Sustrans Cymru’s Lee Waters writes about the Welsh government’s plans to place a legal duty on councils to provide a network of routes for ‘active travel’.
If local councils are expected to provide a network of roads for cars, why not a network of routes for people to walk and cycle?
That was the initial thought that sparked the campaign which yesterday saw the Welsh government announce plans to make Wales the first country in the world to place a legal duty on councils to provide a network of routes for ‘active travel’.
Like other parts of the UK, the provision of cycle paths and walking routes in Wales is patchy. Too often paths are built that do not link up, are poorly designed and are not well maintained. We’ve all seen random pieces of coloured tarmac that stop leaving cyclists marooned in traffic. No wonder studies find people regard cycling as eccentric – who would choose to do such a thing under current conditions?
A major research project led by Lancaster University last year showed that habits, working patterns and current road conditions put people off getting on a bike, but a package of measures to make cycling easier and more attractive has the potential to reverse the long term decline. This is reinforced by surveys showing as many as 65 per cent of people who don’t cycle would be more likely to if streets were made safer.
Using new law-making powers acquired in last year’s referendum, the Welsh government has set out an ambitious plan to require local authorities to map out a network of integrated routes with the view to enabling more people to make everyday journeys by bike or on foot. Councils will then have a ‘duty of continuous improvement’ to make the plans a reality over time.
In his foreword to the white paper (pdf), Welsh transport Minister Carl Sargeant says:
“This bill is not a short term fix. This is aiming to shift attitudes and change minds so that we all think about travel in a different way. This bill is starting a long term programme to continually improve the provision for walking and cycling.”
• Our outdated transport system is running on empty 17 Nov 2011
As the bill’s ‘active travel’ title suggests, the proposal is as much about health policy as it is about transport. The NHS in Wales spends £1m every week treating obesity-related illness.
As some of the country’s leading health experts said in an open letter to the newspapers this morning:
“Physical inactivity and sedentary living are among the leading causes of chronic disease, ill-health and death in Wales.
“Obesity amongst children and adults in Wales has increased to an extraordinarily high level and, as a consequence, we are beginning to experience an epidemic of type 2 diabetes and other conditions related to this weight gain and sedentary living. These conditions have an enormous personal and financial cost but they are largely preventable if people change their behaviour and take every opportunity they can to be physically active.”
To reverse the infamous entry into the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘For England, see Wales’.
There’s no doubting the potential is there. UK-wide statistics show more than half of all car journeys are less than five miles, and 20% are less than two miles, distances that could easily be covered on foot or by bike. With families struggling with the costs of running a car and prices at the petrol pumps set to rise even higher, how can we make ‘active travel’ a viable option for more people?
We need to approach the problem from the point of view of an unaccompanied 12-year-old child. What make them and their parents confident to cycle on their everyday journey?
The Lancaster University research points to some of the things that can be done:
• Fully segregated cycle and pedestrian routes wherever possible;
• Restrictions on traffic speeds and parking provision;
• A change in legal liabilities on roads to protect the most vulnerable road users;
• Changes to structure of cities to make accessing services on foot or by bike easy;
• Changes to give people more flexibility to travel more slowly (for example, flexi hours);
• A change the image of cycling and walking.
They are all doable.
The forthcoming Active Travel (Wales) Bill will not be a panacea. Its vision is an ambitious one which will require considerable resources and political will to implement over a generation. The combined pressure of rising petrol prices, climate change and an obesity epidemic means it is a vision worth striving towards across the UK.