Comment: With HS2 under review, what could that budget buy cycling?

The UK Government has today announced a strategic review into the HS2 budget, a project that weighs heavily on the transport budget.

An independent review will now take place that will assess, among other things, the benefits and impacts, as well as return on investment of High Speed 2. A final report is to be published by the close of Autumn this year.

The new transport secretary Grant Schapps, who on first assessment seems to have warmer views on cycling than his predecessor Chris Grayling, has not ruled out scrapping the project entirely. Last month is was warned that the total cost could rise by £30 billion. The current budget is £56 billion.

So what good could that budget do for more sustainable projects?

Working off the pre-rise quote of £56 billion, the lower projection equates to a spend of £848.48 per head of the UK population. At the upper end of the quoted budget we would be looking at £1,303 a head.

The UK has a notoriously low spend per head on cycling, though things have improved, particularly in London. In the Get Britain Cycling Report it was recommended that, to make modest progress to see gains in active travel shifts, we might target just £10 per head of the population.

As it stands, the UK’s investment in cycling, according to Department for Transport data, stands at just £1.90 per head (excluding London). Within Cycle Ambition Cities and London that figure is slightly better at £6.70, but still significantly below recommended levels.

At the upper end of the speculated HS2 budget, this rail project will receive over 685 times the spend per head than the UK’s average spend on cycling.

Over the Atlantic in neighbouring Holland investment stands at €595 million — or €35 per resident — spent annually on cycling (15 times England’s spend). The result? 17 million people collectively cycle 15.5 billion km, approximately 912 km. per resident, annually. The net effect is a saving on the healthcare system of €19 billion (3% of Dutch GDP).

Closer to home, where dirty air is said to kill 2,000 prematurely every year in Manchester, we are promised investment, but as yet the required amount for meaningful change has not been released.

It would make good sense to divert some HS2 spend towards cycling, then?

Cycling has been shown to have a return on investment ranging at lowest around five fold and at its peak, as cited in this 2016 Department for Transport study, as high as 35:1. A more recent study by Transport for London places the capital’s ROI on cycling at around 13:1.

If (and it’s an enormous if) cycling were to enjoy just the low-end estimated cost of HS2’s budget the UK could feasibly transform its travel habits and offset the cost many fold with health, economic and social benefits.

On health alone, employees who commute by bike take one less sick day a year. Doesn’t sound like much? That’s worth £83 million to the UK economy a year.

Working with the £56 billion budget, the 530 kilometres of HS2’s first and second phase would equate to £105 million spent per kilometre.

A kilometre of cycle track, according to this Government analysis, comes in at £1.45 million for largely segregated infrastructure, as laid on Greater Manchester’s busiest commuter corridor – the Wilmslow/Oxford Road to East Dibbury passage. Costings can go as low as £240,000 per kilometre too.

Working towards a gold standard for safe and inclusive cycling infrastructure (and admittedly with a high dose of wishful thinking) a redirected budget could lay 38,620 kilometres of cycling infrastructure, or enough to cover the UK’s entire 12,429km coastline 3.1 times over.