Rachel White Head of Public Affairs at Sustrans looks into why an integrated transport system between walking, cycling and public transport is key to tackling many of the current crises whilst helping improve wellbeing…

The UK Government recently published ‘Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking’. It is a vision Sustrans welcome in which walking and cycling make up half of all journeys in towns and cities by 2030.

This is desperately needed. Covid-19 continues to have a huge impact on all of our lives, with obesity and diabetes key factors in mortality rates. If we want to be more resilient against Covid-19, and all diseases, then we need to be healthier as a population and currently we are far too inactive, with inactivity itself directly costing the NHS £1 billion a year.

The threat of the Climate Crisis also looms. Road transport alone makes up around a fifth of the UKs greenhouse gas emissions. In the end this will have a far greater effect on people and the planet than Covid-19 and is something that we should be taking seriously.

Changing behaviours

So how do we begin to get more and different people travelling by foot, bicycle and public transport to tackle physical inactivity and fight the climate crisis? The ambition of ‘Gear Change’ is a great start. It proposes the set-up of Active Travel England which will be led by a walking and cycling commissioner and will be a ‘statutory consultee within the planning system to press for adequate cycling and walking provision in all developments of over a certain threshold, and provide expert advice on ways in which such provision can be improved.’

Active Travel England will also administer the new cycling and walking budget and ensure funding is spent on good infrastructure. We all know that poor, unprotected cycling infrastructure which stops short of where we need to go will not encourage new people to start cycling. This is important because we need more women, ethnic minorities, disabled and older people cycling to meet the ambition and to ensure equity in transport provision.  Our recently published Cycling for Everyone report highlights that these groups are disproportionately left out of transport planning.

There will also be a number of cycling and walking social prescribing pilots set up. This is a process in which a GP prescribes cycling or walking to a patient to improve their health. The pilots will loan a cycle to the patient, provide them with training and will be run in towns and cities in which low traffic neighbourhoods and protected cycling infrastructure are being installed. This is again needed as you will not get new people cycling if they do not feel there are safe streets on which they can do so.

These are all good steps for local journeys, but if we want to tackle climate change we will need to think about converting medium and long journeys from the car to public transport and this is where the synergy between walking, cycling and rail is so important. We need to get this right. We often hold the Netherlands up as the panacea for cycling – and they are excellent at it, with 25 per cent of all trips made by cycle. However, they also have greater carbon emissions per capita than the UK, because whilst their trips by cycle are 23 per cent higher than the UK, they travel by car so much for longer journeys.

‘Gear change’ highlights how cycling and rail make ideal partners and allow journeys door to door in the same way a car can. The Government intend to invest in safe cycle routes to and from stations, improve storage at stations; and increase space for cycles on trains, with all future rolling stock required to include more cycle spaces equivalent to the markets they serve. The plan also states that: ‘Major new rail corridors will be designed to support local and National Cycle Network plans for improved traffic free links between communities within the corridor.’ Sustrans is custodian of the National Cycle Network and we welcome initiatives that strengthen the quality of the network and link it up further with local communities.

These are all fantastic measures and a step up from simply thinking about cycle parking at stations (an important factor but fairly redundant if there are not safe cycling routes to the station in the first place). We also need transport hubs where walking, cycling, buses, trains and trams can be brought together to form seamless transport links that are a favoured option over the car.

There are some good schemes happening already. Sustrans manages the Cycle Rail Grant programme. Despite disruption caused by Covid-19, train companies and their partners have been delivering new schemes at many stations around the country. These range from small rural schemes at stations like Three Oaks in East Sussex to larger cycle parking schemes linked to cycle access improvements at Leagrave in Luton. More expansive, long-term funding from Government will help more of these types of schemes be embedded and these should be comprehensively linked to bus routes, especially in more rural areas.

Gear change is just that, a step up in gear in ambition and vision for our transport networks, particularly in relation to cycling and walking. For it to become a reality it will need to be implemented quickly; be backed up with long-term funding that increases over time as capacity increases; be recognised and fully aligned with cross-government initiatives, such as planning, health, tourism and the environment; and be fully integrated with public transport.

Rachel White is Head of Public Affairs at Sustrans