And why is it good that it’s based in York?
This week, the Transport Committee, a panel of cross-party MPs, met with CEO Danny Williams and National Commissioner Chris Boardman of Active Travel England to discuss the new government agency’s role and remit. The ATE is tasked with improving cycling and walking infrastructure, managing the active travel budget for England, and enabling half of journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030.
Olympic cycling legend Chris Boardman set out the purpose of ATE at the start of the meeting with MPs from across the country, ‘The climate has changed, excuse the pun, quite dramatically over the last few years and globally people have realised that active travel is a big part of a sustainable future. 31% fewer young people are owning cars. We have a duty to ensure that people have access to cheap transport. The vast majority of journeys are less than 5 miles, round about a third are less than a mile. Now is a perfect, and important time for ATE to exist and Gear Change, the government strategy is very robust and to deliver it would mean 50% of all journeys cycled or walked by 2030.’
Government only recently established the Department for Transport (DfT) agency to oversee special funding, influence policy and planning.
CEO Danny Williams said the formation of ATE would be essential, ‘Investment in walking, wheeling and cycling in England over the last decade has been fairly hit and miss. We have an opportunity to form a centre of excellence and do things properly with a long-term plan and a robust commitment.’ He said that London, which has had sustained investment saw around a 25% increase in active travel on pre-pandemic levels, Greater Manchester around a 40% on 2015 levels.
Huw Merriman (Conservative MP for Bexhill & Battle), Chair of the committee; ‘Do you see your role as auditing other bodies and ultimately acting as a bit of a stick to make sure they deliver?’ Danny replied, ‘It’s carrot and stick, a bit of both.’ Chris joked, ‘Hit them with a big carrot.’
Asked what commitments on active travel they were hoping to see from new Prime Minister Liz Truss, Chris Boardman replied, ‘To start with, continuity. We have a robust strategy in Gear Change, the means to deliver it is in place. I spent four years working in Greater Manchester and the latter part was integrating transport. Integration is key. In terms of the product – pick a crisis, and this is the solution. Right now, it’s cost, and people need cheap transport and practical measures.’
Gavin Newlands (SNP MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire North), ‘In terms of budget, the Scottish government active travel budget is seven times per head higher than it is down here. Are you happy with the budget that has been provided to ATE?’
ATE estimate achieving their targets will cost £9-18Billion. Focusing on areas with high population density that have capability now would bring down cost, while including more rural areas would be bound to take them closer to £18Billion; described as a governmental choice. ‘We need to prove we’re a safe pair of hands, and once we do I think it would be perfectly legitimate for us to start arguing for funding to increase.’
Asked what attracted him to the role of CEO, Danny said, ‘My career has been media and tech businesses; mainly start-ups. I’ve been involved in advocating for safer cycling and walking and that evolved as more of my colleagues started cycling and some of them were injured on their cycle to work. I’m deeply committed to making this country a better, safer place to walk and cycle.’
Moving onto strategic aims and functions, Grahame Morris (Labour MP for Easington) asked how ATE would put walking and cycling at the heart of transport, place-making and health policy. Danny said although having been active for only five weeks they could draw on experience gained in Greater Manchester and London. ‘We’ve been involved with the DfT and Department for Health on social prescribing (GPs prescribe walking, cycling and other exercise) and we’re looking to collaborate on data and evidence.’ Chris Boardman described the creation of ATE and government’s Gear Change strategy as, ‘The biggest single health intervention this government is making. Although we’re here to talk about transport the benefits are much, much wider. [It should be] visible and valued across the spectrum. We must be involved with rail, with Highways England. We started with £200Million that was allocated months ago. Some of those authorities didn’t have designs and our team was able to help draft something for them. That’s a new way to get the job done.’
Danny Williams said there would a strong focus on data and analytics to help local politicians understand what good [infrastructure] could look like. ‘It’s not our role to impose it, it’s our role to give facts, information, data. We’re putting together videos for local transport planners with case studies, for local councillors we’re showing what’s been done, what other councillors thought before, during and after those changes. It’s about encouraging others to see what’s possible.’ Using examples like Waltham Forest, a low-traffic neighbourhood in Greater London would, they hoped quash councillor nerves when it came to making bold choices for their own areas. Figures suggest measures there led to a 56% reduction in traffic within the neighbourhood, 16% reduction in the wider area, and to people walking and cycling 41 minutes more each week, on average, after a year.
Greg Smith (Conservative MP for Buckingham) focused in on how reliable targets were for ATE, highlighting a 7% decline in cycling in the recently published 2021 National Travel Survey. Chris Boardman pointed out that from the same survey there was a 47% decline in rail use and 23% in driving; meaning that in context with other modes active travel was in fact the most robust in that period. He said the cycling statistic had been shared on its own and out of context.
Danny, ‘Our core objective is increasing the number of active travel trips by 50% by 2030.’
He said, ‘There’s a whole program we need to build around presenting this stuff properly and the team we’re building will be able to do that representation of analytics.’ Chris drew on his experience as Greater Manchester Walking & Cycling Commissioner; ‘The Oxford Road cycling corridor was 6km and saw a 200% increase in cycling in a single year. At a micro level that’s ideal, politically to show the difference. With the £200Million earlier this year we could say how many safe km space that would deliver, how many new active travel journeys that would allow.’
Some of the other targets they have set include funding 3000 miles of active travel routes, interacting with 2000 projects and being involved with at least 1000 new housing developments by 2025. On funding, Danny confirmed ATE would oversee around £2.3Billion, with direct control of £700Million to dispense to local authorities. Additional funding could come from sources such as bus service improvement funds (e.g., West Yorkshire Combined Authority funds being used on Tadcaster Road improvements in York) or Levelling-up funds (as referred to by Greg Smith in his area in Buckinghamshire). He said one of the wide criticisms is that funding is piecemeal. Danny said he was very aware there were highways authorities that struggled to recruit more than 40% of their required team, in part because of inconsistent funding. This often resulted in short term contracts, making it difficult to attract the best people.
Ruth Cadbury (The Labour Co-op MP for Brentford and Isleworth), Shadow Minister for Planning; ‘There seems to be a common consensus in the active travel world that the funding available is out and should be in the region of between £6-8Billion – what’s your assessment of the adequacy of the funds that are available?’
Danny said, ‘We’d love a bigger funding pot, but the whole country is going on a journey here and we have to find a way, pardon the pun, to get in the right gear with different partners and then start to bring everybody up.’ 69 out of 70 Highways Authorities responded to a pressing three-week deadline to submit assessments of their own abilities to deliver, local leadership and support, and how prepared they are to plan and integrate active travel policies with health and other areas. Local authorities should follow design guidance (for cycling: Local Transport Note 1/20, for walking: Manual for Streets), but the ATE team acknowledged those guidance documents are not perfect. Funding and technical help will be available to those who are keen to take advantage. Ruth Cadbury said making space for active travel would mean reallocating road space from cars and questioned whether some local authorities would be willing to take that step. Chris Boardman said the increase in miles driven in the last 10 years (28Billion more miles) was huge, had taken space from alternatives and to take that back would not be pain-free.
Chris Boardman; ‘Road space reallocation can be just as important [for bus services] otherwise, if you just buy a load of buses, you’ve got a load of shiny buses sitting in a traffic jam. The active travel measures must be done at the same time.’
Robert Largan (Conservative MP for High Peak) asked what a good active travel environment would look like. Chris Boardman picked up on this, ‘The thing that changes people’s opinion is looking, feeling, smelling, touching. There are now examples in the UK.’ Relevant to both the York Cycling Campaign and York Civic Trust, Robert asked whether ATE would look to engage with members of non-governmental groups who, like one in his constituency had a vested interest in active travel and may have even written their own travel plans in the face of inaction from councils. 56% of ATE resources would be deployed on reviewing plans and projects, 33% on training and engagement with local authorities, developers, advocates or teams who are trying to get change. Communicating with the wider public was something that would come in time, however;
Danny Williams said; ‘What I’ve found incredibly interesting is the amount of latent support that’s bubbling away under the surface for what we’re trying to do. Wherever I talk to people. I’m finding that everywhere, and that’s exciting.’
The Chair handed over once again to Grahame Morris, ‘We touched on how active travel [participation] varies very much around the country. What can we do to encourage greater participation from women, people with disabilities and people from ethnic communities?’ Accessibility and disability needs will be put at the heart of the agency’s approach. Equal representation will be reflected in a drive to provide safe space, encouraging more women to cycle, analysing how to better enable multi-destination, multi-modal trips they were more likely to take. Integration with other modes of transport, like rail will be key to widening participation.
Chris Boardman; ‘We need to use the word enable. If you do things that don’t change the environment, they have very low impact until you make [people] feel safe, give me space connected to everywhere I want to go. Safe space is the fundamental.’
Grahame Morris asked how participation would be widened, ‘unless you set out to tackle the issues that are stopping women or people from ethnic communities [from travelling actively].’ The
standard for infrastructure ATE hopes to apply across England, as Chris Boardman explained, ‘is usable for a competent 12yr old. That their parents would let them, and they would choose to. If you have some of those ingredients but not others, we will help you.’ Both Chris Boardman and Danny Williams reinforced the need for political will and strong leadership within local authorities to embrace and see projects through to fruition.
Robert Largan (Conservative MP for High Peak) asked how rural areas may benefit. Supporters of the York to Wheldrake and Elvington active travel route will be pleased to hear the amount of funding planned for rural areas has been increased and will continue to be looked at. Safe routes to schools would take priority, not least because they generate such local support, and much peak period traffic is caused by the school run being done by car.
ATE spelt out how some councils could lose other transport money if a ‘staged gate’ system was applied to the funding structure. This feeds into York Cycle Campaign’s concerns that funding opportunities could be squandered by the council if it fails to deliver numerous schemes for which it received money amounting to just over £1Million. To help local people understand how well their council may be doing, ATE will continue to publish a league table of performance of councils across England. Such transparency attracted interest when some were shown to have been awarded in excess of £3Million, while City of York Council attracted a meagre £380,000 in the last round of funding. York Cycle Campaign would agree that latent support exists across the city; from speaking to local people, seeing membership double in the last year and a steady rise in the number of people joining social and organised mass rides.
Ruth Cadbury wanted to know what, as a statutory consultee, would be ATE’s priorities for dealing with the planning system. ATE will become a statutory consultee from April 2023. As well as working closely with DLUHC (Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities) to influence policy across government departments, ATE will produce ‘planning toolkits’ to guide local authorities in assessing the standard of active travel provision in new developments. At the meeting close, there was reference to the recent round of bidding for a fourth instalment of funding to be awarded to local authorities. Further details about the amounts of money awarded local authorities who bid for it will soon be released publicly.
The creation of Active Travel England could be a once in a generation chance for towns and cities to evolve out of car dependency and vastly widen active travel participation.
To achieve targets set by Active Travel England of 50% of journeys to be walked or cycled by 2030, politicians will need to make what may seem bold changes, and to swiftly integrate active travel choices into long-term, wider transport plans. Places will need to prioritise people over traffic. Amongst many benefits that await, based on global examples, are improved health and well-being, a reduction in carbon and noise pollution from traffic and a reduction in city centre congestion. In reducing the number of short trips made by car, neighbourhoods begin to cater for people who want amenities within a convenient distance by bike, or on foot; 15-minute neighbourhoods. Where local councils lack the will to create these favourable conditions for communities and local economies, it may be the timely arrival of Active Travel England coupled with political pressure from ordinary people that bring about the creation of nicer places to live, work and linger.