Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Marginal Gains for Cycle Planning?

I work in cycle planning, but my heart lies in cycle sport. Can we replicate the British Cycling and Sky team success story in cycle facility planning?

In 1995 I attended a taster session at the shiny new Manchester Velodrome.  Two things stick in my mind:

1. I was the only person who actually cycled to the velodrome (and there was nowhere secure to park my bike!) and,

2. Despite being involved in cycle racing since 1980, this was the first time I had ever received any ‘coaching’.

 The completion of the velodrome was the start of a journey that led ultimately to the world dominance of our track cyclists, to Wiggo’s Tour win and the London Olympics. In my personal dealings with British Cycling there is a noticeable culture of excellence and clarity, as if every member of staff and every communication has been personally vetted by David Brailsford. When you walk into the extended velodrome and British Cycling HQ nowadays, even on a normal working day, there is a ‘buzz’ about the place.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1980s the British Cycling Federation as an organization was not well regarded, had a fraction of its current membership and consistently failed to tap into the knowledge and experience of successful British cyclists such as Robert Millar. Britain was not considered a leading cycle racing nation and our remaining outdoor cycling tracks were ancient and dilapidated. 

The velodrome provided a world class venue for coaching staff to work with a new generation of riders, exemplified by Chris Boardman. Instead of simply copying traditional customs and practice they looked to other sports such as Formula 1 for inspiration. They trained in a far more structured way, learning from results and experiments, and dismantling the act of cycling into its component parts to enhance performance.  The benefits of this are immense, for example a 16 year old Jess Varnish was able to come and explain sprint starting technique to Halesowen schoolchildren after receiving coaching on the Olympic Development Squad.  Within 20 minutes a group of kids benefitted from 10 years work of coaching staff to perfect the action. For young racing cyclists nowadays there is a whole regional network of coaches offering anything from basic Go-Ride and Bikeability training through to elite level performance coaching.  But sadly of course, the majority of UK children are not allowed to cycle on roads so their cycling often begins and ends with a car journey.

Back to 1995 and I was embarking on my career in cycle planning, with some research about whether on-road cycle skills training led to more people cycling to school. A survey of 4000 children suggested that yes it did lead to more cycling, but many didn’t cycle to school due to traffic danger and fear of bike theft. In 1996 the National Cycling Strategy was launched, promising to tackle such issues and double levels of cycling by 2002. While the policy and extensive research base was recognized internationally as ‘best practice’ the money didn’t follow and local authorities prepared ambitious strategies but with no finance to build decent facilities. By 2002 most places had seen a decline in cycling since 1996 (although many still don’t have the means in place to record the amount!). The English Regions Cycling Development Team was set up in 2003 to review what was being done for cycling in each local authority and ‘reward’ the best with additional funding in their Local Transport Plan settlement.  This was a successful but expensive exercise, ended by ministers in 2005 just when it was beginning to show results. Cycling England (2006 – 2011) offered a more focused approach through a series of successful funding initiatives that led to local increases in cycling, the aim being to steadily build on this success by replicating the projects in different circumstances and to spread knowledge of this good practice using a website of case studies and a team of expert advisors available to work with local authorities. Since 2012 we have had the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, with an emphasis on projects that will be delivered in 3 years and help stimulate economic growth but no guarantee of money beyond 2015.  There is no leadership or expertise offered on a national basis due to the philosophy of ‘localism’. A short bicycle ride in just about any UK town illustrates that skills and expertise are not always available locally.

 Leadership and Investment

 It is immediately obvious from the above that while British Cycling has undergone enormous change it has (at least since the late 1990s) had a fairly consistent approach to the pursuit of excellence. Increasing elite success since the 2000 Olympics has resulted in increasing funding for the sport from the National Lottery for individual riders, and from external private sector sponsors and the increased funding has enabled growing participation in grass roots cycling.  Young riders are selected for the national squad and nurtured over several years before entering the four-year run up to the Olympics.  There is a clear pathway from beginner to national team rider for anyone with the inherent skills and ability.  Despite all of the problems and reputational risk associated with professional cycling, Sky were willing to invest because they recognised that the positive aspects far outweigh the negative.

In contrast, the period since 1996 has seen a very inconsistent approach to cycling from government, with a series of short-term initiatives typically on a three-year cycle between Treasury spending reviews and changes of government.  This leads to a pattern of short term ‘fixed contract’ employment for people delivering cycling projects.  Despite much work to establish a sound business case for sustained investment, and the eminent success of nations such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany with long term investment strategies, it seems that every few years or change of transport minister cycling policy starts once again at year zero. Unlike British Cycling (or most businesses), there is no formal and routine mechanism for learning from success (or failure) in transport planning. Talented individuals that manage successful projects to increase cycling as transport are not rewarded with more funding or promotion, at best they may get another short-term contract to do it all again, but often they leave the industry altogether. Consequently we see the same tired ideas revamped every few years and serious political debate about cycling is often marred by negative comments about cyclists behaviour rather than consideration of the positives.

Skills Training

To be a British Cycling coach, even at the most basic level, requires a 3 day residential course, many hours of private study, and evidence of organizing several sessions of observed practice in the company of other coaches. When I did my coaching course it was attended by a number of ex-olympic and professional riders as well as ordinary club riders and school teachers. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much you know about cycling, to qualify as a British Cycling coach you do the same course.

In contrast, I hold a Masters degree in transport planning but have never been formally taught anything about planning and designing cycle facilities, even within the context of highway design. Planners and engineers have to make a special effort to learn about cycling, so the quality of provision to some extent depends on the personal enthusiasm of the designer and unless they ride a bike, they will not appreciate ‘dynamic’ qualities such as stopping and starting and sharp bends that make a big difference to comfort and convenience. It is still the case that cycling is considered as an 'add-on' to new roads and developments rather than an integral part of overall street design.

Vision and Ambition

Another important lesson from cycle sport is that of ‘goal setting’. If Dave Brailsford had turned up at the Velodrome in 1995 with a goal to win the Tour de France within ten years he would have been laughed out of Manchester. Even in 2010 people were dubious that Team Sky would be successful.  Yet with no investment plan or interim goals, the National Cycling Strategy set out to quadruple cycle use. At the moment there is a strong movement to ‘Go Dutch’ but in places where cycling has a mode share of less than 5% is this type of infrastructure a realistic ambition? Do we have the political appetite for Dutch congestion and high car parking prices that also play a part in boosting cycling? Have we seen the kind of popular anti-car public protests in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool that were seen in the Netherlands in the 1970s?

British Cycling set modest and achievable goals to start with, and concentrated on events such as the pursuit, where there were few external factors such as crashes that would affect performance and progress could be easily measured. Pursuiters just need to learn to ride a fixed distance in the fastest time possible.  In cycle planning the equivalent is cycle parking facilities, uncontroversial, easy to implement and monitor. Similarly measures to encourage cycling to school by improving road safety, installing cycle parking and providing skills training should be relatively easy and uncontroversial.

British Cycling then looked at sprinting. There are two elements to sprinting, setting a fast qualifying time (easy to measure and control) and then the unpredictable rough and tumble of match sprinting. This is like advanced stop lines and cycle lanes, there may need to be a bit of negotiation and elbowing to release road space, but with skill it can be painlessly executed.

If you can pedal fast in a straight line and beat the opposition in a sprint, then it’s a small step to bunch racing on the track or road. There are some additional skills because success requires getting into the right place in the bunch at the right time, mixing safely with other riders and having a game plan for the duration of the race. One of the best ways to learn this is to observe successful riders.  Look at where they ride in the bunch and how they move up for the win.  In cycle planning terms this is equivalent to the holy grail of continuous facilities linked into a whole network, forming part of an integrated transport system working alongside other modes. We have seen from Team Sky that success doesn’t come from simply copying existing teams, but from taking the best elements (sometimes from other sports or areas of life such as business) and putting them together. In cycle planning we can’t just copy the Dutch but we can undoubtedly take a lot from them, but also from the successful shared public spaces of Denmark and Germany, from the intense land use in Tokyo, from the USA such as Portland and Seattle and parts of Manhatten and from cities such as Hull, Bristol and Cambridge that have developed their own innovative ways to increase cycling within a UK context. 


There are perhaps no surprises in my conclusion. The success of British Cycling can be attributed to well known factors:
  •          Clear vision and long term strategy;
  •          Starting small with modest achievable goals but big long term ambitions;
  •          High quality skills training;
  •          A feedback mechanism to constantly learn and improve;
  •          Sustained and increasing financial investment to maintain momentum;
  •          Rewarding success;
  •          Attention to detail and marginal gains;
  •          Learning from the best but improving on their ideas.

If we can learn from this model the work of the cycle planning profession could have the same pride, sense of purpose, professionalism and excellence that we see in our Olympic athletes. If we don’t change, we’ll continue to have the odd Robert Millar facility that succeeds despite the system rather than because of it!

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