Gear Change – A Turning Point for UK Transport

30th July 2020

The UK government has announced a bold vision Gear Change for getting the nation cycling and walking. We asked our Sustainable Future Transport Lead Gavin Bailey whether he thought these measures were enough to get the UK moving under their own steam.

Gavin said: “This is a great, progressive strategy, at a time when public health is one of the most pressing issues of our time.  Many of us have witnessed the environmental improvements that come about as result of more people choosing to travel by bike or foot during lockdown, the benefits of active travel to health and wellbeing are widely documented, as is the link between air pollution, obesity, and Covid-19. It’s hard not to be shocked when you read in Gear Change that physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 UK deaths, and that meeting the targets to double cycling and increase walking would prevent 8,300 premature deaths each year. Then from an economic perspective, physical inactivity costs the NHS up to £1bn per year, with a further £8.2bn in indirect costs, this highlights just how much of an impact a successful cycling revolution could have.

The bike, the big picture, and modernising legislation

“It’s really promising to see the government strategy looks beyond the local level and at the transport network as a whole – including how active travel routes operate with train and bus networks – this has previously been missing from UK policy around transport. This multi-modal approach means those that opt for public transport have the facilities and infrastructure necessary to do the first and last mile by bike or foot. They also consider how cyclists will operate with motorists and albeit briefly – the future of freight. These considerations coupled with a long overdue review of relevant legislation and other changes to the planning system could shift perspectives on cycling from an optional extra to a key aspect of the decision making that dictates how we move around our communities.

In it for the long haul

“It’s also good to see a commitment to a long-term funding stream, technical expertise, and regulation of how money is spent – within timeframes  – coming from the new body Active Travel England so the strategy has a future beyond politics. It’s inclusive with proposals for a transport hierarchy to protect the most vulnerable road users. The emphasis on physical provisions for separate cycle lanes is another good sign, these have been proven to encourage the uptake of cycling from a more diverse demographic around the world. A shift to active travel will ensure greater longevity of transport infrastructure too – prolonging the quality of roads and pavements we already have. This is great for the liveability of urban spaces which are currently dominated by infrastructure for the motor vehicle. Giving some of this space back will make urban areas more attractive and pleasing environments in which to live and will safeguard the existing road space. You can move more people in less space on roads when they travel by bike, compared to the car – this will help to protect and potentially re-gain some natural capital such as green space.

Joining up the dots in local government

“There is an unmissable opportunity here for local authorities who have declared a climate emergency to create travel plans that match their ambitions to reduce carbon emissions – we have found these issues are often dealt with separately but they’re are extremely connected. Our team advising local authorities on their climate emergency strategies have pointed out previously that without a radical decarbonisation of transport plans to be net zero will fall short. Cycling and walking are front and centre in this, since they are low cost and accessible options which immediately remove traffic and emissions from roads. There are already a few tools out there to help local authorities make informed decisions in this area. We previously carried out research for the UK charity Sustrans into the air quality benefits of active travel and, before this, carried out an economic analysis of active travel interventions for The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Both of these research papers and tools developed behind them offer decision-makers evidence for the economic and environmental outcomes they can expect after investing in measures that support active travel. We hope this evidence can help interested councils to make their case for a switch to active travel where they need to – a job which will now be easier as a result of this government strategy.”

Image courtesy of Tejvan Pettinger via flikr CC BY 2.0.