Cycling and walking also need to overcome perception of being "eccentric and odd," says transport expert...

A transport academic has told Welsh Assembly Members that car use particularly for short journeys must be made to feel “abnormal and exceptional” while cycling and walking must overcome the perception of being “eccentric and odd” if Wales is to achieve the increase in sustainable travel such as cycling and walking contemplated by the country’s Active Travel Bill.

The bill, unveiled earlier this year, aims to make Wales the first country in the world where all local authorities are obliged by law to draw up and implement plans for a comprehensive network of routes for those on foot or two wheels.

Professor Colin Pooley of the Lancaster Environment Centre outlined research from the Understanding Walking and Cycling (UWAC) project, a collaboration between Lancaster, Leeds and Oxford Brookes universities, which published its findings in 2011.

Findings highlighted by Professor Pooley to Assembly Members - you can read the full text here - included that while busy roads are a deterrent to many would-be cyclists, for pedestrians, the opposite applies – it is areas with low footfall that they perceive as presenting most risk to personal safety.

“The key message that comes from this research is that at present in Britain using the car for short trips in urban areas is convenient, habitual and normal,” he explained.

“It is what people expect to do, what most people expect others to do, and what many other people who have yet to benefit from car ownership aspire to do.

“Alternatives to the car – especially cycling and walking – are perceived to take too much effort, need planning and equipment that causes hassle, and may be risky and uncomfortable. They also run the risk of being perceived by others as eccentric or odd.

“These are all powerful reasons for not walking and cycling and for using the car for most short trips in urban areas.”

Professor Pooley said that changes to working practices such as increased adoption of flexible hours as well as a rethink of areas such as welfare and education were needed to help make it easier for families to adapt their routines to walking and cycling and thereby reduce their dependency on cars for short journeys.

“We believe that there needs to be a co-ordinated and integrated approach to the delivery of active and sustainable travel in Britain with a real commitment from a wide range of governmental, charity and private-sector organisations,” he added.

“While improvements to infrastructure alone would be welcome, they are unlikely on their own to make a large difference to levels of active travel. A much more significant package of measures is necessary to create an urban environment where a significant proportion of the population feel confident cycling and believe that walking or cycling are the obvious and sensible choices for everyday travel.

“Only in this way will Britain achieve the levels of active travel currently seen in some other north-west European countries.”

He added that while the bill demonstrated that the Welsh Assembly Government “is ahead of the rest of the UK and can set an important precedent to encourage and enable more active travel,” it should also be accompanied by restrictions on car use.

He also said that potential barriers to the bill’s success include “financial constraints that may limit the level of investment in new infrastructure… objections from those who see any attempt to promote active travel as an attack on motorists and… the potential for inertia within a culture and society which sees motorised traffic as the norm.”

The UWAC project was based on responses from 1,417 people to a questionnaire sent to 15,000 households in Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester, with the sample intended to be representative of the population as a whole, rather than specifically targeting cyclists and walkers. Some 80 interviews were then conducted with selected respondents.

The findings were published in 2011 and you can download the full report here.

The key recommendations of the study, as outlined by Professor Pooley to Welsh Assembly Members, are:

First, it is essential that the urban environment is made safe for cyclists and pedestrians. This requires the provision of fully segregated cycle routes on all arterial and other busy roads in urban areas. It is clear from the research that most non-cyclists and recreational cyclists will only consider cycling regularly if they are segregated from traffic and that pedestrians are hostile to pavement cyclists.

Second, pedestrian routes must be made as welcoming as possible to increase footfall. This could include widening pavements, removing street furniture that obstructs pavements and ensuring that pavements are well lit, well maintained and kept free of leaves and ice.

Third, there need to be effective restrictions on traffic speeds, parking and access on all residential roads and other routes without segregated cycle and pedestrian paths so that both cyclists and pedestrians feel that they have a safe and convenient environment in which to travel. This could include 20mph speed limits and resident-only access by car in some areas.

Fourth, the system of legal liability on roads used by the public should be changed to protect the most vulnerable road users (cyclists and pedestrians).  One approach would be to adopt ‘strict liability’ so that pedestrians or cyclists injured in an accident involving a motor vehicle do not have to prove fault in seeking compensation.   Forms of ‘strict liability are adopted in much of continental Europe and while not changing criminal responsibility they place a civil responsibility on drivers to obtain insurance that will pay vulnerable victims independently of fault.  This may act as an incentive for car drivers to behave in a way that protects the most vulnerable road users.

Fifth, there need to be changes in the spatial structure and organisation of the built environment, enforced through planning legislation, to make accessing common services and facilities on foot or by bike easy. This would require the development of more neighbourhood shopping centres within walking or cycling distance of most people, restrictions on out-of-town developments, provision of secure bicycle parking facilities and the provision of cycle storage in most homes.

Sixth, there need to be wider societal and economic changes to give people the flexibility to travel more sustainably. Polices (that already exist in many countries) could include the greater use of flexi hours so that walking and cycling could be more easily fitted into a household routine, more family-friendly welfare policies so that in families with small children one parent could afford to reduce working hours and thus be less constrained by time commitments, and more equitable educational provision so that most children attended a school close to home.

Seventh, it is necessary to change the image of cycling and walking. To a great extent this should be consequential on the above changes: as more people walk and cycle then more people will accept it as normal. However, campaigns to promote walking and cycling as normal and something accessible to all and not dominated by super-fit or unusually committed specialists should also be adopted.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.