Why do political parties need to prioritise walking and cycling?

The climate change crisis is amongst the greatest environmental and health risks of the 21st century. Transport accounts for 26% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the main sources being petrol and diesel cars.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Sustrans is calling on all political parties to take bold action on road transport emissions and prioritise walking and cycling in its manifesto for the General Election 2019. The charity sets out clear asks for the next Government to show leadership on curbing road transport emissions and make walking and cycling the easiest and convenient options for more people, regardless of gender, age and abilities.

“There is a desperate need for long-term sustained funding, both capital and revenue,” says Rachel White, head of Public Affairs at Sustrans. “There just simply hasn’t been enough of this so far. If you take next year for example, at the present time, there have been no announcements for any capital funding for cycling in 2020/2021 at all. That’s a huge problem in terms of retaining capacity in local authorities and retaining the planning and skillsets to roll out cycling and walking schemes.”

High five
Amongst its five main recommendations, Sustrans is asking candidates to commit to a 20-minute neighbourhood planning principle for all cities and towns so that everyone can walk and cycle for their everyday services and needs.

The charity is also calling on the next UK Government to provide sustained long-term investment in walking and cycling, including at least 5% of the transport budget to be spent on walking and cycling by 2020/21, rising to at least 10% before 2024/25; and £72 million investment per year in the National Cycle Network.

Capital funding measures include developing and implementing local cycling and walking infrastructure plans, creating walking and cycling links, improving access to train stations and other public transport interchanges, and supporting the uptake of e-bikes, e-cargo bikes and adapted cycles. It is also asking parties to transform the school journey to help children walk, cycle and scoot in safety and with confidence, ensure places are accessible for everyone by implementing a 20mph speed limit in all built-up areas and ban pavement parking, and establish a UK-wide Greenways programme.

“In terms of long-term sustained funding, [we would like] funding ramped up to at least 5% of transport spend within the next year,” White explains, “[before] rapidly raising that to at least 10% within a few years. A lot of this political race will be fought on Brexit, but most people just care about the issues that they face around them, such as health, congestion, decarbonisation and air quality. So, the first thing is to invest in long-term sustained funding, and the second thing is to work cross-departmentally.”

It’s not just pollution
According to Sustrans’ manifesto, our dependency on using motor vehicles to get around has driven the climate change crisis. It costs the economy £7.9 billion a year through traffic congestion and is the major cause of air pollution in our towns and cities. Social inequality is also an issue, with people living in more deprived communities more likely to suffer from road danger and pollution, despite being the least likely to drive.

In England in 2018, almost 20% of journeys under one mile were made by car – these could be walked in 15 minutes or cycled in five, the manifesto says. 70% of trips under five miles were made by car, and these could be cycled in approximately 20 minutes. This dependency is also contributing to greater levels of physical inactivity than we have ever seen before, costing the NHS £1 billion a year.

White says this inactivity can be tackled at source by creating the livable 20-minute neighbourhoods that allow people to get people where they want to go by foot or by cycle. “It will contribute to decarbonisation and the air quality agenda,” White continues. “It could save the economy nearly £9 billion over ten years if cycling and walking targets in England and Scotland were met. There are huge benefits to be had.

“Is the Government doing enough to reach its targets? The short answer is no. And it’s admitted to this.”

Sustrans has long highlighted the need for the UK Government to help people reduce their reliance on the car and prioritise investment in walking and cycling. Although the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy was launched in 2017, levels of investment haven’t been sufficient to meet its targets to double the number of cycling trips by 2025. In a safety review document to support the strategy published towards the end of last year, the Department for Transport admitted that its current policy would only see cycling increase by a third over the next six years.

In January this year, Roger Geffen, Cycling UK’s associate director of policy, said: “Cycling is a miracle pill that can cure a lot of the ills this Government is facing with air pollution and the physical health problems associated with inactivity.

“However, by its own admission, the Government is not going to meet its own modest targets to double cycling, which Cycling UK believes is due to inadequate funding. Cycling UK believes the Government should rebalance its spending to local solutions to car dependence. It’s not the people currently cycling who will benefit from more funding, but rather those who feel forced to drive those short distances to school, work or the shops due to having no suitable alternative.”

Reduction trumps technology
So why hasn’t the Government invested as much as it needs to so it can reach its targets?

“The priorities always seem to be with the strategic road network,” continues White. “The evaluation of the benefits of walking and cycling don’t equate to the health benefits that that brings. Sometimes they’ve been a little bit undervalued compared to road-building schemes. The investment in road building at the moment – we’ve seen nothing like it since the 1970s. We really need to move away from that and think about how can we get people around in other ways.

“We’re always going to need the car in some aspects, but the answer to all of these issues, the climate crisis, poor air quality, reducing life expectancy, congestion, physical inactivity, all of these things can be solved with greater investment in walking and cycling. We’re also concentrating too much on technological fixes as well. Electric vehicles have a role to play, but they’re still moving people around in metal boxes and that doesn’t help with congestion or physical inactivity. It’s really important that we’re not just looking at cleaner vehicles, but fewer vehicles on our roads.”

It’s also about finding ways to create more active lifestyles, White says. Everyone is time-poor, and people are finding it more and more difficult to incorporate exercise into their routines. “Everyone who tries to join the gym January has usually given up by February. It’s been proven time and again that the best way of getting people to be more physically active is just incorporating it into their routine,” she says.

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