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Prioritise diversity to create better and safer places for everyone

The needs of all must be considered before a project gets to the design stage if we are to address the inactivity crisis and support net zero ambitions, say Chloe Williams & Rob Goodall

10 July 2023
Chloe Williams
Chloe Williams
Rob Goodall
Rob Goodall

 

The Government has recently announced which councils have been successful in receiving the latest tranche of active travel funding, with the aim of enabling an additional 16 million walking and cycling trips a year in the UK.  

These new funding allocations will help deliver a shift to sustainable transport modes, aiding both the net zero target by 2050 and the current inactivity crises, estimated to cost the NHS £1bn annually.   

To secure this funding, local authorities had to demonstrate inclusive safety and accessibility throughout all proposed schemes, reflecting a rising focus on designing for people of all genders, ages, ethnicities and abilities. This is a commendable aim, and one which opens up discussions around an element of active travel design which is not yet at the heart of the planning process – that of gender equity.  

Examining the data, it becomes clear that a discussion about gender inclusivity in active travel is not before time. Currently, the highest levels of cycling in the UK are observed among white males aged between 17 and 49, with men being twice as likely to cycle to work than women. 

Research continues to indicate that women often do not feel safe when walking, wheeling or cycling[1] and often refrain from walking at night despite having less access to a car, highlighting the importance of taking a human-centric approach to the design of transport schemes and projects.

Cities around the world face similar design challenges that disproportionately impact women and must be considered to truly unlock gender equity in future active travel schemes. 

This includes inadequate lighting which can leave women feeling vulnerable at certain points of the day; poorly-designed public spaces that do not take into account the needs of the whole community; and mass transit systems, where the threat of assault or harassment can be a deterrent to use [2].  

As professionals at the heart of delivering these schemes, we need to respond to the call to focus on gender equity – not just to respond to Government aims, but more importantly to ensure we are delivering high-quality designs which are accessible to all. There are several principles we can adopt in the planning of active travel schemes to give us the best chance of achieving this. 

At Arup, we believe we must increase the diversity of the transport sector’s workforce from design to delivery and operation of all projects. Only by extending the voices represented in all consultation, decision-making and commissioning stages can the transport industry improve its evidence base for policy and decision making. 

From the conception of an active travel initiative, wide and diverse engagement with communities leads to smoother project delivery and enables local advocacy in the long-term. It will only be possible to increase the diversity of people walking, wheeling and cycling if we ensure all genders, ages and abilities are considered prior to design stages. 

By prioritising diversity from the outset, we can create better and safer places for everyone. The perception of danger remains the central reason people refrain from active travel modes in the UK. Therefore, we must create protected, liveable spaces that consider all members of all communities. 

The continued introduction of neighbourhood schemes that are focused on prioritising active travel has encouraged more people to take up walking and cycling in direct response to the streets being quieter and feeling safer, furthering our understanding around safety perceptions to deliver initiatives that work for everyone. 

There is an additional need to look beyond the commute and encourage a step-change in society’s thinking around less obvious journeys to encourage active travel uptake. Commuting to and from workplaces only accounts for 20% of all trips in the UK [3]. When designing active travel infrastructure and schemes, we must prioritise improving the liveability of neighbourhoods and connecting communities more efficiently.  

Finally, all the above points need to be supported by using inclusive language and imagery to welcome everyone who wants to cycle or learn how to. 

The economics of cycling will play an important part to the uptake and success of this. Making cycling more accessible and inclusive across a much wider demographic could be the key to finally unlocking the potential of this country to travel more actively and sustainably and achieving the UK’s decarbonisation targets. 

[1] Innovate UK (2022) Lived experiences of women and girls in relation to everyday journeys 

[2] Arup (2022) Cities Alive - Designing Cities that Work for Women  

[3] Department for Transport (2017) Transport Statistics Great Britain 2017 

Chloe Williams is Midlands Active Travel and Demand Management Lead and Rob Goodall is Global Active Travel Lead at Arup

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