How do we, as a nation, actually get people walking and cycling more to meet daily travel needs?

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Bold claims have been made over decades by Ministers using phrases such as ‘cycling revolution’ although less enthusiasm has been mustered to promote walking. Yet little has changed for over 50 years with walking and cycling in decline overall. Across the UK, mostly in urban areas, since Covid-19, we have seen small scale scheme funding to support social distancing. This may make a small difference for some living and travelling along particular corridors where protected space has been made but it won’t help most who would contemplate walking more often or start cycling because they want a complete network which is perceivably safe. Yet a Covid-19 response could still be effective in enabling more people to choose active travel if on-mass there is road space reallocation on wide roads. This means taking one of two or more lanes in one direction for increased walking and cycling space.

A lot has been said about 20 minute neighbourhoods which encapsulate the idea that everything you need for day-to-day living is within a 20 minute walk. In urban areas, where distances are often relatively short, modal filters which stop rat-running through traffic and give direct route access and advantages to those on foot and bicycles can change the travel options balance away from habitual car use to a norm of walking or cycling for many trips. This helps re-build social capital across communities when people start to see each other routinely on the street in a way they can connect and build trust. Covid-19 response transport funding has started to address this across many communities, although it is still not commonplace to find road space reallocation through 20 minute neighbourhoods across urban areas in any systematic way at scale. Earlier versions have been implemented in the UK, the most well known in transport planning circles is the Walthamstow Mini-Holland where, among many measures introduced, over 50 side road junctions were transformed into a ‘continuous footway’, cycle hubs at local train stations were established which included high quality parking and bike hire, as well as modal filters. Compared to ‘low dose’ areas elsewhere in London where schemes were being implemented more slowly, in ‘high dose’ Walthamstow on average survey participants increased their active travel by 41 minutes per week. For cycling, as the authors note, ‘area-based interventions incorporating cycle routes and neighbourhood traffic reduction may be particularly good at encouraging active travel more broadly, compared to cycle routes alone’.

And then there is the school journey, probably located within the 20 minute neighbourhood. This has been a focus of attention for over 30 years in terms of how to achieve high levels of child active travel set against rising car ownership and labour market changes. Enter school street closures: simply close the road to motorised traffic ahead of the start and close of the school day. What is the result? Here, I confess to being positively surprised when I undertook a review of the evidence last year. Despite the road closures being only one, two or three roads directly outside primary schools and for a short period of time, the results demonstrated significant reductions in car use and a corresponding rise in active travel. Moreover, no significant road safety problems arose such as car migration to neighbouring streets. Moreover, in more recent analysis specifically looking at air pollution, Transport for London has reported a 23% reduced in Nitrogen Dioxide levels during the morning peak at 35 locations monitored with and without school street closures. So, with reductions in car use, as we would predict, a range of ‘co-benefits’ spin off to increase the attraction of such as simple intervention.

So, none of this is just theory as the examples demonstrate. It’s been done. And in the UK. What’s missing is the consistent town and city wide nature of such schemes. The above are exceptions to the rule of car dominance. Yet in work for Sport England in 2019 to identify the most effective way to increase walking and cycling we did identify past UK schemes at scale. This included the Sustainable Travel Towns (2004-09) funded by the Department of Transport. Three town programmes put in place a range of initiatives aiming to encourage more use of non-car options. The strategies adopted included the development of a strong brand identity; travel awareness campaigns; public transport promotion; cycling and walking promotion; school and workplace travel planning; large-scale personal travel planning work, as well as infrastructure. The key being that the towns used multiple interventions rather than relying on one or two measures. In these towns car mileage per person reduced by up to 10% while the national trend was less than a 1% reduction. Read that sentence again and let it sink in: a reduction in car mileage.

How much did that cost the tax-payer? Actually, a miserly £10M shared across the towns. Replicating that across England and Wales in 1,186 towns with a population between 5,000 to 225,000, at £5Mn each, would on average cost £5.930Bn. Add the 23 cities with populations over 225,000 at £25M each would give a combined total of £6.5Bn. How does that compare with where currently most government funding goes? The Department for Transport has a Road Investment Strategy of £27.4B to upgrade the road network in England alone. By comparison, an active travel towns and cities programme at £6.5Bn looks like a real bargain and one which could finally deliver a real revolution in local travel behaviour. Plus, it would make significant progress on addressing the Department for Transport’s commitment to Net Zero Transport. Add in the enthusiasm for ‘building back better’ post-pandemic and we have the evidence, and the opportunity. Political leadership to follow through: do we have that?

Adrian Davis is Professor of Transport & Health at Transport Research Institute, Edinburgh Napier University 

[1] Aldred, R., Croft, R., Goodman, A. 2019. Impacts of an active travel intervention with a cycling focus in a suburban context: One-year findings from an evaluation of London’s in-progress mini-Hollands programme, Transportation Research Part A, 123: 147-169.

[2] Davis. A. 2020. School Street Closures. A Literature Review and semi-structured interviews. London: Road Safety Trust.

[3] Transport for London, 20021 https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/cycling-and-walking

[4] Cavill, N. Davis, A. Cope, A., Corner, D. 2019 An Evidence Review of the Effectiveness of Active Travel Interventions. London: Sport England.

[5] Dept. Transport, 2020 Decarbonising Transport. Setting the Challenge. London: DfT. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/932122/decarbonising-transport-setting-the-challenge.pdf

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