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Charity slams government’s “shocking lack of progress” on active travel

Institute for Public Policy Research says latest data also highlight “widening health inequalities” and “failure of levelling up”

A charity ​has slammed what it terms “a shocking lack of progress” by the government in getting more people walking and cycling in England after official figures released this week revealed among other things a decline in cycling traffic levels between March 2021 and December 2023.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), an independent charity with the mission of “working towards a fairer, greener, and more prosperous society,” said that latest data from Sport England’s Active Lives Survey highlighted a stark contrast in levels of physical activity between affluent and less prosperous areas.

The charity also said that figures from the National Travel Survey showed that the average distance cycled per person per year had shown no change since 2019, and that the Cycling Traffic Index, the latest data from which was also released this week, highlighted a drop in levels of cycling over the past two years, almost completely wiping out gains made during the coronavirus pandemic.

 “Three different statistics released today show the shocking lack of progress in making streets more attractive for walking, wheeling and cycling and the impact this has on widening health inequalities,” the IPPR said.

“The Active Lives Survey reveals that there’s a growing divide in activity levels based on where someone lives. Last year, a third (33.7 per cent) of people in the most deprived neighbourhoods are considered inactive compared to a fifth (20.5 per cent) of those in the least deprived. The number of people considered active in the most deprived areas has dropped by 2.5 per cent in the last seven years.

The IPPR underlined that where progress was being made in increasing levels of physical activity, it tended to be “only in the places that were already doing well – while the West Midlands and the North East have seen barely any change in the numbers of active people in the last seven years.

“f anything speaks to the failure of levelling up it is the inability to address these inequalities in access to healthy places between the UK’s communities.”

The IPPR was equally critical of the picture painted by the latest data from the National Travel Survey, as well as the Cycling Traffic Index.

“Mid-year estimates from the National Travel Survey for the year ending June 2023 show that the distance travelled  per person by walking or wheeling has barely changed for a decade and the total number of trips people take on foot has dropped over the same period,” it said.

“The National Travel Survey also shows that although the distance travelled by cycling has seen some signs of growth over the decade, the average distance travelled per person by cycling is the same as in 2019.

“This theme is picked up in the Cycling Traffic Index which highlights that the gains made during Covid-19 in getting people out on their bikes are continuing to fall with levels of cycling dropping by 29 per cent between March 2021 and December 2023. Cycling traffic levels have increased 15.5 per cent over the last decade but they are still far below where they need to be to achieve the government’s targets.”

The target of doubling levels of cycling in England outside London were outlined in the 2020 document Gear Change as then Prime Minister Boris Johnson heralded a “new golden age of cycling,” and subsequently the government set up Active Travel England to spearhead growth in cycling, wheeling and walking, with Chis Boardman appointed the country’s first national active travel commissioner.

> Boris Johnson reveals how he will bring in “new golden age for cycling”

Last year, however, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt slashed Active Travel England’s budget of £2 billion over five years, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared an end to the so-called ‘War on the Motorist’ including ordering a review of low traffic neighbourhoods, many of which were put in place with the encouragement of the government during the pandemic.

> No cycling! (or walking) but Jeremy Hunt’s budget delivers £5 billion giveaway to drivers

The Cycling Traffic Index does show that cycling levels as at December 2023 have grown compared to those before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and commenting on the figures from the Active Lives Survey, 

Boardman, who also chairs Sport England which compiles the data, drew encouragement from the figures showing that “year-on-year, 1 million more adults are choosing walking, wheeling and cycling as a way to get from A to B. The nationwide investment that is being put into delivering high-quality routes is paying off.

“By enabling more people to build activity into their daily lives we’re making the nation healthier, happier and greener. It’s a win-win for us all,” he added.

The IPPR, meanwhile, concluded its commentary on this week’s figures by underlining the wider benefits that encouraging active travel can bri9ng.

“There is a simple message here,” it said. Healthy places support healthier lifestyles and provide a host of other benefits to people – including providing a more affordable way of getting around.

“The government need to act to reverse this rise in inequality, stop the political posturing over active travel policies and put in place the investment to make it attractive and safe for people to be active in their neighbourhoods,” the IPPR added.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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6 comments

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ubercurmudgeon | 2 months ago
3 likes

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chrisonabike | 2 months ago
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Institute for Public Policy Research wrote:

Mid-year estimates from the National Travel Survey for the year ending June 2023 show that the distance travelled  per person by walking or wheeling has barely changed for a decade and the total number of trips people take on foot has dropped over the same period.

Not surprising - what's changed?  Probably the biggest things have been the lockdown and the growth of online working.  The former gave a temporary boost to active travel but also reduced travel overall.  The latter - maybe "too early to say" but maybe not likely to get people out and about?

As for the rest - Scotland at least managed to decree a sensible amount of cash for active travel - but didn't ever get there.  And that notion may be canned now (the Bute House agreements appear to be toast).  England - talk of "promoting active travel ('Gear change' anyone?)" and "throwing money at sustainable transport" seems to have turned into "on the side of the motorist" and pocket lint from the Treasury.

Sadly but not suprisingly Labour have given no indication they'll be any different if they get in.

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 2 months ago
3 likes

Historically that is generally the pattern when whatever government says it's changing things in this respect.  Seems to happen once or twice each decade.  Funding is allocated, new bodies set up, a handful of "flagship" schemes get some cash for a route or two...

Cue a rash of photo-opportunities, a few good news stories, a minor but promising uptick in the numbers.  All good ...

Then it turns out that without addressing the massive funding and excellent provision for mass motoring simply adding a cycle path or two doesn't change the world.  Or it doesn't do so sufficiently within a useful political timescale.

None of the local business grandees / party backers with millions are making major profits from this.  Active travel - being inherently decentralised - doesn't seem particularly well-suited for "disruptive" innovators to grab fast buck.  (An exception currently would be all the illegal e-things and (food) delivery companies outsourcing risk via "partners" who are actually incentivised to drive or ride illegally or antisocially...)  Even local construction will be pocketing far less than they would from the usual road infra.  After all - that's the point - cycle infra is cheaper!

Events happen, people find other things to complain about, priorities change, backing disappears...

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 2 months ago
2 likes

If we were serious we'd be doing a lot of study on how this was overcome in other countries which have successfully reversed course somewhat (there are several).  Unfortunately while there have been millions spent on "consultancy" and "study trips" there seems to be a political / national organisation structure issue in the way.  Or maybe we're just far enough into motordom (having depleted public transport / rail freight in favour of the motor vehicle) that it's just too difficult at a regional / national level?

On the flip side perhaps the things that make it difficult for the UK to get to mass cycling ensure its survival?  Being decentralised/local, low cost and low impact (to existing motor infra, to new development) it can still develop regardless of national indifference - e.g. at town level.

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bobbinogs | 2 months ago
9 likes

If I am honest, I'm not sure why anyone would be 'shocked' about this Government's lack of progress on active travel. It always seemed to be about gesture politics...and the recent swing back to vocally supporting car drivers shows that the gammon vote (Rwanda, defence spend, anti-woke, etc) is the actual target.

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Boopop replied to bobbinogs | 2 months ago
1 like

While I agree with your sentiment, I suspect it's considered a bad idea in PR for an organisation to say "unsurprised you didn't do what you'd say you'd do". My guess would be behind the scenes they're not shocked or surprised either.

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