Working with local communities is the best way to encourage active travel
Instead of wholly rejecting the shift to active travel on the basis of poor administration in a handful of cases, we should champion schemes that have proven to work best and have the backing of local communities.
The local councillors we elect on Thursday will be responsible for delivering active travel schemes such as cycle lanes or footpaths in their communities. The government has put active travel at the heart of building back better with a six-fold investment increase up to £2 billion - the largest ever. But making our communities safer places to walk and cycle isn’t just about increasing funding, it’s about proper community consultation and efficient delivery.
As the Conservative Environment Network’s Net Zero Champions for Active Travel, we support the government’s ambition to promote cycling and walking across the country, particularly for shorter, everyday journeys.
We welcomed the government’s far-reaching proposals to usher in a golden era of cycling in its Gear Change strategy published last year, backed by the £2 billion, which we hope will be firmly entrenched in the government’s long-term budget at this year’s spending review. We hope to see further progress in the upcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
The benefits of cycling and walking resonate with all Conservatives. It gets us closer to nature, which has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to our mental health; 77% of people felt visiting nature had been important for their general health and happiness during the pandemic.
It protects our environment now and for future generations, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting poisonous air pollution. The latter directly contributing to tens of thousands of deaths every year. And it gets us moving, which when you consider physical inactivity costs the NHS up to £1 billion a year in illnesses and an additional £8.2 billion in indirect costs, is a financial as well as health necessity.
As rural MPs, we understand active travel isn’t viable for every journey. However, while cycling represented just 2% of pre-lockdown journeys, 38% of all journeys were under 2 miles (in other words, they are easily cyclable in 10 minutes). Since then, cycling has seen a surge in popularity and increased by 200% across the country due to a huge uptake during lockdown. The question now is how we lock in these gains and build on them.
The Department for Transport now needs to get on with changing the law to allow councils to enforce travel rules
Safety was the top reason why more people weren’t taking up cycling before the pandemic. Building confidence and new cycling infrastructure is crucial to address this, though the latter must be deployed thoughtfully and cost-effectively. That’s why we support the establishment of Active Travel England, a new inspectorate which will enforce high standards of cycling infrastructure planning, and the recent £18 million fund for cycle training for families across England.
It’s our councillors, who know their local communities better than national governments ever can, that will be responsible for much of the groundwork. Alongside tried and tested schemes like segregated cycle lanes and bike boxes at traffic lights, they will be rolling out new methods of encouraging people to cycle and walk, such as low traffic neighbourhoods and school streets. Where councils have the support of local communities, the bureaucracy around approving and delivering new active travel schemes should be kept simple.
Despite some high-profile controversies over some of these schemes, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We all see the benefits of people cycling and walking more. Instead of wholly rejecting the shift to active travel on the basis of poor administration in a handful of cases, we should champion schemes that have been proven to work best, and promise only to move forward with a trial once we’ve made the case to the respective local community and won its support.
We should also consider more flexible schemes, such as the above-mentioned School Streets. They are led by the schools themselves, with no permanent infrastructure. A good example of this is Kingfisher Hall Primary Academy in Enfield, where volunteers operate flexible traffic barriers for drop-off and pick-up times on school days. The teachers reported an uptake in pupils using active travel to get to school, meaning they were exercising more.
Most importantly, however, School Streets can cut toxic nitrogen dioxide levels by up to 23% outside schools during the busiest times, helping children breathe cleaner air. The Department for Transport now needs to get on with changing the law to allow councils to enforce travel rules, so school streets can be deployed more effectively outside London.
Active travel brings benefits to rural and urban communities alike. In fact, rural councils have come up with some great original schemes to get people cycling which require no infrastructure whatsoever. Essex County Council, for example, has challenged people to join the Cake Escape. Participants cycle between local cafés to collect stamps by buying a slice of cake - with the fourth being free. This combines exercise with support for local businesses as we open up again.
We should encourage greater uptake of cycling and walking to create happier, healthier communities and a better, cleaner environment. Instead of rejecting solutions outright, Conservatives should work with local communities and provide them with practical approaches to encourage active travel. Proper public consultation, strong business cases, and flexibility are key to keeping Britain cycling.
Selaine Saxby is the Conservative MP for North Devon. Simon Fell is the Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness.