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What do we want from our cities: the role of active travel

Active travel, largely cycling and walking, has been rapidly going up the national policy agenda, with the current government committing to developing a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS). Central to this is doubling the level of cycling and halting the decline in walking trips by 2025. The CWIS sets out a bold ambition which will focus largely on urban areas if it is to be achieved.

This is part of a broadening agenda where we are increasingly thinking about the types of cities that we would like to live in and the implications of this for how we travel. When we think like this, cycling and walking have the potential to become more than just another mode of transport, they can positively shape urban areas. Transport for London is at the forefront of thinking here, having developed a healthy streets guide, which focuses on air quality, urban realm, reducing traffic, quality of life and safety. Central to the notion of healthy streets is the use of cycling and walking, which are high capacity, low cost modes of travel that have very minimal impacts on the environment.

A perk of leading our active travel brief is that I have been able to experience some of the infrastructure that our members are developing. We are trying to make this a core part of our active travel group, Going up a Gear, when we meet in each other’s cities so that we can promote best practice and learning within our network. So far this has involved trips along the Leeds to Bradford superhighway and a tour of various guises of the London network on the hottest September day for 100 years.

Firstly, it was incredible to see so many people cycling in parts of London that seemed unimaginable not long ago. Riding over Blackfriars Bridge and down Embankment was a joy. I felt like a tourist, seeing famous monuments and sites in a way that I never imagined I would. The same can be said for over Vauxhall Bridge and around the Kensington Oval – these are heavily trafficked roads that are now a haven for cyclists, and in the case of Blackfriars Bridge, are carrying more people than they did before road capacity was removed.

It’s very easy to then compare all other cycle schemes to the flagship parts of the London network. But we need to think about them more carefully than this. London did not start with the flagship schemes that we are now seeing or indeed the rapidly expanding network that we now associate it with – it started with a small number of routes having paint on the road, and this is much more recent than we think.

The superhighway between Leeds and Bradford brought the same feeling of enjoying cycling whilst on a busy corridor. This was the same for the whole team, even those that were not regular cyclists. The quality of infrastructure was in general high and provided us with a direct route through Leeds and into central Bradford. Apart from a short shared space section and a single junction, the route is completely segregated, offering a largely relaxed and easy ride (well apart from the Yorkshire hills!).

Having got to this stage, what is now important is how this first superhighway is used to develop a cycling network. This is where London has excelled. It is not just the quality of the infrastructure that has led to the increase in cycling in London, it is the scale of the network. Not all of London’s infrastructure is up to the current high standards, and there are gaps in the network. But the direct, stress free critical mass of infrastructure makes cycling more than worth it.

Leeds, and indeed many of our other members, face similar challenges to London in moving people and goods in ever increasing numbers. Active travel is at a tipping point, with the removal of ring fenced central government funding either providing a threat to current programmes, or opening doors to mainstreaming cycling and walking through local funding. What we need to do is go back to that notion of what types of cities we want to live in and then ask ourselves does active travel play a central role in this?