Recently there has been a paradigm shift in approaches to active travel within the transport and urban planning industry. Just five years ago, cycling was still seen as a niche pursuit, often accommodated by paint on tarmac and the liberal sprinkling of ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs across the nation, while walking was considered something one did from the door to the car.
With growing awareness of active travel’s myriad benefits for air quality, public health, reducing congestion and building sustainable, sociable communities, efforts to grow cycling and walking levels are increasing. This commitment is outlined at both the policy level, including the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, with a £1.2bn funding plan announced by the government last week. Central to this new momentum is the aspiration for cycling and walking to contribute to meeting environmental targets, building better places and supporting wider lifestyle agenda, such as Transport for London’s Healthy Streets for London programme.
To be attractive, cycling must be seen as accessible, safe, convenient and direct. Walking needs to be an attractive prospect; a walk in the park rather than a mad dash across a multi-lane A-road.
In response, flagship cycle infrastructure is being built to facilitate growth. This includes segregated schemes such as London’s cycle superhighways and routes delivered through Cycle City Ambition Grants, such as Manchester’s Wilmslow Road Corridor and the Leeds - Bradford CityConnect project. Elsewhere, urban design has started to generate the kinds of places where pedestrians and cyclists are top, rather than bottom, of the road hierarchy.
With growing recognition that active travel is to be encouraged, designed for and welcomed alongside other types of infrastructure, there remains a question about how best its use can be supported. How can the UK overcome years of motorcar dominance in transport habits and planning and how do we encourage more people to pedal or walk their way around town?
Safety remains the primary concern as to why people don’t cycle (1). This perception is what really matters. The idea of walking down a narrow pavement next to hurtling HGVs or cycling in a bus lane among 13-tonne buses does not appeal to most people, especially children, the elderly and less confident cyclists - demographics that need to be tapped to grow active travel. The perceived threat is corroborated by evidence, with comparable data from the DfT and the Dutch National Scientific Institute for Road Safety Research showing that fatalities per billion km cycled are twice as high in the UK compared to the Netherlands.
Infrastructure accounts for a lot of the challenges, but is also an important part of the solution. Building safe and attractive places for cycling through segregation or reduced traffic and providing pedestrian-friendly spaces will help address some of the factors that discourage active travel. However, this alone is unlikely to provide the transformational change desired. To do this, reasons that stop people from actively travelling will need to be overcome.
Unfamiliarity and low confidence are reasons why more people do not choose to walk or cycle. After 50 years of car-centric design, people are often unaware that active travel is a feasible option. Over a quarter of adults haven’t cycled since they were children (28%) and 47% have not ridden a bicycle in the past six years (2).
However, there are ways to change these types of behaviours. The traditional view is that interventions that adjust behaviour work best when there are external drivers, such as moving house or workplace. The provision of cycle infrastructure does not have as much impact as these life events in providing impetus to change (3). Incentives can help: free bus tickets have encouraged people to try out new routes for their commute.
While ‘Cyclists Dismount’ remains a sign in the latest revision of Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, any continued widespread use should be seen as a sign of failure
Personal Travel Planning and Smarter Choices schemes across the country have led to statistically significant shifts in travel behaviour (4). However, with no tickets required for walking or cycling, further options will need to be considered.
What other incentives are there? If GPs can prescribe gym membership for their patients, is there perhaps scope for prescribed cycle commuting or supported walking as well? Similarly, authorities have been loaning pool bikes to businesses so that workers can trial commuting by bicycle, often alongside free access to cycle training and led cycle rides for boosting confidence. Could these types of initiatives work together perhaps?
An integrated approach to public health and transport provision offers significant gains through synthesis as opposed to separate, disparate strategies. For success, this approach will require aligned goals and agreed indicators for success. However, support from public health bodies and doctors might open up new funding streams for active travel interventions, perhaps offering a more consistent and higher level of funding (5).
A key aspect in deciding travel behaviour remains that of societal norms; cyclists remain an ‘out-group’. Popular depictions of them in hi-vis jackets and helmets discourage non–cyclists because they don’t have, or wouldn’t wear, what cyclists wear - it distances them from the idea. For most of the country, we remain far from the everyday cycling culture.
Again, however, change is afoot. Even on the literature used to promote cycling, increasingly people are depicted in everyday wear on everyday bikes rather than lycra-clad racers or luminous highlighters. Using women with bicycle baskets or kids going to school normalises the action as they’re ‘just like me’. Furthermore, it suggests that maybe you needn’t worry about showering and ironing your shirts at your destination as you won’t be travelling at high speeds or sweating with panic on busy roads.
While ‘Cyclists Dismount’ remains a sign in the latest revision of Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, any continued widespread use should be seen as a sign of failure. Quality, continuous and cohesive infrastructure is the starting point, however this needs support from sustained interventions encouraging behavioural change and the social normalisation of active modes. This approach, together with places that embed and support active travel, will enable towns and cities across the country to reap the benefits: clean air, healthier people and increased mobility.
Chris Allan is a consultant at AECOM
Meet Chris and the AECOM team at Cycle City Active City
1 Fear remains the principle cause for people not cycling. See, for example, TfL, Attitudes Towards Cycling, (2011)
2 Survey data from 2014, although it should be borne in mind that it was commissioned by a bicycle manufacturer.
3 Chatterjee, K., Sherwin, H. & Jain, J., ‘Triggers for changes in cycling: the role of life events and modifications to the external environment’, Journal of Transport Geography, 30 (2013), pp183 - 193.
4 DfT, ‘Soft Measures - Hard Facts’ (2011) for example, found that there was a reduction in Single Occupancy Vehicle Use under such schemes of 16%, with BCRs ranging from 3,5:1 to 13:1. Similarly School Travel Plans encouraging walking and cycling resulted in an 8 - 15% reduction in car use.
5 Aldred, R., ‘Cycling and Society’, Journal of Transport Geography, 30 (2013), pp.180 - 182.
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