should be suitable for people of all kinds, whether fast commuters or children on their way to school. Importantly, it should not bring cyclists into conflict with either pedestrians or heavy traffic. Residential neighbourhoods should be redesigned to minimise motorised through-traffic and maximise permeability for those walking, wheeling and cycling. Such designs don’t just benefit people cycling, they benefit everyone who uses the roads.

  1. Implement and enforce safer speeds where people live, work and play.

There are significant road safety benefits to a 20 mph speed limit. In residential areas, the presumption should be that roads authorities should apply 20mph speed limits as the norm. Lower speed limits should also be considered for unclassified rural roads where all road traffic faces a completely unacceptable risk of accident. Over time, roads should be redesigned to reflect the new lower speed limits. 

These three points are key, but there are other policies that our politicians should consider alongside them that will make them even more effective: 

  • Building cycling into our local transport strategies.
  • Better road traffic law and better enforcement.
  • Safer HGVs around people walking, cycling and wheeling.
  • A strategic and joined-up programme of training for all road users.
  • The right research supporting good decision making and policy.

There is all to play for and so little to lose. Proper investment in cycling is not a zero-sum game. It will return so much more to society than the expenditure put in, benefits which will gradually be reflected in a changing, healthier population. We all know our natural resources are not infinite and we would be irresponsible not to think of ways of making them last, but riding a bike need not be seen as a sacrifice. Instead, it is a joyous way to get about – but one that has become confined to a hardy few because of the conditions on our roads. Since the invention of the pedal bike by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, Scotland has a storied history of popular cycling which has been all but forgotten. We believe these times can come again and Scotland can once more be a beacon for the world.

Work as if you are in the early days of a better nation

Alasdair Gray

Note: this is an updated manifesto for 2021. Our old manifesto can be read here.