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Time for travel to get active

30 November 2017 Author: Matt Price

In July, the UK Government declared a ban on sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040.

Before rushing to embrace a new cleaner age of car travel, planners and transport planners need to ask these questions: with a growing urban population, can the UK really afford to continue allocating large amounts of urban space to the car? Is this time to re-think the role of the car in urban living? Is it time to get serious about active travel?

Shift to battery power?

Efforts to replace the 30 million cars on UK roads with electric or hybrid models have been underway for some time. Over 100,000 electric or hybrid vehicles have been registered in the UK since 2011. The number of re-charging points is growing.  And, research is ongoing to find ways of managing the huge demand that mass electric car ownership would place on the national grid.   All signs indicate that the shift to battery power is gathering momentum.

The legacy of pro-Car policy

Decades of pro-car transport and land use planning have led to some of our major cities becoming the most car-dependent in Europe.

The rise of the car has run virtually in parallel with the decline of travel on foot and by bicycle. In 1949, 14.7 billion miles were ridden by bicycle in the UK, compared to 3.1 billion in 2011. Walking charity Living Streets reports that while 70 per cent of primary school children in the 1970s walked to school, only 48% do so today.  While walking and cycling have declined since 1995/96, the national car fleet has increased dramatically. Between 1995 and 2012 (with the exception of the recession of 2008-9) annual growth in licensed vehicles averaged around 680,000 per year.

Climate change, traffic congestion, air pollution, and a burgeoning obesity epidemic together make a compelling case to reverse these trends. The good news is that there is potential for change.  Many car journeys are very short. If our roads and streets were more conducive to walking and cycling, a large proportion of these trips could be made by non-motorised means.

Positive shifts

There have been some positive policy shifts towards active travel as part of a more sustainable approach to place-making over the last decade or so. 

DfT’s Manual for Streets and other guidance have helped to challenge traditional car-centred approaches to highway engineering and street design.  Most UK towns and cities are now making efforts to develop better cycling networks, albeit with varying success.  The UK Government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (for England) and Transport for London’s Healthy Streets Plan seek to make streets healthier, safer and more welcoming through providing more space for active modes and planning new developments where people can walk or cycle to local shops, schools and workplaces.

In Wales, the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 places a legal duty upon local authorities to develop and continuously improve walking and cycling routes.  Cycling is also becoming more popular. In Cardiff, where I work for the Council as a transport planner, and commute daily by bicycle, the share of trips to work by cycling has increased from 4.3% in 2005 to around 10% today.

Importance of safety

Data shows that nearly a third of Cardiff residents who don’t cycle would like to, but would only consider doing so if routes are made safer.

The benefits of fully segregated cycle routes are demonstrated by the huge success of the cycle superhighway routes in London. I experienced some of these routes on a ride in London’s evening rush hour back in April. The London example and the traffic free sections of the National Cycle Network show that when sufficient space is dedicated for cyclists safely away from vehicles, people will use it in great numbers.

Campaign groups point out the under-investment in active travel modes in the UK - around £1.38 per head on cycling outside London according to Cycling UK - in comparison with other European countries where annual per capita investment in cycling alone is typically around or above £20.

Using space differently

Achieving a major shift to active modes will not only require a significant boost in budgets. A ‘step change’ in the way we use space is also needed. The fact remains that we are still dedicating a huge amount of road space and valuable development land to cars whether they are moving or doing nothing.

This space is invariably provided at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. Narrow cycle lanes and long waiting times for pedestrians at signal crossings show that maintaining road-carrying capacity and minimising traffic queues are still priorities. Parked cars continue to clog up the social space of neighbourhoods. And, few housing developments have been designed to integrate well with residents’ surrounding active travel networks.

This is in spite of the fact that active modes of transport are hugely space efficient. Pedestrians and cyclists take up far less street space than motorised vehicles. For example, every standard car parking space provides the storage capacity for up to 12 cycles.

Active modes can also win on convenience. A three-mile journey can be cycled within about 20 minutes at a fairly comfortable pace, making it competitive with the car, particularly during traffic congestion. A car may get you to some places faster but once you’ve arrived, finding parking space can be a chore and add valuable time to a journey.

Time to get active

Addressing these issues and providing space for active travel require a collaborative approach. All built environment professionals – developers, planners, transport planners, traffic engineers, designers and architects – have a part to play in creating a public realm conducive to travel by active modes. Success will be achieved through the aggregate of many small improvements – and some bolder leaps to effect change on a larger scale. 

Political vision and a willingness to take tough decisions on space allocation will be crucial to support these efforts. But change will not happen unless built environment professionals and the development industry as a whole make the creation of active travel-friendly places a priority and a common cause. 

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own personal views. Nor do they necessarily represent the views of the RTPI.

Matt Price

Matt Price

Matt Price MRTPI is Land Use Transport Planner with Cardiff Council and a member of the RTPI Cymru Policy and Research Forum.