£2bn active travel revolution?

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson has launched an ambitious plan to boost cycling and walking in England, with a commitment to creating thousands of miles of new protected bike lanes, cycle training for all, and the first ever zero-emission transport city.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:

“From helping people get fit and healthy and lowering their risk of illness, to improving air quality and cutting congestion, cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling some of the biggest health and environmental challenges that we face.

“But to build a healthier, more active nation, we need the right infrastructure, training and support in place to give people the confidence to travel on two wheels.

“That’s why now is the time to shift gears and press ahead with our biggest and boldest plans yet to boost active travel – so that everyone can feel the transformative benefits of cycling.”

The plan is to get Britain back on its feet and its bikes – not unlike the roar of ‘get on your bike’ to find work in the 1970s recession.

This time it’s being pushed as being about health rather than jobs; reducing the demand on the NHS, lowering obesity, lowering emissions that lead to and exacerbate chest diseases and infections (including Covid-19) and improving the nationals mental health.

But this money was already announced earlier this year, it’s not new money or more money, but a relaunch of earlier announcements.

Sadly, it’s also not a new promise – we have heard all this before.  We have already been promised a ‘golden age’ of cycling that didn’t materialise.  During the pandemic itself we were constantly being told that local governments would be given money to reallocate space to pedestrians and cyclists, and very little has actually happened in most places.

“We can’t expect dramatic change overnight – the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen were not built in a day.” 

Cycling UK director Matt Mallinder

The problem is that we do need dramatic change, and we do need it overnight, or at least we expected a bit more in the last four months that what we have seen delivered.  Even temporary measures announced back in April and May have yet to be put into place in many cities, certainly not in any meaningly joined up network kind of way.

Intent is one thing – actual progress is something very different.

As Tim Burns writes:

‘We need to start designing cycling infrastructure for disadvantaged communities’.

A lack of access to active travel is more than a health or transport issue, it’s also a social issue.  For many around the globe cycling isn’t a hobby or sport, it is a fundamental means of getting to a place of work, to the shops, and into education.  It allows people without the financial means to access expensive public travel options (£600 a year for an Edinburgh travel card for example) to take up work and educational opportunities that would not have been open to them otherwise.

Access to safe routes for walking, wheeling, electric scooters and even buggies, as well as cycles, will allow disabled, the elderly, young families, and many other socially excluded groups to get to see their friends, family, medical support, educational facilities, and at the end of the day for some, jobs.

We are appalled that people in our rich First World country need food banks, but we should also be appalled that those same people have to walk six miles, beside a 60mph ‘A’ road, to get to the job centre or food bank.  I can assure you from personal experience that this happens.  If you get called to a job centre interview and you’ve no money for the bus, you walk or get sanctioned.  Yes, the Job Centre might reimburse you a bus fare, but you need the money in the first place to get the bus.

A safe cycle route, a reconditioned old bike, and that person is not only free to get to that job centre interview, they’re free to get to a job interview as well.  There will be detractors who say that if they’re starving then they won’t make the trip by bike, well they have make it on foot right now, and cycling is often easier than walking, as many elderly and disabled cyclists will tell you.

Access to safe alternative travel is about the economy, it’s about health, but it’s also about society as a whole.  It is about how we make provisions for those that cannot drive, do not have access to a car even if they have a licence, and those who simply choose not to have one.  A car centric nation is not a nation of fairness but elitist discrimination, it is not our future.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of cars, it doesn’t mean nobody can drive.  It does mean that those who need their cars will spend less time sat in traffic and congestion.  For every driver we get on a bike, we get rid of one car on that journey.  Don’t believe me? Ask the Dutch.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

“We’ve got a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a shift in attitudes for generations to come, and get more people choosing to cycle or walk as part of their daily routine.

“The measures we’ve set out today in this revolutionary plan will do just that. No matter your age, how far you’re travelling, or your current confidence on a bike – there are plans to help and support you.

“By helping to fix your bike – or get an electrically powered one; by increasing storage space at stations, on trains and buses; and by introducing more ways to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe, we’re making it easier than ever to make active travel part of your daily life, and leading England to become a great cycling nation.”

We had a cycling Leader of the Opposition for several years in Jeremy Corbyn.  We have had a cycling PM for more than a year now in Boris Johnson.  We’ve had the right messages coming from Grant Shapps the Transport Secretary, but we have seen very little real movement on the ground.

In fact, during this time, things have gone from bad to worse – Sustrans removed it’s signage from 4,000 miles of cycle routes because they weren’t up to standard.  Of course the routes still exist, but they are not suitable for all, some a suitable only for a very few.

We have seen councils go into seemingly endless consultations over a single road with a tiny coned off stretch, or taking out a few parking bays and maybe making a section one way to allow for a little space for people other than car drivers.  We have seen protests, threats of court action, and further delay.  We have seen a constant failure to get the positives across to businesses, even when international examples of how well this has worked exist widely.

Those that campaign for change, hope for a future around this ‘vision’.  Will Boris deliver?  We don’t know.  He hasn’t exactly got a brilliant track record on delivery to be honest.

£2billion sounds like a lot of money but compared to road building schemes this is a tiny drop in a very big ocean.  It’s a start, and if we see any progress there will a lot of delighted people, myself included, but the proof of the pudding, as they say, ‘is in the eating’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s