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?

 

Are we ready for the baby boomers?

Couple on a beach taking a photo

Baby boomers are a generation used to freedom, to having it all and not settling for second best. Photo: iStock

Members of the baby boomer generation are beginning to enter, or plan for, retirement. A generation whose adult lives have been centred around the car and the freedom and status it afforded.

According to Department for Transport statistics, in 2012 some 86% of the baby boomer generation lived in households with a car or van. As they age, many will find they can no longer driver, either through choice or necessity. By the age of 70, the proportion of households with a vehicle drops by 20%. Are the baby boomers ready to make this transition? What will they expect from public transport? How can we meet these expectations?

The needs and expectations of today’s – and tomorrow’s – older people were the subject of an Age UK/International Longevity Centre seminar I attended earlier this week, hearing from a range of academics and researchers on ageing. The seminar is one of a series called ‘Community Matters’ exploring how communities need to adapt to an ageing society.

Suburban dreams, rural retreats

A UK suburban street

Suburban life tends to be centred around the car. Photo: Alan Murray-Rust

Facilitated by the car, many baby boomers moved to the suburbs to raise their families and will have aspirations to stay in those areas, or move to the country, to enjoy their retirement.

As Dr Kit Mitchell pointed out at the seminar, these areas suit a car-centred lifestyle but can leave people isolated once they leave their cars behind, or feel less able to use them. He asked how we can encourage people to consider this and to settle in areas where they will not be wholly car dependent, particularly as they near retirement. This is not an easy task, particularly as many of us do not like to think too far into the future, and if we do, find it hard to imagine how different our lives and needs might be.

Urban living provides shops and services on the doorstep, as well as good public transport links, but does not fit with many people’s current aspirations for retirement. Sophie Handler, of Age Friendly Manchester, suggested that cities may want to look at their image and branding. Do they present themselves as places where older people are included and valued or do images of young, working people dominate? Are the needs of older people considered in the design of public places and the delivery of services?

A hierarchy of transport needs

Wherever people choose to settle, Dr Charles Musselwhite argued that the provision of public transport tends to be focused on utility – getting people as quickly as possible from A to B, during hours that fit around traditional 9 to 5 working patterns.

Older people on a station platform with their Grandchildren

Many baby boomers will have caring responsibilities that require travel outside of ‘normal’ commuting patterns

This model does not necessarily work for older people. They may wish to travel outside these hours or to travel from suburb to suburb to visit friends or fulfill caring responsibilities, rather than travel from suburb to centre to get to work.

Older people are not the only group that this model does not work for. Part-time or shift workers and people with caring responsibilities (often requiring suburb to suburb trips) are also disadvantaged.

Dr Musselwhite divided transport needs into three levels, applying to all age groups:

  • Primary needs: the need to get from A to B.
  • Secondary needs: the need for transport to confer status and a feeling of being ‘normal’.
  • Tertiary needs: the enjoyment and value of the journey in itself (rather than getting from A to B in the shortest time).

When people give up driving, he found that primary needs generally tend to be met but that secondary and tertiary needs are often neglected.

These are needs that are well fulfilled by the car – the car is traditionally seen as a status object and something that enables people to feel that they are like everyone else (although evidence suggests these norms are changing for today’s ‘Generation Y’). Car journeys also afford enjoyment and value in themselves – you can take a drive just for the sake of it and enjoy a scenic, rather than a direct route. Car journeys can uncover unexpected places and sights and enable exploration.

Enjoy the ride

Bench and artwork on a Sustrans walking route

Walking routes, like this one designed by Sustrans, should offer places to linger and discover. Photo: Dean Smith

How can we design public transport, walking and cycling provision so that it meets more of these secondary and tertiary needs that baby boomers are used to being met?

Here are some ideas from the seminar and elsewhere:

The baby boomers are a generation used to freedom, to having it all and not settling for second best – they are likely to be a strong force for positive change in the public services they come to use. Transport providers and planners need to get ready.

Rebecca Fuller