What does the Government’s active travel strategy mean for the future of local transport policy?
The emergency active travel fund, worth £250m, marked the first stage of the Government’s active travel agenda and was allocated to local authorities to implement new infrastructure promoting walking and cycling, writes Helen Hill. | PA Images
The Government hopes to make walking and cycling people's first choice for as many journeys as possible, aiming for half of all journeys in urban areas being cycled or walked by 2030.
Last week, Boris Johnson announced a £2bn active travel fund to kickstart a ‘walking and cycling revolution’ through a new active travel strategy titled ‘Gear Change’.
Given Johnson’s cycling legacy from his tenure as the Mayor of London, it is hardly surprising that the Prime Minister chose to front the new strategy himself. However, the active travel fund itself is not a new announcement, but rather the re-iteration of commitments made by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps at the height of the pandemic in May.
The strategy has been met with a mixed reception, with many local authorities welcoming the Government’s decision to use the pandemic as an opportunity to promote the benefits of active travel, whilst others have expressed concern that action has not been taken swiftly enough and that £2bn will be insufficient to deliver the transport revolution that the Prime Minister has promised.
What is active travel, and why now?
Simply put, active travel is a term that encompasses all modes of transport that are dependent on physical activity.
Many of the Government’s plans use active travel to simply mean walking and cycling, but wheeling is also considered a form of active travel by many charities and some of the devolved nations.
The term active travel is not new per se, but the project to increase walking and cycling activity across the country has certainly gained a lot of traction in the last few months whilst the country was in lockdown.
Active travel is being understood as a means of combatting physical and mental health issues, as beneficial for communities and local economies, and naturally as a part of the plan to tackle transport emissions
The enforced lockdown significantly reduced public transport levels, due in part to social distancing and in part due to the Government’s ‘stay home’ rhetoric.
Although Transport Grant Shapps encouraged the public to use their cars rather than overwhelm the public transport networks when making essential journeys, the Department for Transport also acted quickly to establish an emergency active travel fund. The fund, worth £250m, marked the first stage of the Government’s active travel agenda and was allocated to local authorities across in England to implement new infrastructure promoting walking and cycling as they saw fit.
For example, in London the funding was used for Sadiq Khan’s Streetspace London initiative, which saw the Mayor introduce a range of temporary measures including an expanded cycle network, widened pavements, and the creation of low-traffic neighbourhoods and car-free zones.
What will a ‘Gear Change’ look like?
The plans announced by the Prime Minister last week have arguably seen the re-contextualisation of the Government’s active travel ambitions.
During lockdown, walking and cycling were very much seen as a strategy for sustaining low levels of air pollution, and as means of preventing public transport networks from becoming overwhelmed. Now, active travel is being understood as a means of combatting physical and mental health issues, as beneficial for communities and local economies, and naturally as a part of the plan to tackle transport emissions.
The headline target of the Government’s new vision is to make walking and cycling the natural first choice for as many journeys as possible, with the ultimate aim of having half of all journeys in urban areas being cycled or walked by 2030.
To put that in context, in 2018, 27 per cent of all journeys in the UK were made by walking and approximately just 2 per cent were cycled.
The scheme is predominantly targeted at urban areas, where shorter journeys are more common, and individuals in more rural areas are encouraged to incorporate active travel as part of longer journeys, ideally in conjunction with rail or bus travel, where possible.
The Government has confirmed that the ‘great majority’ of the remainder of the £2bn fund will be allocated to local authorities to implement infrastructure encouraging active travel as they see appropriate under a new commissioning body, Active Travel England, which is due to be created later this year.
This new active travel infrastructure aims to be delivered through a variety of methods, such as new bike lanes segregated from road traffic and pedestrians, increased and more strategically placed cycle parking, and new car-free zones and low-traffic neighbourhoods.
Further to this, the Government has committed to putting active travel at the heart of future transport planning, with suggested measures including the re-allocation of road space to cycle paths and widened pavements and a national rollout of the school streets initiative.
The road ahead
The true test of the Government’s commitment to the active project will be the extent to which it features in the Department for Transport’s ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’, which is due to be published by the end of the year.
The plan will outline how the Government aims to achieve its commitment to reach a zero-emission transport sector by 2050.
The Department opened a consultation into the plan in March, seeking stakeholder views on both current and proposed policy initiatives, but offered little detail into how the Government could harness active travel as means to reducing carbon emissions. Rather, it focused on how the public could be nudged towards active mobility.
Given the unprecedented increase in walking and cycling that the pandemic has catalysed, and the momentum of the emergency active travel fund, it can be hoped that the Government will now use its new vision to focus on delivering effective active travel infrastructure, and implement a long lasting social change.
Helen Hill is the Dods Political Consultant for Transport and Infrastructure. To download the complementary report on the Government's active travel project click here.