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Cycling represents low-cost, high-impact solutions for the new government

The new Labour government can cost-effectively alleviate the economic, environmental and public health problems the nation faces by investing more in active travel, writes Cycling UK’s Sarah McMonagle

10 July 2024
Sarah McMonagle: A proper investment package for cycling and walking represents a pathway to real change that won’t stretch the public purse a
Sarah McMonagle: A proper investment package for cycling and walking represents a pathway to real change that won’t stretch the public purse a

After 14 years in opposition, spirits will be riding high in the Labour camp following their landslide win – but Prime Minister Keir Starmer’s self-professed grown-up and responsible government won’t spend too long celebrating knowing the daunting reality that faces them. Not since the Second World War has an incoming government inherited such a challenging economic situation. But there is a pathway to real change that won’t stretch the public purse and that some might find surprising: a proper investment package for cycling and walking.  

We all understand that turning the metaphorical ship around is going to take years, which is why Starmer has carefully managed expectations throughout his campaign – talking about “a decade of national renewal”. 

With the new Chancellor Rachel Reeves further emphasising the poor state of our public finances, we need to ensure that every pound we invest is invested in the best possible way that maximises return. Earlier this year, independent research from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) rightly called for the next government to invest at least 10% of the total transport budget in active travel. This wasn’t because people living across the UK widely support cycling, which they do, but because it benefits our economy, public health and environment in a big way.  

People often recognise the environmental and health benefits from getting more people walking and cycling. However, they don’t always appreciate that enabling more people to get to and from their high street on foot or by bike also has huge benefits for the local economy.

The IPPR found that for every £1 invested in cycling and walking, £5.62 is delivered in wider benefits – and that’s compared with a paltry £2.50 for every £1 invested in roads. That’s a seismic return on investment that stands to strengthen local businesses.

What’s also less well recognised is the potential of walking and cycling to take pressure off the NHS – another key Labour mission. IPPR’s research found that investing in active travel would save the NHS a whopping £17bn over 20 years – one of the most cost effective and impactful health interventions a government can make. 

Labour’s manifesto also highlighted how the climate and nature crisis is the greatest long-term global challenge we face. Given that the transport sector is the biggest carbon emitter in the UK, the Labour government must take bold action and build infrastructure that provides people with more options to travel more sustainably. The Department for Transport itself says that modal shift to active travel is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing transport emissions. 

With the weight of the public’s expectation for real change, investment in cycling infrastructure could start reaping benefits for the new government in months, rather than years. That’s because unlike most major transport projects, local cycling infrastructure schemes are comparatively ‘shovel ready’. With local support, these sorts of projects won’t get caught up in the planning system for years and years like new rail and road projects.

Additionally, channelling more of the transport budget into local infrastructure projects can make them more pleasant places to live, work and spend time in. 

With Labour’s large majority, there’s undoubtedly pressure to prove that they can create lasting, positive change - but the good news is that well-researched solutions exist. That’s why we’re calling on the new Labour government to be the first UK government to fully unleash the huge potential that cycling and walking infrastructure offers. With bold political leadership, more investment in active travel can quickly help us to tackle the economic, environmental and public health challenges we face.  

Sarah McMonagle is Director of External Affairs at Cycling UK

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