COMMENT: Have electric cars got the government barking up the wrong transport tree?

Electric car grant demand plummets, thirst for cycling increases

We’re biased of course, but in the cycle trade we tend to think transport policy should back bicycles as much as possible.

But even stepping back from our industry-based discrimination, the concept of getting more people on bikes makes sense in terms of fighting obesity, tackling pollution, getting to grips with congestion and all manner of other ills.

So ensuring the infrastructure is there to make it as attractive as possible seems a glaringly obvious thing for the government and local authorities to do, whether your salary is linked to the bike trade or not.

Soon after the government axed cycling’s dedicated pot of money last year, it opted to subsidise the electric car industry with £5,000 grants for e-car buyers.

It was a move that raised a few eyebrows in the trade. Recently ex-president of the Bicycle Association Philip Taylor, summed up the position when he noted that congestion, road crashes and air pollution were “unlikely to change as a result of us all driving electric cars – however heavily subsidised!"

But the UK government isn’t the only one that has opted to subsidise the electric car industry, with German chancellor Angela Merkel incurring the wrath of the European Cyclists’ Federation for giving the industry €2 billion and a guarantee to have one million e-cars on the road by 2020 (which actually only represents a paltry two per cent of the market share). Meanwhile the Scottish government upset Sustrans Scotland when three quarters of its ‘sustainable and active travel’ fund looked set to be spent on e-cars.

Nine months after the £5,000 e-car grants were announced, figures from the Department for Transport now show that electric vehicle grants are slowing (as reported by the Guardian this week). Only 215 electric vehicle grants were issued in the last three months – fewer than half the 465 issued in the quarter before. It’s not a trend that inspires confidence in the government’s target to have 1.7 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020.

Conversely, when it comes to cycling there appears to be a ‘build it and they will come’ result. Look at Barclays London Cycle Hire. Naysayers said it would be abused or treated with indifference, but a year on the scheme is plotting expansion after inspiring locals, tourists and seemingly everyone else to hop on a bike and pedal across the capital. Ireland’s Dublinbike hire scheme hit a new daily rental record earlier this month (6,280) and we’re starting to see bike hire schemes crop up across the UK

Similarly, the expansion of the National Cycle Network continues to attract more cyclist numbers. One recent example is in Manchester, where a canal route reclaimed for cyclists and pedestrians saw numbers of cyclists increase by over 180 per cent.

To my biased mind, investment in public transport and bicycle infrastructure will help encourage people out of their cars wherever it’s feasibly possible.

Investment in cycle facilities particularly is a lower cost alternative than subsidising the likes of electric cars. Because of the lower costs of supporting bike infrastructure, it wouldn’t even take a particularly bold or confident government to dedicate a pot of cash to the cause. And support for cycling infrastructure would be a boost for the industry and British business. So, subsidise the electric car industry if you think it’s the way forward, but don’t ignore the wider reaching benefits of backing the tried and tested bicycle.

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