Custodians of the National Cycle Network, Sustrans are an active travel charity focussed on walking, wheeling and cycling and creating healthier places and happier lives for everyone.
Matt Winfield, Sustrans Executive Director for England, Northern Ireland and Wales, spoke with us about the importance of cycling and walking infrastructure.
Active Travel – What are the Benefits?
There are so many benefits to active travel, there’s no doubt that it creates a better environment.
Evidence shows that where people walk, wheel and cycle more, being less dependent on the car, there is not only better air quality, but life expectancy increases too.
We’re not anti-car at Sustrans. We want to increase travel choices and support people moving in ways that benefit their health and the local community.
What is important is that people have the option to choose how they move around in different ways. People want greater choice in how they travel, and this often means they want to travel actively, for their health, their wallets, and to enjoy the journey.
Active travel is a much cheaper way of getting around too, which is increasingly important.
Preparing for an Active Travel Future
Over a third of people on low incomes and a similar proportion of disabled people do not have access to a car. For many that do, it is becoming more expensive and unaffordable to run one.
In the next five years, six million British people are preparing to get rid of their cars, we need the infrastructure in place for them to be able to choose to do so.
But how the built environment is planned is critical to making walking, wheeling and cycling possible for most trips.
15 Minute Neighbourhoods
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around the term ‘15 Minutes Neighbourhoods’.
It simply refers to a neighbourhood being planned so residents can walk or wheel to everything they need within 15 minutes of their doorstep, meaning they can more easily access things like shops, health facilities, and community hubs.
15 Minute Neighbourhoods have many names. Some are called ‘urban villages’, whilst others call them ‘Mini Hollands’, but the principle of people having easy access to essential facilities by walking, wheeling or cycling must be a priority in any infrastructure planning.
It links back to the original Garden City movement with everything people need being within close proximity. This is how Harlow was designed.
The Need to Reduce Car Use
There are 9500 premature deaths in London annually that are attributed to poor air quality, much of it caused by road traffic.
That alone is a shocking statistic that should generate action, but there is more.
Loneliness is also a profound consequence of car overuse. People get to know fewer neighbours when living or working on a busy, car dominant street and loneliness is a huge mental health issue.
Removing the reliance on cars and thinking more about the damage they do is vital to improving our prospects for our health, both physically and mentally.
The cultural presence of the car is huge, and people find it difficult, having grown up in this culture, to see how things can work in a different way.
When I first started in this sector, about 15 years ago, all the talk was about Holland and Germany, places that have flourished through a reduction in car use.
There’s an inevitability in this – we can’t accommodate everyone continuing to have cars. Instead, focus must be on informing the public and decision makers within planning policy, to help the transition to a reduced-car-use society.
Whilst knowing car pollution and over-use have many detriments to our society, we’re still understanding the full extent of the damage they do.
That’s why it is troubling that many new developments are built with a focus on people travelling by the car.
Support for Active Travel is Crucial
Transport for New Homes did a piece of work looking at about 30 new developments and they found just one that had high levels of walking, cycling and public transport use.
That was Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall community – a successful model of a more sustainable development with traditional architecture and 30% social housing.
That increase in active travel and reliable public transport is obviously something that Harlow and Gilston Garden Town are looking to deliver over the next few years.
No-one wants to go back to cars at the school gates, as children and parents can walk up the middle of the road in safe space and it suits everyone, such as School Streets provide.
People Increasingly want to Travel Actively
People are learning to drive at a later age and younger people are driving about 45% fewer miles now than they did in 1990. The only demographic that’s increasing the number of driving miles are those aged 65 and above.
The evidence is clear that busy roads or bike routes are not going to attract people to active travel.
The UK needs low speed zones with low car density, so people will walk and cycle if it’s convenient and the easiest option.
The Path to Decarbonisation
There’s always going to be resistance to new ideas. We see it across the country, especially when we’re talking about reallocating road space for walking and cycling, as people think they’re going to lose something with change.
The path to transport decarbonisation isn’t about any one mode of travel. It’s about creating an integrated system of sustainable transport including buses, trams, trains, walking, wheeling and cycling, and cars.
So, it is really encouraging to see examples like Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, aiming to integrate active travel into new and existing infrastructure across the local area, for the benefit of those who live there.