HS2 is a solution in search of a problem

An anti-HS2 cow. Image: Getty.

Escalating costs on a large infrastructure project in the UK is hardly news. But reports that the High Speed 2 rail line (HS2) might now cost up to £106bn, almost double last year’s estimate, is extreme even for this country.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Industry experts have warned for years that HS2’s costs would overrun, with some forecasting that it could cost between 20 per cent and 60 per cent more than the £56bn sum the last government signed off.

Work on HS2 has hardly started and yet, throughout its 10-year political life, cost projections have more than tripled, from £33.3bn to today’s sum, if the Financial Times’ reports of the government’s review of the scheme are to be believed.

Without seeing the full review, it is hard to make firm assumptions. But when we analysed the economic and strategic case for HS2 at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) last year, we calculated that if the cost of the scheme went up by 60 per cent (which took the total to around £90bn) with no increase in benefits, it would no longer pass the government’s value-for-money tests.

Infrastructure schemes that are not good value for money but are viewed as strategically important, can still be given the political nod from the Treasury – but then the problems they are solving have to be important ones, and the solutions rock solid. In HS2’s case they are not.

Proponents of HS2, including the Department for Transport, will say that it frees up capacity on the existing West Coast Mainline that can be used to relieve overcrowding on trains and line congestion. It will, but it’s not at all clear to what extent it will do this or to what extent this is needed.

One reason for this is that, because of our privatised railways, the data you’d need to draw firm conclusions – about numbers of passengers on specific trains and where and when they board and alight – is owned by train operating companies and not released publicly. To get round this problem during our research, we conducted an informal census of passengers getting off at evening peak time on London to Birmingham trains in Milton Keynes. We found that around two-thirds of passengers leave these trains at Milton Keynes. 

Even if every single passenger that doesn’t alight at Milton Keynes on peak time trains out of Euston is going to Birmingham or beyond, does this relatively modest thinning out of peak time west coast trains really merit spending more than £100bn and building thousands of miles of high-speed line? Probably not, especially given that trains are only overcrowded at peak times, and that similar overcrowding happens on other lines into London and around other big cities, most of which HS2 will do nothing whatsoever to address.


HS2 has also been billed as a project that will help ‘level up’ areas of the UK outside the south-east, bringing much needed jobs and growth to the north and midlands. But London’s inexorable pull and economic might means that starting the line in the capital skews the possibility of this happening. In fact, according to HS2 Ltd’s own economic appraisal – buried in an appendix on page 75 – 40 per cent of the benefits of HS2 will flow to London, compared to 18 per cent to the north-west, 12 per cent in the West Midlands, and 10 per cent to Yorkshire and Humber.

Investment in the UK’s railways – and in its bus network – is very sorely needed. For instance, none of the three critical east-west lines across the Pennines is currently electrified, which is not only essential to make transport low carbon, but also to speed up services and make them more efficient.

There are massive problems almost everywhere on the rail network and big, public-led investment is certainly going to be needed. But taxpayers should demand value for money, which HS2 does not deliver. The best solution would be to share out the investment capital of HS2 between the regions of England, and Wales and Scotland. Governments local and national should spend the money on solving the transport problems that affect the most people, which is generally the daily commute.

HS2 is a product of decision-making that begins and ends in London. It’s no surprise that with this approach we’ve ended up with a railway project that looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Andrew Pendleton is director of policy and advocacy at the New Economics Foundation.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.