Active travel at the heart of a green recovery

“By making it easier for people to walk and cycle, we will help build more active, healthier and resilient communities.” Daniel Gillett, Policy Officer at the UK walking and cycling charity Sustrans, reflects on the recent government emergency funding for active travel infrastructure and the opportunities to deliver long lasting change.

An image of active travel in Greater Manchester
An image of active travel in Greater Manchester

Greater Manchester, Sustrans: Chris Foster, all rights reserved 

Daniel Gillett

Following the prime minister’s announcement on Sunday (10 May) that lockdown guidance would be relaxed from 13 May, more people are beginning to travel to work and for exercise. Tying in with this, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced an initial £250 million of funding for emergency cycling and walking infrastructure to help more people walk and cycle. More people making active journeys can ease demand for public transport and road space and help to keep our air clean. So, what can we best do with that money, how far will funding go, and what does it mean for active travel in the long term?

More walking, more cycling, more efficiency

For the remainder of the pandemic and some time afterwards, public transport will only be able to operate at around 10 per cent of regular capacity, making travel very difficult for people who rely on it to get to work that can’t be done from home. People fortunate enough to own a car might drive to work, easing demand for public transport. But given that surface transport accounts for 27 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, with the main sources being petrol and diesel cars, it is essential traffic levels are kept down as much as possible during the different stages of the lockdown, and beyond. 

Of course, not everyone has to walk or cycle or indeed can, nor is this a single solution to the complex question of travel during the pandemic. But the more people who do, the easier getting around becomes for everyone else.

Developing infrastructure for the recovery

The £250-million emergency active travel funding will be available directly to local transport authorities to implement schemes giving more space to pedestrians and people cycling. The Department for Transport has also relaxed some rules around signage, planning and consultation for new schemes to speed up delivery.

In practice, this funding will help many areas roll out plans for local active travel measures that have already been developed. In recent years, local authorities have been busy producing Local Cycling and Walking Implementation Plans, effectively providing a number of ‘oven ready’ schemes that haven’t necessarily had the funding to be implemented – the funding therefore effectively provides a way for these plans to be delivered, albeit it perhaps on a temporary basis.

When it comes to choosing an intervention locally, authorities will be thinking about the types of journeys that they need to cater. In larger places, with lots of people commuting to a centre, it might be more appropriate to provide a pop-up protected cycle lane to provide high capacity access during peak times.

In residential areas, where people are spending more of their time walking, cycling and being active since lockdown was introduced, installing bollards to reduce or remove through-traffic, or widening pavements is likely to be more appropriate. Interventions in residential areas are often understated, but their impact is just as important as providing routes to town and city centres.

It will be fascinating to track the progress of these schemes. At Sustrans, we’ve created a live map, Space to Move, which shows temporary street changes that have been put in place across the UK, allowing local residents to give their feedback on the changes and whether they should be maintained permanently. The more useful they are, and the more people use them, the more likely they are to be kept. 

Looking forward

The coming weeks and months will reveal the demand for travel as more people start travelling to work, visit family and friends, and return to their usual routines.It will be important to ensure that more people make active trips while the effects of the pandemic are still being felt throughout the transport network, but afterwards too. By making it easier for people to walk and cycle, we will help build more active, healthier and resilient communities.

The funding announced by the government is a most welcome first step in helping to achieve this. In full, it comprises £1.7 billion announced in February for improving cycling over the life of the parliament, plus £250 million of emergency funding for the pandemic response.

We’d like to see the recovery from the pandemic to be a catalyst for making long-lasting change in the way we live and travel in our towns and cities. Indeed, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in his statement that this is “a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities”.

Importantly, the government needs to lock in the benefits of active travel and increase investment as local authorities build their expertise and capacity to deliver active travel schemes; for many, the coming months will be a learning process and they will need support to develop and implement schemes. 

The best indication of the government’s intentions for investment will come later this year when a new Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy is announced, detailing how the Department for Transport plans to meet its targets for making cycling and walking the natural choice for short journeys and double cycling from its 2013 levels by 2025.

Over the coming weeks Sustrans will be working wherever we can to help make it easier for people to walk and cycle, by sharing our expertise with the public and local authorities as we adapt to and create changing environments.

It is imperative that we don’t solve one crisis by perpetuating others and instead create healthier, happier and greener places that we all want to live in. Making the most of this funding is a huge opportunity for achieving that.

Sustrans is a UK charity which promotes walking and cycling, to find out more visit its website.