Cambridge resident and democracy activist, Richard Taylor has written today about a Freedom of Information request he made recently on the subject of the government’s efforts to create a Cycle Journey Planner, available through the Transport Direct portal. For the avoidance of doubt, Richard is not involved with CycleStreets, though our database shows he has a user account.
We cannot let the outcome of his FoI request go unmentioned, as it overlaps with some of our own interests in open data and cycling community issues, and his blog post makes comparisons with our own system.
In his blog posting, he outlines the key findings:
“The response to my [Richard Taylor's] freedom of information request revealed that the “Find a cycle route” feature on the Transport Direct website will have cost us [taxpayers] £2,383,739 (£2.4 million pounds) by the end the current financial year, and there are plans to spend a further £400,000 on adapting what has been produced to provide route planner for a Cycling for Schools programme. The figures given in the response can be used to calculate that each cycle route planned using the government website has cost the taxpayer about £57.”
and in a comment restates the table of figures for the cycling part of Transport Direct:
Figures are Ex. VAT
The relevant documents are worth reading. They outline the request that Richard made, followed by the response from the Department for Transport. It is a credit to the DfT that these detailed documents seem to have been issued in response to the Request without sign of any resistance.
Interestingly, Richard Taylor has also found another figure covering Transport Direct more widely, when he writes:
“The £2.4 million spent on the government cycle route planner is just part of a much bigger “Transport Direct” project which cost £55 million between 2003 and 2007.”
As we wrote following Google’s announcement of cycle routing in some US cities last month, dealing with the question of competition between different systems:
“The simple answer is that more availability of bike routing is a good thing [for cycling]. There is undoubtedly space for CycleStreets, Google and others to co-exist: each will have their own benefits and niches, and competition means that everyone ends up with a better product.”
We hold the same view with respect to any system, including government-based ones. We have no complaint about the existence of competition.
We also support the principle of multi-modal journey planning. The idea that someone asking for directions could see cycling amongst options as part of their overall journey, e.g. from a house in Cambridge to a London train station, that includes cycling to the station, is a good thing for making cycling the mainstream activity it is and should more widely be. Multi-modal planning could of course be achieved through an API approach also (though we have never approached Transport Direct on that suggestion).
The issues as we see them
The issues raised in the FoI request by Richard Taylor, as we interpret it, are however different ones to that of competition.
1. The question of spending public funds on systems which compete with commercial and community-based systems that are achieved at much smaller cost to the taxpayer.
We are taxpayers ourselves, and we have a valid interest in ensuring that our taxation is spent efficiently. It is perfectly valid for government to be running services of various kinds if they are useful and provide value for money. Our only comment here is to present the facts and leave others to make their own judgements.
Figures for the government system are stated above in the quotation from Richard Taylor’s blog above, and total £2,383,739 by the end of the 2010/11 financial year. In terms of usage, according to their own papers, “Usage of the [Transport Direct] planner remains very low” (Programme paper, 12/Feb/2010), at 23,608 journey plans.
Our own project has been achieved at a cost of under £12,000; however, time spent has been completely unpaid (which is not sustainable; we would like to be able to pay 1.5-2.5 salaries for the coming 12-18 month period and are seeking funding to enable CycleStreets (which is set up as a non-profit-making entity) then to be self-sustaining). Some 76,107 journeys have been planned in what is still our beta phase – during which we are deliberately not promoting the system heavily while known problems are ironed out. An additional 47,000 journeys were planned on the previous Cambridge-only system.
2. The involvement of communities within government-led initiatives.
In our view, the success of any cycle routing system will in large part be dependent on the level of involvement it harnesses from the cycling community. The latter is something we are certainly working hard on, and it is an integral part of our system. Much of the data in OpenStreetMap data has been surveyed by cyclists, and cyclist involvement remains key throughout many aspects of our project, though we know that we always have more to do. CycleStreets would have been impossible without cyclist involvement.
It was originally intended that the cycling community would be one of three sources of data for the Transport Direct project (the other two being Ordnance Survey and newly-commissioned surveying to fill in the gaps in OS data). We know this because were early advisors to the Transport Direct project at a much earlier stage of their project, and attended a meeting where they decided this. We were invited to attend because, having created one of the very first ever online cycle journey planning systems in the world, in the form of a precursor Cambridge-only system, we were recognised as having expertise. Sadly, it is clear from one of the documents released in the FoI publication that the cyclist involvement aspect has been “deferred indefinitely” (Programme minutes, 17/Feb/2010).
3. The Open Data debate: availability of data which is collected at taxpayer expense.
If we have any fundamental issues with regards to the Transport Direct project, it is this issue.
As is clear from our own views on freeing of Ordnance Survey data, we are strong advocates of open data approaches. As individuals, we believe in the fundamental principle that data collected at taxpayer expense should be freely available in return. Doing so means that anyone who wishes to use such data can operate on a level playing field, creating competition and innovation.
This is an issue which we raised last summer with a contact we have at Cycling England (who to some extent are constrained by national policies on Ordnance Survey data, something which is at long last starting to change).
Government spending tax money to create a dataset usable only with a license payment, but which is competing with an open dataset is a somewhat unsatisfactory state of affairs in public policy terms. In this regard, we do feel it is unfortunate that Cycling England authorised and paid for the surveying of (for instance) Cambridge cycle-related data surely knowing that such surveying had already been done to an exceptionally high standard by OpenStreetMap volunteers, although we acknowledge this is a necessary corollary of competition by a system based on Ordnance Survey data rather than open/varied data sources.
Open data is clearly not well understood within government, but government will have to change. (We refer to a non-partisan meaning here!)
Concluding, these three themes do not change the fact that CycleStreets has to compete on its own merits, as it should. We are proud of our own product. We do not claim it is perfect, and the deficiencies we know about (principally routing which sometimes is either over-wiggly, over-busy, or slow) are things we are working hard to solve, despite meagre resources to do so.
Cycling England’s other initiatives
Both of the principal developers of CycleStreets are fans and active advocates of the work that Cycling England more generally is doing, as we know through our roles elsewhere as campaigners that it is achieving results.
Cycling England’s flagship Cycling Demonstration Town and Bikeability programmes are excellent. By raising standards and aspirations, these have achieved enormous benefits for cycling, at relatively low cost compared to many other government programmes. It is extremely important that these successful initiatives continue to be funded – and indeed that funding for them is increased - following the general election.
We should acknowledge that Cycling England is amongst a range of bodies to whom we are finalising approaches for core funding for CycleStreets, so that our project can then run on a self-financing, stable footing. Our remits of promoting cycling are clearly well-aligned. Naturally we will report back on any successful funding outcomes, as we have done with our other smaller grant applications.