This post is by Dan Simpson, senior policy and parliamentary officer at Sustrans.
Buried in a written statement on 9 March, Transport Secretary Mark Harper announced that overall active travel funding for England in the current parliamentary term is being reduced from £3.8 billion to £3 billion. This includes a two thirds cut to promised capital investment in infrastructure for walking, wheeling and cycling, from £308 million to only £100 million for the next two years.
What do these cuts mean practically? Local authorities have been spurred on by the government to be more ambitious and get on with building new safe walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure. But they’ve now had their support ripped out from under them. As a result, we’ll see fewer roads made safer and fewer cycling routes created. Barriers that many people face – such as cracked pavements and missing dropped kerbs – will take longer to tackle. And England will lag far behind other UK nations and London, where per capita investment for active travel is many times higher.
It’s vital to meet climate ambitions
These cuts call into question the government’s commitment to net zero. Active travel isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it must be at the heart of the UK’s transport decarbonisation plan if it’s to meet its targets. Extrapolating Sustrans’ 2021 Walking and Cycling Index to the UK population shows that people walking, wheeling and cycling took 14.6 million cars off the road, saving 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Transport for Quality of Life found that even if 100 per cent of all new vehicle sales were ultra low emission vehicles by 2030, car mileage would still need to be reduced by between ten and 20 per cent to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5 °C.
Following cuts of this depth, the government’s aim for 50 per cent of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030 seems impossible to achieve. They put a limit on the ability of people to choose to travel healthily, cheaply and emissions free.
Simply put, it doesn’t make sense to withdraw investment in active travel at a time of national financial strain. It is estimated that active travel contributed £36.5 billion to the UK economy in 2021. This is from a relatively modest government investment, compared to funding for other transport modes. Repeated studies have found that walking and cycling improvements increase local retail spend by up to 30 per cent. The Department for Transport’s own analysis says active travel investments have a “very high” expected benefit-to-cost ratio with every £1 spent generating £5.62 in economic benefits.
It’s an investment in health and wellbeing
Walking, wheeling and cycling prevented 138,000 serious long term health conditions and avoided more than 29,000 early deaths in 2021. And active travel routes, including the National Cycle Network, provide green corridors to cool our cities and help people access nature more easily.
Safe, accessible walking and cycling infrastructure is vital for people to choose these options to get to work, get to school and get about inexpensively. It helps to make society more inclusive. Over a third of people on low incomes and a similar proportion of disabled people don’t have access to a car. For many that do, it is becoming prohibitively expensive.
We have seen positive momentum in active travel in recent years, driven in part by commitments to cycling made in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, funding announced by Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor and ongoing commitments to net zero during last year’s Conservative leadership race. We must not go backwards on it now.
In an open letter, co-ordinated by Sustrans to the prime minister, signatories from a diverse coalition of charities, professional organisations and businesses representing millions of people, have called for the urgent reversal of the proposed cuts.
Transport decarbonisation isn’t about any one mode of travel, but about fair funding to create an integrated system of sustainable travel, including buses, trains, walking, wheeling and cycling, as well as cars.
Long term thinking is needed, building on progress already made. Working together, as a sector and with the government, we can protect the climate and the environment, and create a healthier and happier society. But walking, wheeling and cycling must be well funded for that to happen. We can’t afford not to.