The all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking has, in collaboration with its 80 member groups, set out a manifesto for cycling and walking. The economic case for investment in these modes of travel is strong. We get £5.50 for every £1 we invest and the benefits are cross-cutting: a healthier population; stronger, safer local communities; better access to jobs and education; and lower levels of pollution.
Almost three years ago the government committed to a cycling and walking investment strategy for England, with a stated aim to return walking levels to 300 stages (ie part of a journey) per person per year, double cycling stages by 2025 and increase walking to school. As many people pointed out at the time, the investment strategy had little in the way of actual investment. Indeed, dedicated funding for cycling from government since then has been sporadic and meagre, with only a handful of cities investing at the levels required to catch up with the level we see in neighbouring, successful countries for active travel such as the Netherlands.
Last week the government published its first report on progress and it makes for interesting reading. Walking and cycling levels are both marginally up but the government admits current funding will only achieve 40% of its ambitions to increase active travel. If it is serious about meeting the targets, the government therefore needs to allocate and spend at least another £3.6bn on cycling and walking in the next few years. The Conservative party promised a £350m cycling infrastructure fund in its manifesto, the details of which are keenly awaited. This will be a start but much more investment is needed.
The government has suggested £1.2bn was invested in the three years to 2019 and a similar amount will be invested up to 2021. But in total that’s still only £7 per head per year, the equivalent of a couple of cups of coffee. The figure is up from a few years ago but still woefully low. Only a quarter of the money came directly from the Department for Transport, mostly for ongoing Bikeability training and the final years of the Cycling Cities Ambition fund.
At the same time, local authorities have been dealing with swingeing cuts to revenue funding, with most capital investment diverted to roads and railways. Nearly all the funding planned for walking and cycling is merely assumed proportions of existing budgets: 11-13% of expenditure on small local authority schemes; 9% of road maintenance and 5% of large infrastructure projects. These figures may be accurate but there’s little suggestion this has changed over time. All that’s happened is the Department for Transport has got better at calculating and reporting them.
What’s worse, other policies are having a perverse effect. Planning rules mean local authorities have little scope to prevent developers building on often unsuitable sites with limited access to active travel networks. Some funding is attributed to the construction of cycling and walking routes adjacent to new roads that enable sprawling, low-density car-based developments on the edges of towns and cities.
This is clearly better than building infrastructure with no thought whatsoever for walking or cycling, but it’s low impact compared with the plans that ambitious cities are putting forward. These include Greater Manchester, which is focused on retrofitting cycling and walking infrastructure urban corridors that help tackle wider problems such as poor air quality and inactivity. Such cities are already investing £15 per person per year, with the aim of getting to £50.
Funding is at the heart of our manifesto but there’s much else besides, from improved road traffic law to cycle training for all. What’s clear from the government’s progress report is that we need long-term commitment to cycling and walking from all parties.
• Ruth Cadbury MP is a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking.