Thursday, 10 May 2012

Wales leading the way with world first

Published in the Western Mail on 10 May 2012

Wales is to become the first country in the world to require councils to provide routes for walking and cycling 

A stereotypical cyclist, Boris Johnson explained during the London mayoral campaign, is someone with whippet-thin brown legs or dreadlocks who charges around in Lycra, jumping lights.

Not the most seductive role model.

The sense that cycling is a fairly eccentric pursuit has been widespread, and confirmed by a major study last year which suggested that most people don’t regard cycling as something for them. “It is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit for the poor and or strange. For them cycling is a bit embarrassing” according to Dave Horton one of the research authors at Lancaster University.

Hardly surprising really given that just 2% of journeys are by bike. By definition it is not something that most people do. But survey after survey has shown that it is something that many more people would consider doing.

The Lancaster University research shows 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 was reinforced last week by a survey from the charity Brake which found that 46% of people would be persuaded to cycle on local roads if conditions were improved – echoing an earlier poll by Sustrans.

Does it matter? Well, the NHS in Wales spends £1m every week treating obesity related illness and as some of Wales’ leading health experts said in a letter to the Western Mail yesterday, “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”.

Yesterday’s publication of a white paper setting out the detail of the Welsh Government’s plans for an Active Travel (Wales) Bill, is therefore as much about health policy as it is about transport. In fact the World Health Organisation has shown that investment in getting more people walking and cycling not only saves our economy money from reduced congestion, but health benefits from better air quality and increased physical activity can bring a £9 return for every £1 invested.

But these are long term savings, and local authorities – who will be expected to create the networks of routes under the new initiative – are facing short-term financial pressures. So how is this affordable? Local Authorities and the Welsh Government already spend around £10 Million a year on creating cycle paths. Although this sounds a lot, in transport terms this is a very modest sum – it works out as the equivalent of building half a mile of road. Nonetheless it’s a tidy sum which needs to spent smarter if the Government is achieve their ambitious targets to get people out of their car and travelling actively.

At the moment 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 the research find people thinking cycling is eccentric – who would choose to do such a thing under current conditions? There’s no doubting that the potential is there.

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 kind of provision would it take for them and their parents to be confident to cycle on their everyday journey?

The research led by Lancaster University points to some of the things that can be done: Fully segregated cycle and pedestrian routes wherever feasible; 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 etc; and a change the image of cycling and walking. They are all do-able.

The forthcoming Active Travel (Wales) 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.

Lee Waters is National Director of the Sustainable Transport charity Sustrans Cymru

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