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Gear Change strategy puts walking and cycling centre stage

GPs will be able to prescribe cycling, cycle training will be expanded and new Active Travel Commissioner will oversee delivery of quality infrastructure

Mark Moran
28 July 2020
Key design principles - Gear Change
Key design principles - Gear Change
PM Boris Johnson
PM Boris Johnson


Thousands of miles of new protected bike lanes, an expansion of cycle training and making bikes available on prescription are key features of plans to overhaul cycling and walking in England launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The new Gear Change strategy also features plans create a new Active Travel Commissioner, give local people more of a voice in planning schemes and an ambition to launch a ‘zero-emission transport city’.

The launch of the Gear Change strategy comes a day after the government launched its obesity strategy. New Public Health England research found that being overweight or obese puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Government statistics reveal that nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care units with the virus have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.

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The PM argues that tackling the causes of ill health, not just the symptoms, is vital to help reduce demand on the NHS, and taking up cycling has been proven to offer huge benefits for people’s physical and mental health. The new plan aims to build on the significant increase in the number of people cycling during the pandemic. It sets out a comprehensive, long-term vision to increase active travel and embed the benefits of walking and cycling into daily life.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “From helping people get fit and healthy and lowering their risk of illness, to improving air quality and cutting congestion, cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling some of the biggest health and environmental challenges that we face.

“But to build a healthier, more active nation, we need the right infrastructure, training and support in place to give people the confidence to travel on two wheels. That’s why now is the time to shift gears and press ahead with our biggest and boldest plans yet to boost active travel – so that everyone can feel the transformative benefits of cycling.”

The cycling plans will be funded by a previously announced £2bn in new funding over five years, with a pledge of longer-term money.

Bikes will be made available on the NHS as part of the strategy. GPs in areas of England with poor health will be encouraged to prescribe cycling, with patients able to access bikes through their local surgery.

The strategy launch comes alongside the initial release of £50 bike repair vouchers on 28 July to encourage more people to enjoy the benefits of active travel. The first tranche of 50,000 vouchers will be made available online on a first-come, first-served basis.

To encourage people to continue to take up cycling, cycle training will be made available for every child and adult who wants it, accessible through schools, local authorities or direct from cycle training schemes.

Commitments in the plan include:

  • Transforming infrastructure through building thousands of miles of protected cycle routes in towns and cities; setting higher standards for cycling infrastructure, to be overseen by a new inspectorate; and improving the National Cycle Network
  • Boosting investment by creating a long term cycling programme and budget to ensure a guaranteed pipeline of funding
  • Making streets safer by consulting to strengthen the Highway Code to better protect pedestrians and cyclists; improving legal protections for vulnerable road users; raising safety standards on lorries; and working with the police and retailers to tackle bike theft
  • Supporting local authorities by empowering them to crack down on traffic offences; and consulting to increase metro mayors’ powers over key road networks
  • Improving air quality and reducing traffic by creating more low traffic neighbourhoods to reduce rat running, including by consulting on communities’ right to close side streets; putting in place more ‘School Streets’ to reduce traffic by schools; intensive funding of 12 new areas to become more cycle friendly, known as ‘Mini-Hollands’; and creating at least one zero-emission transport city centre
  • Helping people live healthier lives by piloting a new approach in selected places with poor health rates to encourage GPs to prescribe cycling, with patients able to access bikes through their local surgery
  • Increasing access to e-bikes by setting up a new national e-bike programme, to help those who are older, have to travel long distances or are less fit to take up cycling.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We’ve got a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a shift in attitudes for generations to come, and get more people choosing to cycle or walk as part of their daily routine. The measures we’ve set out today in this revolutionary plan will do just that. No matter your age, how far you’re travelling, or your current confidence on a bike – there are plans to help and support you.

“By helping to fix your bike – or get an electrically powered one; by increasing storage space at stations, on trains and buses; and by introducing more ways to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe, we’re making it easier than ever to make active travel part of your daily life, and leading England to become a great cycling nation.”

Councils will be prevented from building sub-standard cycle by a new inspectorate called Active Travel England. The watchdog, to be led by a yet-to-be-appointed commissioner for walking and cycling, will be able to refuse funding for ‘paint-only’ bike lanes – those without physical barriers or protection from cars – or routes where cyclists and pedestrians have to share space. The commissioner could also cut budgets in other areas for highways departments that fail to deliver on active transport.

At a local level, residents will be given a chance to choose whether or not residential side streets should be closed to through motor vehicles to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists. These plans will be put out for consultation.

Another proposal could see some main roads, such as those in cities, kept as through-routes for pedestrians, cyclists and buses, with other motor traffic allowed access only.

New standards for cycling and walking routes are spelled out in updated official guidance. The proposals include more cycle racks at stations and other transport hubs, as well as in town and city centres, and for protected bike hangars allowing safe storage for people who cannot keep a bike at home.

The new standards will be overseen by the new inspectorate, Active Travel England, which will be responsible for the cycling budget and help make sure schemes are compliant with the new standards.

The principal authors of the Cycle Infrastructure Design guidance are transport consultants Phil Jones and Adrian Lord. In the foreword to Cycle Infrastructure Guidance, cycling and walking minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP writes: “Too much cycling infrastructure is substandard, providing little protection from motorised traffic and giving up at the very places it is most needed. Some is actually worse than nothing, because it entices novice cyclists with the promise of protection, then abandons them at the most important places.”

There will also be a strengthening the Highway Code to protect pedestrians and cyclists, giving councils new powers to tackle traffic offences, and pilot schemes for local authorities to give contracts in areas such as waste disposal to cycle freight companies.

So that more people can make cycling part of their commute or daily routine, more cycle racks will be installed at transport hubs, town and city centres and public buildings, and funding will go towards new bike hangars and on street storage for people who don’t have space to keep a bike at home.
There will also be grants to help people with the cost of electric-assist bikes, which can encourage cycling, particularly on longer or hilly commutes. However, it has not yet been specified how much assistance might be offered.

Reactions to Gear Change

Kerry McCarthy, Labour shadow cycling minister said that the Conservative party had failed to seize the opportunity the pandemic presented. He said: “Although funding is welcome, cyclists will be rightly concerned about how long it is going to take to actually put these plans into practice."

Matt Mallinder, director of influence and engagement at the campaign group Cycling UK, called the plan comprehensive and far reaching, but was concerned about the levels of funding. “To truly shift gears so that everyone can feel the transformative benefits of cycling the £2bn of funding already announced will not be enough,” he said. “However, with a forthcoming spending review, now’s the time for the chancellor to invest in the future and make the Prime Minister’s vision of a golden age of cycling come true.”

Xavier Brice, chief executive of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans, said the announcement marks a big step forward. “By helping more people to leave the car at home for shorter journeys, this package of measures will cut pollution, tackle the causes of poor health, and improve the safety of our streets. As custodians of the National Cycle Network, we hugely welcome the initial commitment to long-term funding and support for the UK’s national network of cycling and walking paths.”

Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “We welcome this ambitious plan and the Government’s commitment to significantly improve walking and cycling for people across England. The plans contain many of the things we have been calling for and we are particularly pleased to see active travel put at the heart of the planning process. Making roads better for cycling, with more dedicated road space and long-term funding, will help to encourage more people to take to two wheels. Good quality infrastructure, that integrates with other forms of public transport, will help to lock in the changes we’ve begun to see to travel patterns in recent months and ensure sustainable options are more widely available.

“Empowering local authorities to deliver improvements to local cycling and walking facilities by providing the support they need to build capacity and capability is key to delivering the Government’s vision, so we are pleased to see this acknowledged within the plans. A national scheme to support people to buy an e-bike is a welcome move which should help overcome some of the barriers that currently exist to a wider uptake of cycling, especially for longer journeys.”

British Cycling’s policy adviser Chris Boardman, who is also Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling commissioner, said: “There's a quarter of households in Britain who don't have access to a car at all and we've got public transport operating at 30%, so 70% of people have got to find another way to travel or not go to work. This can be not only provision for people who don't have a car now, it's a consultation for the future.

“The Prime Minister promised back in May that Britain was about to enter a golden age for cycling, and the package of measures announced today shows exactly the level of ambition required to transform the country. Recent trials with temporary bike lanes show that now, more than ever, we need to hear from those saying yes to safer, healthier and cleaner streets, and less from those standing in the way.”

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region, welcomed the announcement: “It has been my long-held belief that we need to do more to both improve and enable active travel and invest in the health, happiness and wellbeing of our people. That’s why in 2018 I put active travel at the heart of my transport vision, and last year, I appointed Dame Sarah Storey as my active travel Commissioner. I also ensured that we invested more than half of the £166m of Transforming Cities Funding in improving walking and cycling infrastructure across South Yorkshire.”

Dame Sarah Storey, Active Travel Commissioner for the Sheffield City Region, added: “I welcome the new momentum from the government announcement, and we’re poised to deliver a network of active travel routes and neighbourhoods that will allow the transformation of South Yorkshire. It has taken the tragic consequences of a global pandemic to illustrate exactly how increased levels of active travel can benefit us all and highlight that we simply cannot afford to ignore its benefits, for our communities now and the next generation.

“It’s heartening to see that the Prime Minister has listened to our calls of seriously considering the benefits of walking and cycling as part of the easing of lockdown, after Mayor Dan Jarvis and I wrote to him in May. Last month, we published our 2040 plan for more than 1100 km of high-quality active travel routes. This was a milestone that reinforced the cooperation and determination of all local authorities and partner organisations, to deliver the changes that the Prime Minister’s announcement now sets out. Building activity back into people’s lives won’t just ensure they are less likely to suffer ill-health, but it will also create a stronger and more resilient workforce with higher levels of productivity, which could strengthen and protect the country for years and decades to come.”

From the world of motoring, the RAC's head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “We particularly welcome measures to increase the number of segregated cycle ways to encourage more people on to two wheels while at the same time protecting them as some of the most vulnerable road users. We hope these improvements will make a positive difference in terms of cutting congestion and improving air quality.

“We are also broadly supportive of the proposed Highway Code changes, but we do have some questions over the practicalities of the right-of-way advisory changes – but this is purely from the perspective of ensuring the safety of all road users – cyclists and pedestrians included, and not just drivers.”

The head of the other major UK motoring association, AA president Edmund King has welcomed the government’s plans. “As a third of drivers said they would cycle, walk or run more after lockdown these proposals should be broadly welcomed to improve safety for all road users,” he said. “The Boris Cycling plan advocates ‘bikeability’. Getting road space balance for all forms of travel is essential so that deliveries, emergency services, disabled drivers, shoppers and buses are not hindered from conducting their crucial roles as well as promoting active travel.”

Speaking for the freight sector, Natalie Chapman, Head of Urban Policy at Logistics UK (formerly FTA), said: “The Government’s plans present an opportunity to make cycling a more attractive option for private road users, however Logistics UK is urging government to ensure that these plans are implemented with consideration to the needs of the logistics sector. Without deliveries, businesses in cities and towns will not receive the goods and services they need to trade and get back on their feet after the effects of the pandemic.  Any new road layouts must be planned very carefully and provide adequate access to roads and kerbsides for logistics vehicles.

“With more reallocation of road space to accommodate cyclists, it is vital that government encourages local authorities to ease restrictions around off peak and night time deliveries and schemes such as the London Lorry Control Scheme are fundamentally reviewed and reformed; this would ensure shops and businesses receive the stocks they need in order to return to full trading, as well as maximising the use of limited road space.

“Logistics UK is also pleased to see the government has taken the opportunity to provide clarity on a number of issues in the Highway Code; eliminating ambiguities will help to make the roads safer for all users. However, our members need clarity on several other elements in the government’s plans, including raising standards on lorries, legal protections, and road user hierarchies - we all need to do our part to ensure safety on our roads, but our members will require more detail on the changes to ensure the new rules work for all parties.”

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