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Active travel and safe streets - the future for transport planning?

Over the past few months, the way in which people live, work and travel has changed in ways not previously considered possible. We look at what’s changed and the resulting environmental and societal implications and questions what can be maintained and built on to support the UK's journey to Net Zero.

09 July 2020 | 6 min read
Joe Ellis

UK

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The Government’s response to COVID-19 has significantly impacted the way people move around. With initial instruction to avoid all non-essential travel, we saw an immediate reduction in overall travel demand. However, as the UK lockdown measures have started to relax with normal everyday activities starting to resume, traffic levels are rising again. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show how the pandemic has impacted commuting traffic over recent months but how will these figures change over the months to come?    

Table showing travel to work pre and post-covid. Figures from the Office for National Statistics, 2020
Figures from the Office for National Statistics
Graph showing predicted change in traffic flow aligned to UK government stages of social distancing measures
The Government's key stages with our predictions

Benefits of intervention

The Department for Transport’s report Investing in Cycling and Walking: The Economic Case for Action (2015) puts the return on cycling investment at between a significant £2.50 to £5.00 per £1.00 invested. There is limited information of the financial benefits of walking, but there is growing evidence that both modes reduce road and public transport congestion. There are clear economic, social and environmental benefits too, including facilitating inclusivity and improved health and well-being.

In addition to the Governments’ emergency funding, in 2019, the Government-led Cycle City Ambition Programme targeted investment in cycling within eight cities in England between 2013 and 2018. The initiative cut 440,000 car trips per year and replaced 2,000,000 vehicle kilometres. The scheme was also judged to be attractive to a broader demographic and helped to broaden gender and ethnic minorities participation. The report also highlighted that ‘flagship’ schemes and/or more infrastructure-intensive proposals had a greater effect that more localised improvements.  This suggests that awareness and marketing have an important part to play in people’s choices.

In the current COVID-19 situation, while the prospect of temporary bollards, painted road markings and pop-up cycle lanes may at first seem like a sticky plaster that is too easily over-shadowed by the wider impact of the current crisis, these measures will present people with important visual cues and a different type of perspective from which to re-evaluate their travel needs, both in the short- and longer term.

The challenges, as well as the responses, are therefore perhaps greater than will first appear.  This opportunity has been recognised by the Transport Minister’s statement that it is a "once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities".  The fact that the schemes under the Government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund are broadly classified as (1) permanent, (2) experimental and (3) temporary offers some hope that more legacy schemes will emerge from the mist to deliver longer-lasting benefits.

Scheme identification, appraisal and design are only the starting points to implementation. The key to the permanence of active travel mode schemes will depend on comprehensive monitoring to ensure that the benefits can be measured and translated into meaningful and impactful changes, on the journey to Net Zero Carbon.