Active Travel is really important and, let’s face it, it is not working well.

Don’t take my word for it, just ask the Department for Transport (DfT) or its specialist quango, Active Travel England. At the end of last year, DfT told Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that it was not on track to meet its objectives to increase rates of active travel by 2025. This means that the number of people walking, cycling, or rollerblading (if you are super hip and cool) is not going up quickly, or in many places. This matters for all kinds of quality of life, health and mental health and climate-related reasons that are perhaps too obvious to list.

This failure is explained away by saying that DfT’s targets to increase active travel were deliberately too ambitious. This is Civil Servant speak for “we picked some targets arbitrarily because politicians like targets, but they were always nonsense and, really, who cares?”

To be more charitable, perhaps, the objectives were genuinely ambitious…?

Among other things, there were aims to double the rate of cycling journeys (which does sound ambitious) and to increase the proportion of children walking to school by 6% (which does not).

However, whether you are a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person, whichever way you look at it the actual outcomes are pretty bleak. 

There has been no sustained increase in cycling rates at all and, the proportion of children walking to school is now actually lower than when the targets were set.

There is also a worryingly huge gap in the data which prohibits a proper understanding of what is effective, which might go some way to explain why the strategy is not working. Some useful examples to illustrate the problem:

  • DfT uses a national survey to track progress on cycling rates, which means that it has very little idea of how local cycling infrastructure changes on the ground are affecting ridership.
  • Local authorities are only required to monitor or evaluate schemes that cost more than £2 million, yet the average grant per project in the most recent tranches of the Active Travel Fund was £750,000. These are often small schemes like adding crossings, lighting, or adding cycle lane markings on junctions. They are the most important points for the hesitant cyclist or walker to decide whether they are comfortable or safe to take on a journey.

This has resulted in DfT having an incomplete understanding of what active travel assets actually exist across the country! They have even less idea of where route improvements could lead to the best Active Travel increases, because the data simply doesn’t exist.

This should really be quite basic stuff.

But these problems, important though they are, misunderstand the core of the problem and help explain why I think we should still be positive about Active Travel.

The core problem is that currently, Active Travel, except within London, is not built into multi-modal transport.

Consider Liverpool, which has been actively improving its Active Travel under Mayor Steve Rotheram. In the City Centre, only Lime Street station has a dedicated cycle lane running directly to it, and even then it is not clearly visible on Merseytravel’s own Active Travel Map!

Source: LCR_Cycle_Network_A3P_Liverpool.pdf (adidocdn.dev)

Local commuter stations in both North and South Liverpool can’t get bike lanes to their front doors, even though MerseyRail will let you take your bike on board. And then to compound things, Liverpool’s city bike scheme has been replaced by e-bikes, removing a lot of the ‘active’ from active travel. 

Then compare Liverpool to London, which has seen a 20% increase in Active Travel since 2019. This is in part due to ULEZ schemes which make it expensive to drive, but it is also because of the fully fleshed out public transport network which makes active travel both easier and more pleasant than anywhere else in the country (your mileage on the Central or Northern lines may vary).

Active Travel England understands this, and resultingly expects the bulk of progress in achieving DfT’s active travel objectives to be delivered by increased walking, particularly people walking part of their journey before taking another form of transport.

This is most obvious when you think about commuters. 

In London, you walk or Boris-bike to your tube, bus, or train stop, then you hop on and when you hop off again, you walk or Boris-bike the rest of the way. If somewhere isn’t easily reachable on public transport plus some threshold level of active transport, then you call an Uber or drive.

And this is the issue – the main difference between London and the rest of the country is the sheer proportion of public transport journeys that are relatively convenient. Almost as a by-product of using the mass transit systems embedded into the city, you get the benefits of active transport. You see some natural light, get your heart rate up, burn some calories, and see a little more of your neighbourhood.

It’s an all-around positive thing.

And, in the end, this is why I am not overly down about Active Travel (or at least no more so than I am about all of our transport network). It’s not Active Travel England’s fault that there aren’t enough metro systems, linked-up bus routes, or fare integration outside of London. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that Active Travel in the North, or almost anywhere in the country, won’t truly take off until public transport nationally is truly multi-modal, easy, and affordable.

And that’s a whole other blog…

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