There’s a House of Commons Transport Committee Inquiry into Active Travel. While formally it closed last month, they are still accepting written submissions. Here’s mine:
I am an academic working in the field of active travel who has published over 25 peer-reviewed journal articles on topics from injuries and near misses, to impacts of interventions, to equity and potential for growth. I am happy to provide more information or appear in person before the Committee to discuss my own and other authors’ research on the topic (including not yet published findings).
Please find below a brief summary of my initial thoughts on each area of interest, followed by selected references to published academic work:
1. The benefits and risks of active travel, and the extent to which they are properly understood by the public and Government
Risks are higher for people walking and cycling than they should be. Many urban areas breach air pollution limits, largely due to motorised traffic. Per-km risks for walking and cycling are several times higher in the UK than in the Netherlands and some other Northern European countries. Cyclists and pedestrians currently face similar risks of dying per km travelled (as cycle trips are longer, the per-trip risk is higher for cycling). For injuries, particularly minor injuries, the risk for cyclists is greater.
Near misses are a further deterrent to active travel. My research found that a regular UK commuting cyclist might experience one ‘very scary’ near miss each week, with rates higher for newer cyclists, women, and those cycling more slowly. I would also note that (i) cyclists have not seen the injury risk reduction benefits enjoyed in recent decades by users of other modes, hence the injury risk gap has widened and that (ii) in the UK the cycling cohort is relatively young (unlike for instance the Netherlands) and thus the age-adjusted risk will be higher than the raw risk figures suggest, as young people are less vulnerable to injury. Thirdly, there are important demographic inequalities that are both unfair and may discourage active travel among vulnerable groups. Notably, my analysis of National Travel Survey data found disabled pedestrians face very high per-km risks of being injured by a motor vehicle, compared to non-disabled pedestrians.
Despite this, on a population level, there are substantial health benefits from increased walking or cycling, because most people are insufficiently physically active and regular walking or cycling could ensure they get the exercise they need. Benefits are highest for the currently least active, and for older people.
Risks and benefits are poorly understood, particularly for cycling. Many members of the public (and some decision-makers) believe cycling is inherently risky. As noted above, risks for people cycling are higher here than they should be. However, most injuries, particularly the most serious, are caused by interactions with motorised transport. Many could be prevented (or their severity reduced) by reducing the amount of interactions between cyclists and motor traffic, particularly heavy motor traffic, and reducing the speeds at which the remaining interactions take place. More dedicated, high quality infrastructure is crucial for safety and perceived safety. A report for TfL found that at least a third of a sample of very serious injuries could have been prevented by high quality infrastructure separating cyclists from motorised traffic. This is backed up by a Canadian study by Teschke et al which found that protected cycle tracks had one ninth the injury odds of busy main streets with car parking.
The risk cyclists pose to others is perhaps most poorly understood. My current qualitative research is finding that the public will often excuse poor driver behaviour (despite the risk it poses to others) while tending to stigmatise all cyclists based on the poor behaviour of some. Yet Scholes et al found that it is safer for others if people cycle rather than drive. In making this comparison it is important to stratify by age and gender. Young men are the most dangerous drivers, and while they may also be less careful cyclists than (for instance) older women, it is notably safer for others if they cycle rather than drive. Pedestrian-cyclist interactions do carry some risk for both parties (as do, for instance, conflicts between joggers and walkers), but these interactions are low risk compared to interactions involving motorised vehicles, especially larger vehicles. Of course, there are also multiple other benefits when people walk, jog, cycle, scoot etc. compared to using cars.
2. Recent trends in walking and cycling and factors contributing to these trends
At a national level trends in walking and cycling are disappointing. Our 2025 targets seem unlikely to be met. Cycling journey stages are meant to double yet have remained steady for the past 15 years. Walking has recently increased but remains (measured by stages) around 2005 levels. However, we have seen growth in active travel in contexts with ambitious policy and infrastructure changes – especially some cities. This suggests that there is potential to use policy to grow active travel, yet this remains patchy and localised, too often dependent on key local figures putting in unsustainable amounts of time and effort.
Indeed, increasing evidence connects policy and infrastructure change to active travel uptake, including studies from the UK and other countries. My own longitudinal study has found an increase in active travel at one- and two-year time points in Outer London areas that have seen mini-Holland interventions. This is likely to be in response to modal filtering (= closure of residential streets to through motor traffic) and cycle tracks. Interestingly, the increase in walking has so far been greater in absolute terms than the increase in cycling. While potential for modal shift to cycling is high, there is strong potential for more local walking, particularly if motor traffic volumes and speeds are reduced in local streets, making walking (and lingering/playing) more pleasant. More people walking locally can then in turn provide ‘place’ benefits, making streets feel more welcoming.
3. The effectiveness of the Department for Transport in setting the strategic objectives for active travel and in working with other departments that have relevant responsibilities
For some years now there have been welcome warm words for active travel from DfT and other departments. Yet in practice support for active travel has not matched aspirations, and targets are repeatedly missed.
There is increasing interest in the relationship between transport and health, and more could be done to prioritise health objectives within transport at a national level. Health is still seen as an add-on to consider only when ‘walking or cycling’ schemes are proposed, rather than something informs transport planning at all levels.
We still see walking and cycling marginalised within major rail and road schemes, frustrating given that the additional budget involved both to safeguard existing routes, and to use the opportunity to provide new routes, would be minimal in the context of such major schemes. It would also help if other Departments whose remit covers other benefits of active travel (e.g. local economic benefits as people walking and cycling may spend more at local shops) did more to press for active travel to be considered in local plans and strategies.
4. The balance of responsibilities for active transport between central Government and local bodies and whether the current arrangements achieve an appropriate balance
There is a three-tier system within England for active travel. London has had the political leadership, the devolved governance, and the funding to lead, although there is still far to go. Other cities and city-regions, such as Greater Manchester and Cambridge, have been able to leverage funding and/or political support, and are also seeing major changes.
However, smaller cities and towns, and rural areas, are falling far behind, lacking expertise and access to the dedicated funding streams available to some cities. Many smaller cities and towns have many short trips and hence substantial active travel potential. They could realise this via high quality cycling and walking infrastructure on busier roads alongside measures to reduce motor traffic volumes and speeds within neighbourhoods. However, this is not happening, and is unlikely to happen unless national government takes more of a lead on this.
One example from an unpublished MSc thesis: the student looked at a large village lying three miles out of a medium-sized town with a train station. Three miles is a perfect cycling distance, yet virtually no one cycled to town, with most commuters driving to their jobs either in town or accessed via its train station. Looking at the cycling environment (involving at least a mile along a busy and dangerous rural A-road, with no cycle track or even footway), I would not have cycled either. A relatively small amount of cycle infrastructure would make that journey possible: yet nothing is likely to happen. People (quite understandably) will continue driving, increasing congestion and air pollution, despite calls for them to travel actively.
The unevenness across the country suggests more is needed from Government to explain the scale of change needed for substantial uplift in active travel and to help transport authorities deliver this. Change is unlikely without more of a national lead, apart from in areas with strong transport planning capacity and leaders with strong personal commitment to active travel.
5. Implementation of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) so far, including in relation to the Cycling Ambition Cities; and the adequacy of funding associated with CWIS
The LCWIP (Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan) guidance takes the correct approach of asking authorities to plan for growth in walking and cycling, and hence focus on potential rather than only current trips. Having ambitious but specific plans is an important first step and it is good to see DfT encouraging this.
However, progress needs to be tracked. I have heard that some authorities are struggling and are not allocating even the relatively small amount of funding needed to create LCWIPs. 78 authorities applied for DfT support to produce LCWIPs and 36 were allocated this. Did other areas feel confident without support, or were they not interested? What will happen to the 42 authorities who wanted support in producing LCWIPs, but were unsuccessful?
We need to know what will happen once authorities have produced LCWIPs. An obvious next step would be for DfT to make dedicated (match) ongoing funding available for plans reaching a certain quality standard. This will involve a substantial uplift in investment in active travel; however (good quality) active travel infrastructure is both excellent value and much cheaper than new road schemes. The current revision of Cycle Infrastructure Design (LTN 2/08) will help in this, as this was previously outdated and encouraged some poor design even in leading authorities.
The Cycling Ambition Cities represent some of our leading authorities in active travel planning. However, they are (i) already authorities with relatively high transport planning/bid-making capacity (many smaller authorities have little or no transport planning capacity) and (ii) have been supported by dedicated funding from DfT. In two of the most successful areas, Bristol and Cambridge, this funding started in 2009 under the Cycling City and Towns programme. Unlike most of the country, they have had ten years of funding for active travel that approaches the amount invested in many other Northern European countries.
However, most people in England live in areas where investment in active travel is far below what experts agree is needed. Even considering our more successful areas, we are still at a stage where active travel investment is seen as something special, limited, and short-term, to be implemented only in a few authorities. There seems to be no vision of an England where all major roads by default have cycle infrastructure and fast, direct, and frequent pedestrian crossings (for instance). We need to build up a national skills base: too often, infrastructure is compromised, particularly where some short-term delay for drivers is a likely consequence of allocating space to people cycling or time to pedestrians crossing, for instance. This too entails the allocation of dedicated, long-term funding for the active travel transformation we need not just in major cities, but in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas.
6. Whether the current mix of initiatives to support active travel is appropriate, particularly with respect to safety, and what can be learnt from international approaches in supporting active travel
Here I would point the Committee towards the developing consensus on the step-change in active travel funding we need to catch up with European best practice. In internationally successful cities and countries, substantial amounts are invested (e.g. £20-35 per head) over the long term, largely in infrastructural programmes.
My work on infrastructure and culture in relation to active travel has highlighted that good infrastructure has a cultural benefit. In contexts and communities where cycling is seen as ‘poor man’s transport’ and/or only for the super-hardy and risk-tolerant (this is much of England), the construction of high quality, direct and spacious cycle tracks is not only good cycling provision in engineering terms. Perhaps just as important, it sends a message to anyone seeing it that people cycling matter, and that being a cyclist means having your own comfortable, safe, pleasant and direct route, with wobble room if needed. The same principles relate to walking: if people walking must constantly negotiate damaged pavements, footway car parking, indirect and slow crossings, and so on, this sends a message that pedestrians do not matter, and their interests are subservient to those of drivers. We should not then be surprised if those with choices choose to drive.
As described in TfL’s International Cycling Infrastructure Best Practice Study, cycling infrastructure can vary in type, but all must be inclusive, suiting users from two children cycling to a friend’s house, to a woman on her way to work, to an older person visiting the health centre (for instance). The key is to minimise interactions with motor traffic, and reduce speeds of those interactions that remain, as discussed above. Thus three key route types are (i) routes through green space, entirely away from motorised traffic, (ii) protected cycle tracks along main roads, and (iii) routes through neighbourhood streets with very low volumes and speeds of motor traffic (ideally, these streets will be access-only for motors).
International best practice teaches us that we should consider trialling interventions, monitoring and evaluating their impact, and then deciding whether to make them permanent (and if any changes need to be made when this happens). Given that many of our traditional planning approaches (models and tools) are not helpful in designing ambitious active travel schemes, trialling can be an excellent way of establishing likely impact at a relatively low cost.
Finally, international success tends to be based on a combination of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ measures, supporting walking and cycling while discouraging driving. The latter can be controversial, but it is key to remember that for decades, planning systems have advantaged people driving at the expense of people walking and cycling (e.g. convoluted and slow pedestrian crossings, in order not to delay people in cars). Given finite street space (and time) and the multiple benefits of walking and cycling, rebalancing will be crucial to ensure people have a real choice not to drive. Those who still need to drive will also benefit from other people being able to choose to walk or cycle.
7. Whether there are fundamental planning issues which need to be addressed as part of an any approach to active mode travel
Yes! Here due to lack of space I will focus on data, models, and tools. Over decades we have developed sophisticated models and tools to plan for private motorised traffic. We have in-depth simulation models helping us to optimise individual junction design (for private motorised traffic), area-wide models of motor traffic movements, and real-time data on motor traffic speeds and delays. We prioritise collecting data that feeds into these models and tools, and we (still) appraise schemes based largely on predicted changes to driver journey times, even if we now trade off more other monetised impacts against this.
This approach is not fit for purpose for planning for active travel. We need to collect data on metrics that matter for people walking and cycling and use these to target improvements (as we do for motor traffic ‘bottlenecks’). For instance, data already exists on footway widths. This could be measured and mapped, with pedestrian bottlenecks targeted to encourage walking and ensure it is comfortable and inclusive. Increasingly, mobile phone data (including via apps) can be used to measure walking and cycling levels of service. For instance, app-based data could be used to calculate cyclist delays at junctions. Selected metrics could be reported upon nationally, allowing comparisons between authorities, as currently exists for local congestion data for ‘general traffic’.
As mentioned above in discussion of LCWIPs, it is important to plan for future/potential walking and cycling. Increasingly tools can help with this, such as the Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT). To plan for future walking and cycling, we need to know the characteristics of trips currently made by motor vehicle (e.g. how many are relatively short and shift-able). This is an area where local transport models, with their detailed representation of car trips (but often poor treatment of active travel) could potentially help. Summarising this section, we need to develop new metrics, data, models, and tools, as well as making creative use of what we already have.
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