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Taking Grant Shapps’ walking and cycling targets seriously

Phil Goodwin
19 February 2021

Earlier this month the secretary of state for transport announced: “We want 50 per cent of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030.” 

This was in response to a question by Labour MP Lillian Greenwood (former chair of the House of Commons transport committee): it was clearly a prepared answer, not an off-the-cuff ramble. It must have been subject to prior discussion both politically and with civil servants. The MP’s All Party Cycling Group has published a film of the interview. It was consistent, though with more detail, with his introduction to the Government’s Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge, where he wrote: “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network”. 

Both statements were noticed, but I have to say that the response has been – how shall I put it – rather restrained. Those who have campaigned for such a commitment for decades, in general, responded by a rather dry ‘if only’. Some were really very irritated, pointing out, with some justice, that such statements were difficult to take seriously when by far the largest part of the transport budget was directed at providing for an increase in car traffic, not a reduction in it, and the spending on local improvements to walking, cycling and public transport were typically measured in £millions, not £ billions. (Not everybody in the media seems to realise that a billion is a thousand times larger than a million). The motoring interests showed not the slightest sign that this might imply a reduction in the scale of their industry. In both cases, the statements had little or no traction in the general population, or in the news media, after a day or two. 

But I think this is completely the wrong reaction. The proper reaction is to take the statements seriously. By that I do not mean we should necessarily believe them, take them at face value, assume we are on track to achieving them, or take on trust that the statements, having been made, will be inevitably followed by policies calculated to achieve them. 

Rather, ‘taking seriously’ is a matter of intellectual respect for professional practice. It means identifying the orders of magnitude of change they would imply, an initial assessment of their fundamental credibility, and then the application of all the professional skills of demand analysis, modelling, marketing, policy coherence, design, appraisal and planning – with due recognition of the current weaknesses in all those skills – that would enable us to say what would need to be done, and when, and at what cost. Some of this may be underway in private, by officials closely in touch with ministers, but some also needs to be done with transparency and sharing, especially in a context where relationships between politicians, their advisers, and science, have a background of tension. It all needs to be open to scrutiny and challenge. It needs to have momentum, to become embedded and real. 

It seems to me that the urban target of 50 per cent of trips by walking and cycling by 2030 implies an ambitious but not impossible degree of reduction in car use. The number of car trips per head nationally has been reducing anyway in the 2000s, so it would mean accelerating an existing trend, not reversing it.

So let’s start with a few recent (pre-Covid) figures. In round terms, conurbations and large cities had average shares of walking and cycling of 30 per cent, public transport trips of 15 per cent, car 54 per cent. 

Smaller towns and cities had walking and cycling shares of 29 per cent, public transport only 5 per cent, and car 63 per cent. 

London had walking and cycling of 35 per cent, public transport 27 per cent, and car 25 per cent. (I’ll ignore the smaller modes). 

It follows that to reach the targets, in each year until 2030 about three per cent of car trips in towns and cities would need to be transferred to walking and cycling.

As a first pass, therefore, it seems to me that the urban target of 50 per cent of trips by walking and cycling by 2030 implies an ambitious but not impossible degree of reduction in car use. Public transport, walking and cycling would need to be relatively more attractive than car, and with adequate capacity, and the associated increase in public transport demand, and better traffic conditions, would help to make it more acceptable.  The figures are not unprecedented. The number of car trips per head nationally has been reducing anyway in the 2000s, so it would mean accelerating an existing trend, not reversing it 

Now when considering carbon, the number of trips is not the key measure. We need to reduce car mileage as well, since the rate and effects of electrification of vehicles are not sufficient on their own to reduce carbon enough, and emissions in the early years have to be offset by proportionally greater reductions later, because of the longevity of carbon in the atmosphere. So the speed of change is crucial. 

A frequent criticism is that the aim of reducing car use by increasing walking and cycling will bear most on shorter trips, with therefore inadequate reductions in mileage. This is where the deeper commitment to ‘taking the targets seriously’ becomes important. Superficial analyses typically assume (though they rarely make this explicit) that the number and distribution of journey lengths stays constant. But entirely orthodox modelling indicates that if all travel is becoming more expensive, there will be more short trips and fewer long ones. What this should mean is that the policy interventions necessary to increase the walking share of trips will also, at the same time, increase the number of journeys to nearby destinations and reduce those to distant destinations, which can have the desired effect of reducing overall mileage more than any reduction in the number of trips – addressing the criticism above. 

Conversely, a continual reduction in the costs of car use due to electrification will work in the opposite direction, and undermine the walking and cycling targets. Road user charges on all vehicles would offset this, as well as solving other problems of revenue and congestion.

In all these cases, what happens in urban areas will interact with the travel between them, so that there will be effects on interurban traffic flows also – motorways are often located in the countryside, but the traffic on them is mostly not rural, it is generated by urban activity patterns. If the urban targets imply, and require, a prolonged reduction in car use, they will also have effects on car ownership, and effects on journey lengths. That implies also a potentially very different pattern of future traffic than has been assumed in the project appraisals based on indefinitely prolonged car traffic growth. Policies have repercussions, and they must also be considered. 

The methodology for such calculations are well enough established in any large-scale project appraisal. Walking and cycling policies are rarely given such attention. But now, I think we have to. I am aware of the policy biases that can be built into current modelling tools, and the sort of exercise I have in mind must be carried out with open acknowledgment of these dangers, and transparent methodologies designed to counter them. But if the targets for walking and cycling and public transport are to be taken seriously, it is essential to test a wide range of sensitivities and influences about the conditions necessary to achieve them, and the wider consequences of doing so. 

Translating targets for future decades into the equivalent per cent per year is important. A target for ten or 20 or thirty years ahead has no traction, as an instrument of policy, until is it expressed in terms of its year-by-year percentage change, forcing attention to the question: what is the target for this year? What is the target for next? Without that, one cannot monitor success or failure, and take decisions about change. 

My conclusion is that the walking and cycling targets are not unrealistic, and have deep ramifications. They won’t implement themselves, and they demand detailed and committed work. The status and resources available to the professionals doing that work ought to make it a key career track, and one that sees the presence of campaigners as supportive. But I would say that taking it seriously is not shown by reports on glossy paper and coloured photos, which nowadays have come to symbolise marketing rather than expertise. 

Phil Goodwin is emeritus professor of transport policy at both the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Bristol, and University College London. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com

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Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of West of England, Bristol, and emeritus professor at University College London. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com




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