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‘The case for investing in active travel is stronger than ever’

Sustrans CEO Xavier Brice talks to Deniz Huseyin about transforming the National Cycle Network, releasing the UK’s biggest public attitudes survey to active travel and why he thinks that positive change is coming no matter who wins the General Election

Deniz Huseyin
07 March 2024
Xavier Brice: We’ve got to give people the choice to get out of their cars. Unfortunately, A Plan for Drivers isn’t going to do that
Xavier Brice: We’ve got to give people the choice to get out of their cars. Unfortunately, A Plan for Drivers isn’t going to do that
Over 1,400 barriers have so far been redesigned or removed from the National Cycle Network
Over 1,400 barriers have so far been redesigned or removed from the National Cycle Network
Sustrans has worked with over 300 schools across 31 boroughs to implement School Streets
Sustrans has worked with over 300 schools across 31 boroughs to implement School Streets

 

Despite shrinking active travel budgets, the ‘culture wars’ backlash to schemes challenging the dominance of the car and the Government’s Plan for Drivers, Sustrans chief executive Xavier Brice thinks that positive change is inevitable.

He took the top job at the walking, wheeling and cycling charity in 2016, and believes good progress has been made since then.

“I think we’re in a much better position than we were eight years ago across the UK,” he told me. “In terms of sustainable transport and active travel, there are challenges, but when you look at the way things are heading it is definitely getting better.”

Before arriving at Sustrans, Brice spent ten years in various transport roles in the capital, both in the Mayor’s office and at Transport for London (TfL), which included working on the Walking & Cycling Strategy.

“When I started at Sustrans, people [outside the capital] would say, ‘well that’s all very well but we’re not London’. And then later, I was told, ‘that’s great but we’re not Manchester’. And then it was, ‘yes, yes, but we’re not Glasgow’.”

Public support for people-friendly streets is actually growing, Brice maintains. “It can be easy to get disheartened. It doesn’t always feel like it, but change is happening - just look, for example, where Birmingham is now compared to where it was eight years ago. Birmingham’s reputation as Britain’s motor city is no longer accurate.”

Brice expects the run-up to the General Election to be a “strange time” overshadowed by uncertainty and constrained public finances. “But what is absolutely clear is that whoever is in charge after the next election, they will have to address massive public health issues.

“That means facing up to a root cause, which means largely getting people more active.

“And, besides that, we’ve got to reach net zero, sort out air quality in our cities, and make it cheaper for people to get around.” There is also growing evidence of the mental health benefits of being able to actively get around in green, people-friendly spaces. When all these myriad factors are considered together, “the case for investing in active travel is stronger than ever”.

Brice was vocal, with other members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance, on the missed opportunity of the proposed Plan for Drivers, the Government policy paper published on the first day of the Conservative Party conference last September. As well as expressing support for the interests and rights of car users, the paper sets out detailed new approaches on a range of subjects, including local traffic management, parking and moving traffic enforcement and penalties. The Government also pledged to carry out a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

“We’ve got to give people the choice to get out of their cars. Unfortunately, A Plan for Drivers isn’t going to do that,” says Brice. “The political challenge is how you get individuals to change their behaviour, and this requires making some things harder to do and some things easier to do. And that’s always really hard politically.

“One of the challenges for a charity like Sustrans is how we remain true to our values, get our message across and help bring about positive change without causing greater polarisation and division.”

He adds: “Sustrans has been around for almost 50 years, and we’ve worked with a range of different governments, and we’ll continue to work with any government that’s in power.”

Sustrans is working with Transport Scotland to administer active travel projects. “There is significant investment in Scotland, and we’re also seeing significant investment at combined authorities across the UK,” says Brice. “I think we’re likely to see, whoever’s in power, more devolution of funding to city regions and local authorities around transport and more freedom on how they spend that.”

The charity has also forged strong ties with Active Travel England (ATE), supporting its work with local authorities. This has involved directly sharing knowledge and skills for designing active travel interventions. “Today, we continue to support ATE in developing opportunities with local authorities to make cities and towns across England become more accessible for walking, wheeling and cycling,” says Brice.

Improving the National Cycle Network

One of Sustrans’ core initiatives is an ambitious programme to transform the National Cycle Network (NCN). Launched in 1995, the network consists of around 13,000 miles of signed paths and routes for walking, wheeling, cycling across the UK. Sustrans is ‘custodian’ of the network, owning just 500 miles of it, with the rest in the hands of landowners including Network Rail, Highways England, the National Trust, the Forestry Commission, the Canal and River Trust, local authorities and private interests.

Sustrans has been working to make the NCN safer and more accessible for everyone.

Since 2019 the charity has completed 53 activation projects, which are among 297 planned Network Improvement projects. Over 1,400 barriers have so far been redesigned or removed from the National Cycle Network since the 2015 audit.

A study (Access Control Removal Research) carried out by the charity in London showed that the removal of barriers resulted in a 42% increase in cyclists, a 51% increase in buggy users, and a 10% increase in pedestrians.

Sustrans has been developing its Master Plan, based on a mapped database of proposals for improving the NCN and extending it where necessary. “This will deliver better active travel connectivity between major UK settlements of 10,000 residents, and working with strategic partners to make walking, wheeling and cycling easier for all,” explains Brice.

“How this will look, especially in terms of length on the NCN, is being developed currently, and the plan and systems we have developed enable us to work with others to prioritise investment in the network.”

This will ensure Sustrans gets the best return on investment through an informed combination of upgrading current paths, reinstating previously removed or reclassified paths, and creating new paths, he says. “We intend to do all of this by aligning our vision with our stakeholders and we have the ability to do this by sharing ideas directly within our mapping system.

“Our Stage 2 Network Development Plans were recently completed. Currently, if every one of our plans came to fruition then the network could grow to about 17,000 miles, but the point is not just about miles, it’s also about connectivity, usefulness and access for people.”

Walking and Cycling Index

Since 2014 Sustrans has been releasing its Walking and Cycling Index every two years. The report, which currently covers 23 urban areas in the UK and Ireland, includes local walking and cycling data, modelling and an independent survey representative of adult residents.

The next Index is due to be published on 27 March.

“It is the single largest survey of its kind,” said Brice. “As well as being an attitudinal survey of walking and cycling, it increasingly also contains objective quantitative data on what’s happening in cities. As part of that, we’ve published an index data tool, which is an interactive tool for local authorities and policymakers to be able to access the data from the last two sets of reports, including data that we didn’t publish at the time.”

According to the last walking and cycling index, published in 2022, 56% of city dwellers said they wanted more investment in walking compared with 32% for driving. “These people aren’t supporters [of Sustrans] – they are a demographically representative cross-section of people living in these cities.”

Brice thinks the much-publicised opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Oxford does not reflect the views of the majority of local people. “When you look at what’s actually happening on the ground, survey after survey shows that, in general, most people are supportive.”

Building the foundations for School Streets

Since 2019, Sustrans’ School Streets programme has been tackling the congestion, poor air quality and road safety concerns that many schools experience. “School Streets do this by restricting motor traffic at the school gates for a short period of time, generally at drop-off and pick-up times,” explains chief executive Xavier Brice.

Sustrans supports schools and local authorities by developing policies including feasibility studies, sharing design guidance, behaviour change activities, setting up ways to monitor the impact a project has, and trialling and implementing School Streets.

Sustrans has supported more than 700 schools across the UK. “Our involvement most often includes advising, delivery, design, engagement, monitoring, and behaviour change activities,” says Brice.

There are more than 500 live school streets across the UK that have benefitted from Sustrans support, he points out.

“In London, Sustrans colleagues have worked with over 300 schools across 31 boroughs. Sustrans has partnered with 80 authorities to support School Street schemes.”

A £100m enterprise with nearly 800 staff - but a charity, not a business, says Brice

Back in 2016, when Xavier Brice became head of Sustrans, the charity had just shed a quarter of its workforce in response to a significant drop in Government funding for active travel.

Since then, the workforce has gone back up from 511 to around 800, and as the charity responds to fluctuating funding, employee numbers have shrunk [by 5%] in this financial year.

Sustrans had a total income of £112.5m in 2022/23 and one of its major funding sources was the £64m it received from Transport Scotland for contractual activities. It received £27m similarly from the DfT.

The scale of the organisation has meant that a new Chief Operating Officer, Matt Winfield, was appointed last year.

“We’re not in the business of making a profit,” Brice points out. “Lots of people come to work for us at a fairly early career stage and sometimes go on to work at consultancies and local authorities, or contributing what they’ve learned to other charities in the sector. You could argue that it’s actually part of our charitable mission.

“That is part of what we’re doing in terms of helping spread knowledge, spread expertise, and build capability in active travel across the country. In a way we’ve gone back to our roots – to deliver and show what works.”

Brice rejects the suggestion that Sustrans has become a de facto consultancy: “I heard that when I first started at Sustrans, and yes, it’s still said now. What’s changed since 2016 is how much the market for active travel (a term rarely used eight years ago) has grown, and the depth and breadth of capability is also growing, in the public and private sectors. Across the UK the state is more serious about active travel, with Transport for Wales, Transport Scotland or the setting up of Active Travel England.

“Of course, we aren’t the state, we are a charity. We wholeheartedly welcome the greater role the state is playing to raise standards and improve delivery of the greater levels of investment.”

As a charity, Sustrans does not exist to make money, says Brice. “Our sole purpose is to deliver impact against our mission to make it easy for everyone to walk, cycle and wheel.

“For all the recent progress there’s still a long way to go to achieve that. But as the market continues to develop and mature our role will – and is – changing to ensure we keep delivering impact. We are developing Sustrans’ new strategy for 2025-30, and that question of distinctive impact will be our north star through that development process.”

The road to Sustrans

Before joining Sustrans, Xavier Brice spent ten years in various transport roles in the capital, both in the Mayor’s office and at TfL. He was head of the ‘fit for the future’ stations transformation programme at TfL.

Prior to that, from 2008 to 2010, Brice was advisor to the London Mayor’s director of transport policy. He was also principal in London Transport commissioner Sir Peter Hendy’s policy unit from 2006 to 2008, during which time he developed a new cycling strategy for the capital, which was adopted by the incoming Mayor Boris Johnson.

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