A to B 39 Blog, Cycling Statistics, Peak Oil

FIRST PUBLISHED December 2003
Dubious Cycling Statistics, Peak Oil
David Henshaw

A plain brown envelope arrived recently at Mole Towers containing a fascinating publication entitled A2B. A vaguely familiar name to readers of this organ no doubt, particularly when we consider that the title in question is bi-monthly and, broadly-speaking, concerned with transport?

A2B is an internal publication from our old friends at the Department for (Road) Transport. Despite the accent being largely (although not exclusively) on road matters, A2B is a perfectly readable in-house journal, but one wonders whether it might not bear just a little too much similarity to A to B? It seems some DfT staff did voice concerns, but their Communications Directorate carried on regardless.

Somehow, one doubts whether A to B has many friends in the Department. Back in A to B 30, a graph appeared in this very column indicating that – on the DfT’s own statistics – cycle usage in the UK appeared to be in a state of terminal decline, while car usage was growing at a healthy rate. Thereafter, the cycling figures mysteriously disappeared from DfT bulletins, leaving us rather in the dark as to trends.

Why worry? Well, rather a lot depends on such figures, notably the local and national funding of cycle facilities for organisations such as the very admirable Sustrans. After all, who in their right mind would pour money into a mode of transport that was apparently doomed? On the other hand, an increase in cycle use helps to unlock funds for cycle facilities and restrict spending on motor cars. ‘Green’ transport look very good at election time too, so accurate figures are important. But once those pesky politicians get involved, there’s often pressure to ‘mould’ the figures to give the desired results.

In the summer of 2003, the DfT cycle figures quietly returned, this time indicating a steady growth in cycle usage rather than the previous marked decline. The discrepancy, we were told, was due to the way the figures had been gathered, as traffic surveys had previously looked only at major roads.

Now, hold on a minute. If every survey since 1993 has failed to spot millions of cyclists, how have the statistics been so precisely revised? Do they now include Sustran’s own – much more optimistic – figures, recorded largely on leisure paths?

Far be it from the Mole to doubt the honesty and integrity of a government department, but one cannot help but wonder whether someone, somewhere might not have been a little economical with the actualité? Either the original figures are correct (suggesting that cyclists are being driven off the roads in big numbers), or cycle use really has been growing steadily for the last decade, but the mandarins at the DfT have been keeping us in the dark.

On the other hand, far from being a conspiracy, the affair might just be a clumsy attempt to bury yet another world-class cock-up. Forget the cycling statistics; the real problem is the steady growth in motorised road transport.A glance at the graph reveals that although car use was checked briefly by the fuel ‘crisis’ of 2000 and the early days of our rather dubious invasion of Iraq, vehicle mileage rapidly caught up the lost ground, growing by more than 2% in the last three months alone.

A to B magazine, Cycling Statistics
As readers of A to B will be aware, fuel cell technology remains in its infancy, but the experts are suggesting that global oil supply is likely to be overtaken by demand within ten years. If one had a barrel of oil for every occasion this had been predicted in the last century, one would, of course, have some significant reserves, but this time the experts appear to be rattled.

Predicting such things is a notoriously inexact science, but the forecasts suggest that an apparently insignificant reversal in the supply/demand equation will cause panic buying and a sharp upsurge in prices, although quite when and to what extent, no one knows.

The nations that will suffer most are those that (a) have used up their own hydrocarbon reserves, (b) concentrated inland transport in oil-hungry aircraft and road vehicles, and (c) declared war on the countries with all the remaining oil reserves. Er, sounds familiar… Some say the crunch could arrive within twelve months.

Speaking of global catastrophes, one is drawn, as if by some invisible force, to the railways, where track maintenance is ‘being brought back in-house’, as Network Rail would have it, but take no notice – this is re-nationalisation. We already have the infrastructure back in state hands, with maintenance going the same way.

According to an internal review: ‘…a single integrated rail maintenance operation’ would deliver higher standards, ‘significant efficiency savings’ and improved safety. Surely British Rail delivered just such benefits before it was dismantled? National ownership ONE, Private ownership NIL, and not a moment too soon. At Bogworthy Junction, a once proud outpost of the Great Western Railway (once privately-owned, then private with state-characteristics, state owned, quasi- private, etc, etc), the nightmare complexity of railway privatisation has resulted in all but one of the staff packing their bags.

On top of the sort of duties one would expect to see in the job description: issuing tickets, waving flags at trains, helping customers over the bridge, cleaning the toilets, sweeping the platforms, dealing with complaints against his employer (and 25 others), staff are expected to provide fax and phone facilities, toilets and a regular brew up for an assortment of gorillas in orange jackets working for contractors, sub-contractors, and any other outfit that might choose to send gorillas to this remote outpost. No one seems to know or care who they are these days.

Incidentally, a rough calculation reveals that Bogworthy may have a turnover of £3 million a year. One wonders how many people would be willing to run such a business single-handedly for wages of a little over £5 an hour? Yes, £11,000 a year. Shouldn’t the DfT be involved?