Active travel: solutions for changing cities

Over the last decade promoting active travel has moved from the fringes of urban transport policy to a much more central role in the planning of cities and their transport networks.

This is because the promotion of active travel, and the creation of places and streetscapes where people want to walk and cycle, is such a good fit with where cities that are going places want to be.

Those cities want to be healthier and happier places where the costs of treating diseases associated with inactive lifestyles and poor air quality are being tackled. Cities which are places where good growth happens because they are great places to spend time in and people positively want to visit, live, work and invest in them. Cities that want to make the most of available road space by prioritising the most space efficient ways of getting about.

The big shift in thinking in the value of investing in, and promoting, active travel is reflected in a new wave of influential city active travel commissioners, in the benevolent arms race between cities on spend per head on active travel and in the re-shaping of streets from cycle superhighways to healthy streets. It can also be seen in the greater number of cyclists and pedestrians where effective infrastructure and programmes are put in place.

Having said that there is a very long way to go before all Britain’s cities get close to catching up with where many counterpart Nordic, Dutch and German cities have been working towards for much longer. We have a long cycle path ahead of us and part of the role of the Urban Transport Group is to accelerate the take up of what works on active travel. Our new report – active travel: solutions for changing cities – is part of that process.

It shows how and why active travel schemes can work in any urban area – from gritty Northern cities to the heart of the City of London. And it also shows the potential to go further and faster on implementing more good schemes.

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?