Dr Andy Cope of Sustrans explains how we can get cleaner, healthier and more efficient transport systems by releasing the benefits of walking and cycling
Walking and cycling offer a part of a solution to the myriad problems that confront our cities. They offer dividends in terms of cleaner air, inclusivity, ‘liveability’ (making our cities better places to be), congestion reduction, efficient mobility and economic benefits, as well as huge potential health benefits.
By enabling more people to walk and ride a bike for shorter journeys, regardless of gender, age and abilities, towns and cities can make sustainable mobility a real choice for everyone.
A simple route to cleaner air
Air pollution is one of the leading environmental public health crises in the UK at the moment, with road transport being responsible for eighty per cent of the pollution where legal limits are being broken. Walking and cycling can be a huge part of the fight to tackle air pollution at a local level.
The Government’s air quality plan may make our air more breathable in the long run, but it fails to address some of the biggest issues facing our cities and towns. At the heart of the plan is a move to ban all new diesel and petrol vans and cars from 2040. It remains to be seen if the plan will be an effective measure to improve air quality, but it does represent another missed opportunity to think about how we move about and live in cities and towns.
Congestion is getting worse in cities across the UK at a cost to the economy of £11 billion a year. While a 3.5-metre-wide single lane can transport two thousand people an hour in cars, the same lane can be used to transport 14,000 people on bicycles – and this doesn’t even take into account the space saved on parking. With limited space in cities and rising populations, transport planning has to focus on the most efficient way of getting around.
While a switch from diesel to electric vehicles will help reduce early deaths associated with air pollution, it will do little to encourage greater physical activity. In England in 2012 only 67 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women met physical activity recommendations, with a similar picture in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Research from the University of Glasgow recently found cycling regularly reduced the incidence of cancer by 45 per cent, heart disease by 46 per cent, and of death by any cause by 41 per cent.
In response to Government prioritisation, there is unprecedented interest from the rail industry in increasing access to railway stations by sustainable means. Examples of significant investment range from large scale projects like Chelmsford’s 1,000 space cycle park and York Station’s award-winning access ramps linking the platforms directly to the National Cycle Network, through to small scale changes such as increased cycle parking at over 150 stations nationally.
Passengers often cite safe, convenient and direct routes as their biggest wish when it comes to accessing stations by bike. Three miles is the typical maximum distance that people will comfortably consider for a journey to the station by bike although creating safe routes can extend this up to five miles.
Although half the UK population owns a bicycle and sixty per cent live within a 15-minute ride of a station, only two per cent of passengers use their bike to access the rail network. Nearly a third of UK rail users, and nearly half of those who drive and park at their local station, would like to use an alternative means of travel to or from the station. Over eleven per cent of UK rail users would like to cycle to and from the station.
Bike Life: the public support bold plans
The biggest assessment of cycling in seven UK cities shows the public understands the benefits of cycling and walking and is supportive of bold plans to transform the way people in those cities move around.
In 2014, Sustrans began the Copenhagen-inspired assessment, a ‘bicycle account’ style report that measures public opinion and attitudes to cycling. In 2017, an independent poll of 7,700 residents asked what provision they would find very useful to start cycling or cycle more. In the seven cities (Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Greater Manchester, Newcastle) almost four fifths of residents surveyed (78 per cent) support building more protected cycle lanes on roads, even when this could mean less space for other vehicles. In addition, 64 per cent of the residents said they would cycle more if these routes were created.
Clearly, the provision of high quality cycling infrastructure is a key element in overcoming safety concerns and every urban area should be aspiring to dense networks of such infrastructure. However, space is a big issue in many of our cities, and cyclists are often required to complete their journeys on busy urban roads, as high quality segregated routes only tend to penetrate so far into urban centres, petering out once street space becomes more constrained.
Generally, on these central urban roads motor traffic speeds are not an issue, usually being less than twenty mph. However, this does not take into account the other variable, motor traffic volumes. For cyclists to comfortably (read feel safe) share carriageway space with motor vehicles, volumes need to be relatively low. Additionally, the mix of this traffic needs to have a low proportion of large vehicles. High volumes of motor traffic are off-putting for cyclists when streets with no specific cycle provision are congested, and cycling starts to become less convenient.
The National Cycle Network
The National Cycle Network (NCN) was established in 1995 after Sustrans won the first-ever grant from the Millennium Commission to create a UK-wide network of convenient routes for walking and cycling.
Since then, the NCN has become a critical part of the UK’s active travel infrastructure and strategy, encouraging people to walk and cycle in a safe environment and providing important commuting access. Every year, an estimated five million people use the Network, which totals over 16,000 miles of traffic-free paths and on road routes linking up villages, towns and cities from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles. These trips save the economy more than £550 million by reducing levels of obesity. Holidays and days out on the Network generate £650 million and support 15,000 jobs.
We have recently embarked on a review of the NCN with an aim to ensure this vital network of traffic-free and traffic-calmed routes meet the highest design standards and offer the best experience to the millions of families, commuters and tourists who use it every year. All four UK governments have confirmed their support of the Review, which will be published in the autumn.
The NCN is a reminder that governments at all levels need to prioritise investment for existing walking and cycling routes that will serve communities across the UK and generations for years to come.
Mobility equals provision of safety
Safety or the perception of safety is key to getting more people cycling and walking. The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey found that 59 per cent of British people agreed with the statement: ‘It is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads’, with women, the elderly, and non-cyclists most likely to agree.
There are many things that the UK Government can begin to change now to create safer environments for people to walk and cycle and realise the benefits that come with this.
We recently responded to the Government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) safety review consultation. In addition to investing in high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure to make it standard across the UK and maintaining the NCN, we have identified four key priorities to enable more people to walk and cycle.
Slower speeds: Lower default speed limits to twenty mph for urban roads and forty mph for minor rural roads to make our roads and streets safer for everyone. The risk of being killed is almost five times higher in collisions between a car and a pedestrian at 31 mph compared to the same type of collisions at 18.6 mph, reports the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Government should update its guidance to local authorities to make twenty mph the norm for residential urban roads and forty mph the norm on minor rural roads.
Mandatory cycle training for all school-age children: We should provide cycle training for all children during their primary and secondary school years and embed a culture of walking and cycling throughout the school curriculum. When cycle training is combined with good infrastructure it can lead to high levels of behaviour change and a shift to cycling and walking.
Revisions to the Highway Code: In some European countries, turning traffic must give way to pedestrians and cyclists travelling straight ahead. This principle applies at both traffic light-controlled junctions and give-way junctions. The Government should revise the Highway Code so that people travelling straight ahead have priority through a ‘universal duty to give way’ when turning. This should then be included in all road user education and enforcement.
A public awareness campaign of vulnerable road users: The Government should run a ‘Think!’ style campaign on driver awareness of vulnerable road users. Currently, there is a Think! ‘Hang Back’ campaign for bike riders at junctions but this puts all the onus on the vulnerable road user and not the driver. The campaign should be for all road users with a focus on the most dangerous – those in a motorised vehicle.
The benefits of active travel
Cities around the world that have more walking and more bikes, and fewer cars, are leading the way in creating better cities. They tend to be competitive and successful and are recognised for this around the world – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Strasbourg and Utrecht are already there. Many other cities see more bikes as vital to making them better for their residents – New York, Oslo, Seville, Barcelona and Paris, to name but a few.
So, if we are serious about transport solutions that seek to increase sustainable mobility, something has to be done to reduce the numbers of motor vehicles on our streets and roads. In other words, whilst increased walking and cycling should result in reduced congestion and a more efficient transport system, in order to increase active travel, congestion needs to first be reduced.
If the Government works with local authorities and schools to implement such measures, they can achieve their aims of increasing safety whilst also achieving the targets of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy to double cycling and increase walking.
Dr Andy Cope is Director of Insight, Research & Monitoring Unit at Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity