Gear change… is it finally time to get excited by the Government’s vision for cycling?

Commuters on bicycle paths

The Government’s new vision for active travel landed late last month and has caused a stir that has gone much further than the usual cycling and walking policy circles. Titled ‘Gear change’, its bold aim is to make cycling and walking the logical choice for short journeys, increasing mode share and reducing congestion. It will capitalise on unprecedented growth in active travel during the coronavirus lockdown period and boost public health, reducing the burden of inactivity and improving resilience to future COVID-19 outbreaks.

To achieve this, the range of policy areas and interventions that are covered is astounding. Promises to review the Highway Code, implement new traffic management powers, provide long term funding, create a zero emission city centre, new design guides, and new planning powers are just the start.

This is clearly an exciting but also challenging time for local authorities, who will have to plan and deliver change on a scale which is not comparable to what has gone before.

Due to the breadth of policy areas covered in the strategy, we have co-authored this piece to discuss how it might impact our different areas of work. So, what excited us about this announcement?

Tom Ellerton, Researcher

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One of my roles at the Urban Transport Group is to look after our active travel workstreams and professional network group. For me, two key elements of the new announcement are the long-term funding commitments and the new design guidance.

A new Cycling and walking investment strategy (CWIS) will be set out in the upcoming Spending Review. The key difference from the first CWIS is the attachment of funding – £2 billion, creating a programme on a similar scale to what we usually see for roads and the railways. This is a huge boost for local authorities who can now plan ahead with greater certainty to deliver a long-term programme of change rather than scraping around in a stop-start funding environment.

The new design guidance is long overdue and will provide local authorities with a steer as to the standard of schemes that they should be looking to implement. It has often been said that bad infrastructure can be worse than nothing at all. If we are to deliver behaviour change and get more people walking and cycling, we need to ensure that the infrastructure works for everyone, so the commitment that all new schemes must be safe for a 12-year-old is a very welcome change.

A new body called Active Travel England will be set up to monitor schemes and ensure that they are within the guidance, as well as providing support to local authorities and gaining some say in planning decisions. It will be crucial to develop good links between this body and local authorities to ensure that we can work together on delivering what is a very ambitious vision.

Clare Linton, Policy and Research Advisor

Dr Clare Linton headshotMy work at the Urban Transport Group spans a whole range of policy areas, from freight to smart transport futures, sustainability to planning – and the new vision for walking and cycling has something for all of them!

Transport is now the largest emitting sector in the UK, contributing around a third of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, with the majority from road transport. In March, the Department for Transport published the Transport Decarbonisation Plan, which sets out how transport will meet net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Shifting demand to public and active travel is a key pillar of this plan, and the new cycling and walking vision demonstrates how this is a clear priority across Government. Active travel is the ultimate zero emission mode and delivering strong ambition for walking and cycling could transform how we travel in our cities and reduce carbon emission in the process.

The vision sets out the role for cycling in ‘last mile’ deliveries and the need for freight consolidation schemes in urban areas to make our deliveries more sustainable and efficient. These are both measures we argued for in our 2018 report ‘White van cities’ which looked at how we can manage the massive growth in van traffic in our urban centres. It would have been good to see a recognition that walking could play a greater role in last mile deliveries. A 2018 study in London found that overall round times for a parcel carrier could be shorter if fewer stops were made and a greater number of deliveries and collections were made on foot. It can also be easy to dismiss cargo bikes as only able to deliver small packages… but last year active travel charity Sustrans managed to move their entire London office by bike, as this YouTube video shows, so let’s think big for cargo bikes!

In our 2019 report ‘The place to be’, we demonstrated how transit oriented development can put public and active transport at the heart of new developments to create more sustainable choices for those who live and work in these areas. In particular, sustainable transport needs to be considered from the outset in planning new developments. As Tom mentioned, Active Travel England will act as a new planning body to ensure that sustainable transport is part of the planning process and help authorities to deliver on the ambition set out in this vision.

Let’s get started

We have done a lot of work over the years making the case for active travel, so it is great to see that this battle is being won. However, our professional network will continue to play a vital role through our active travel group. We have strong connections with key stakeholders in Government through to major NGOs in this space, who will be vital in enabling our members to deliver the greatest benefit from this vision. Previous work shows that where we get active travel schemes right, we can change our cities for the better. It is deeply encouraging that one positive we can take out of the coronavirus crisis, is to make active travel more prominent in our city regions. Let’s get started!

By Tom Ellerton and Clare Linton

Download ‘Gear change’, the Government’s vision for cycling and walking

What does the National Travel Survey tell us about how much we travel?

London blur social

The Government recently published the National Travel Survey, one of the annual highlights in the calendar for transport researchers such as myself. Contained in the cells and tabs of the 77 spreadsheets served up in the survey (as well as, to the credit of the Department for Transport, its accompanying commentary document) is a statistical nirvana on how we, as a nation, are travelling.

So what does it tell us? One of the most interesting highlights is that the number of trips made by residents of England increased to 986 trips last year, 11 more than the year before and the highest number since 2009. Following a long period of decline, we have started to record more trips in the last couple of years.

Which modes are seeing growth?

Much of this recent increase can be accounted for in walking trips, which are now at their highest level since 2006. Walking has been the big winner in the last couple of years, with the apparent under reporting in short walks being corrected for since 2016. We’re now seeing 39 additional walking trips per person since 2014. Great news for active travel advocates such as ourselves.

Less good news, particularly from a climate perspective, is that the number of trips as a car or van driver increased to 395 (up from 390 in 2017), reaching their highest levels since 2010. Last year also saw a large increase in the number of young people with a driving licence, reversing the recent trend.

However despite this recent increase in car or van trips, the actual distance travelled as a car or van driver decreased over the last year and is at its lowest level since 2013, with the average trip length falling to 8.2 miles (from 8.4 miles the previous year). The number of trips people made by car in urban conurbations also fell in the last year (4 less trips per person), mirroring trends we have seen in local cordon counts.

Surface rail hit a new high for the number of trips per person (22). This is a small increase on the previous year (21) and continues a long standing trend of steel wheel success.

Which modes are seeing decline?

Both inside and outside of London the bus did badly (two fewer trips per person in London and four fewer trips for the rest of the country). This disappointing but largely expected news leaves the bus at a low point in the last decade, with only population growth preventing further falls in patronage.

When it comes to two wheels, national figures once again show a somewhat bumpy ride for cycling, with numbers hovering around 17 annual trips per person on average for the last few years. This is despite local evidence in our city regions which shows large scale growth where high quality infrastructure schemes are implemented. This suggests that whilst there has been a lot of good work in this area, there is still more to do to emulate the success of places like London – where cycling has been the fastest growing mode of transport in since 2000 – on a nation-wide scale.

The impact of the car on our mobility

Another fascinating tidbit to emerge is the relationship between car ownership and travel. Households with a car continue to make more trips overall (986) than those who don’t own one (737), with the main car driver in the household making the highest number of trips overall (1,163).

Car ownership also impacts on the distance travelled, with a household with no car averaging 2,760 miles per year compared to a staggering 6,530 miles for a household with a car (and 9,163 for the main driver of the car in the household).

Whilst there are likely to be a number of factors that impact on this trend (households with no car can range from wealthy city centre dwellers to households experiencing high levels of poverty), the presence of a car has a significant impact on how households travel.

What does this mean for our cities?

While the national statistics are undoubtedly interesting, looking at the number of trips in isolation doesn’t tell the full story. A major success story from our cities over recent years has been the reverse of long-term population decline and the revitalisation of their economies. With ever more people wanting to travel into and within our major cities, it is important that we are able to encourage them into higher capacity modes. In this sense, the increase in walking levels and rail are welcome trends.

If we do choose to look at our major cities in isolation, it seems that their trends are different to that of the national picture. Cordon counts are showing a decrease in the number of cars recorded in the morning rush hour into some of the largest city centres. Cities such as Birmingham have seen the total number of people commuting in the morning peak increase and have achieved this with a decrease in the number of cars over the last five years.

The Urban Transport Group is currently undertaking a research programme which explores changing travel trends and has a particular focus on improving understanding of the factors driving the decline in bus patronage.

Our annual Number crunch report and online transport data tool, the Data Hub, go into greater detail as to the trends that are taking place in our cities.

Dr Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

A new era for active travel?

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Active travel is entering an exciting phase which is seeing investment on a new scale. However, with the upcoming Spending Review, there is also some nervousness around revenue funding streams and ensuring that we can continue the good progress that’s been made. These were two of the topics of discussion at our recent active travel meeting in Birmingham, hosted by our member Transport for West Midlands.

At these meetings we like to get out and experience new walking and cycling infrastructure first hand. So, on this occasion, we had a ride along the new A38 route, and back along the canal network.

As someone who has ridden many urban cycling routes as part of my role, I have to say that the A38 route was an absolute joy. The road is one of the busiest through the city centre, and not one that I could have imagined cycling along at a leisurely pace before. But the new route allows just that. In particular, the tree lined section down the middle of the road felt safe, relaxing and enjoyable. The scheme is direct, with good journey times into the city centre.

We returned to the city centre through the University campus and then down the canal. The canals in Birmingham are a great natural asset, providing direct off-road routes into and out of the city centre. It was encouraging to see the number of people commuting and enjoying leisure activities along this route.

Cycle lanes and Let's Ride Day

Yet it’s not just in Birmingham where exciting active travel developments are taking shape – they’re happening all across the Urban Transport Group’s network. High profile active Travel Commissioners (or equivalent) have been appointed in London, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire, raising the profile of active travel at the local and national level.

Transport for Greater Manchester was our first member outside of London to adopt this approach and they have made startling progress since. Its Bee Network – the UK’s largest cycling and walking network championed by former Olympic cyclist and Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman – will now cover up to 2,000 miles. A large proportion of the recent Transforming Cities Fund (over half) is being devoted to helping deliver this. This funding statement would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago.

And just this month, Leeds’ new £7.9 million city centre cycle superhighway opened, adding an extra 4km of segregated routes to the city’s growing cycling network thanks to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s CityConnect programme, in partnership with Leeds City Council.

However, active travel still continues to attract relatively low amounts of funding in comparison to other modes. Last week, the Transport Select Committee published its findings to the Active Travel Inquiry in which they call on Government to play a stronger central role. The Committee identified that the Government will allocate just 1.5% of its total transport spending on active travel and called for a dedicated funding stream for delivering improvements which will increase levels of walking and cycling and increase total funding for active travel. This is something that we fully support. As Ben Still, Managing Director of West Yorkshire Combined Authority and our lead Board member for active travel said, “walking and cycling have a key role to play in the imperative of reducing carbon emissions from transport, as well as offering wider health, social and economic benefits to people and communities. With the right funding deal and leadership from national Government, we can ensure active travel delivers a win-win for people and the planet.”

Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group