John Yellowlees – January 2018
In her coverage of the recent government reshuffle, Laura Kuenssberg told Radio Four listeners that Jo Johnson MP’s move from minister of state at education to the same level at transport was a “demotion” – which got me wondering why, 99 years after the appointment of the first minister of transport, the portfolio is still seen with rare exceptions such as Marples and Castle to be a politically lightweight brief.
Transport unlike say health or education affects all of us all of our lives, yet whenever an election is called it can almost be guaranteed to disappear from the headlines as politicians retreat to their comfort zones of NHS waiting times, selective schools or of course Europe.
Is it I wonder because transport is seen as too geeky, too divisive, too prone to scrutiny by an electorate happy to pin blame for any personal experience? A beneficiary of the reshuffle who might be forgiven for thinking so is Claire Perry MP, who resigned in July 2016, the day after saying in a debate she was “often ashamed to be the Rail Minister,” but having successfully contributed to government in other areas, not least on complex global climate change talks for the Paris agreement, Perry now attends Cabinet as Minister for Climate Change and Industry. In Scotland, Humza Yousaf has similarly faced challenges from public scrutiny of rail performance which some say have tarnished his reputation as a high flyer in Scottish Government.
Is transport is the most divisive political area because it involves all of us all of the time? At a local level cycling has become one of the most divisive transport issues. It pits young against old, the individualistic against the shy masses, the fit against the infirm. Motorists rail against cyclists who get in their way, pedestrians feel intimated by a small minority who cycle on pavements, and with cycling made fashionable by sportsmen like Chris Hoy a silent mass of people allegedly yearn to get on their bikes but lack the confidence to do so because of inadequate protection against cars and lorries.
What such would-be cyclists need is better infrastructure than just road markings, and because of its quintessentially local nature cycling projects can perhaps teach a thing or two to other more top-down transport infrastructure ventures such as HS2.
Public reaction to a proposal from Edinburgh City Council for a segregated cycle-track in west-central Edinburgh was predictably hostile since it was perceived to squeeze out priorities for buses, to threaten the viability of hard-pressed local traders by reducing parking for deliveries and customers, and to imperil pedestrian safety by placing cyclists between the pavement and bus stops.
Notwithstanding all-party support, the jury may be out on the cycle-track’s citywide benefits until long after it has been delivered, but meantime the City Council are working hard to demonstrate the benefits for the wider public realm. At Roseburn the local community’s long-held aspirations for improvement of the environment in the vicinity of the Old Coltbridge across the Water of Leith have been embraced in a project to rejuvenate the public spaces outwith the cycle-track. Schoolchildren have produced designs and day-long public consultations been held on what people like and don’t like about the area which have produced a focus on opportunities for local events or for more greenery in support of the river’s role as a wildlife corridor. People who had every reason to be instinctively critical have found themselves pleased to have their concerns taken patiently on board over issues such as maintenance of the resultant streetscape or the sustainability of ideas like a local market.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of a cycle-track given Scotland’s unforgiving climate and Edinburgh’s challenging topography, the City Council’s officers are to be commended on the way they have gone about raising awareness that provision of cycling infrastructure can offer wider benefits to the public realm.